The art of the error message

An ode to 404 pages
Orlaith Wood
by Orlaith Wood

I love 404 pages. Or more specifically, well-written 404 pages. I screenshot them and save them in a little folder on my desktop. Sometimes I actively seek them out.

Yes, I need to get out more.

A 404 page is the best test of a brand voice. It has to:

  1. Admit something’s gone wrong

  2. Convey useful information

  3. Ideally not bore people to death

If a brand’s taken time to craft its 404 page, it tells me they care about my experience on their website – even the bits I’m not supposed to see. It shows commitment to a consistent brand voice. And consistency builds trust.

Consistency is hard. Brand voice can break all over the place. The companies with the shiniest ad copy are often the ones with the coldest and most corporate customer service comms, or small print. But a good brand voice should be able to flex to the functional. Microcopy, with a little creativity, can be a great conduit of voice.

Here are some of my favourite examples of how to style it out when something goes wrong.

Heinz 404

A 404 page is free real estate to hammer home brand messages. Heinz – masters of the visual gag – use theirs to knowingly hint at the horror of running out of ketchup.

NOAA 404

This bit of unexpected wordplay from the US Government works because it’s context specific.

Skin Me 404

Made-to-order skincare brand Skin + Me uses the language of its sector in a tongue-in-cheek way to explain the problem. And manages to get a sales message in without sounding cringey.

Dominos 404

Dominos makes a joke, then makes sure it gets you back on your pizza ordering journey ASAP.

Palace 404

If you’re familiar with the cult of Palace Skateboards, you’ll recognise their error page perfectly reflects the irreverent gonzo free verse of their product descriptions.

These are all simple, effective and bang on brand. But one of my favourite 404s of all time is from Innocent, who use it to regale us with a list of their previous failures.

Innocent 404

It’s a proper easter egg for fans of the brand, and a great use of self-deprecating humour on what’s otherwise dead space on the internet. (Seriously, go read the whole thing.)

Completely different but still totally delightful is this one from The New Statesman, a UK politics and culture magazine. Sadly not in use anymore. (See, this is why I screenshot them.)

New Statesman 404

It’s Yeats meets Wall-E, and I’m very much here for it.

You don’t need to go to this much effort. A simple riff on your product or service will do the trick.

Harrys 404

Like this from Harry’s, who sell razors.

Marie Kondo

Or this piece of perfection from Marie Kondo, who decided this page was no longer bringing her joy.

It might take the copywriter a little longer to think of a clever quip, but if it makes people smile, it’s time well spent.

A 404 page doesn’t have to have a joke on it, if it doesn’t fit with the brand. That doesn’t mean it has to be mind-numbingly dull, like this afterthought from Visa.

Visa 404

The tragic broken image. The ominous dot dot dot. The shifting of blame. From one of the biggest brands in the world. Even ChatGPT could do better than this.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Global Payments could have fallen into the same dreary, robotic trap. Instead they’ve channelled their caring expert tone of voice to lift the mood.

Global Payments 404

That little ‘we’ll get you to where you’re going’ is subtle, but it’s a nice touch to ease a frustrating CX moment. (Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure my boss wrote this, so I’m basically just sucking up here.)

If you have a website, take a look at your 404 page now. Is it missing a trick to channel your brand voice? If you can’t tell, maybe it’s a sign that your voice needs an overhaul, or that you’re missing one completely.

Writing error page copy is rarely in the creative brief. I think it should be. It’s important to show how a brand voice reacts when something goes wrong. Just as important, if not more so, than showing it on a tote bag, or a bus stop ad, or those fake billboards in Camden.

So here’s an offer you can’t refuse: I will rewrite your 404 page, for free. Get in touch, and let’s find something better than ‘voice not found’.

This article was first published on The Subtext.

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