Barley + Rye: At the bar with MailChimp content director Kate Kiefer Lee

The web writing guru talks corporate apologies, True Detective, and new book ‘Nicely Said’

In her role as content director for MailChimp, the Atlanta-based email marketing giant that services millions of users worldwide, part of Kate Kiefer Lee’s job is to make things sound easy. Kiefer Lee is responsible for how MailChimp communicates across a range of content—social media, blog posts, help messages, and alerts. Kiefer Lee and her team embody the MailChimp voice, that relaxed, don’t-worry-you-totally-got-this identity that flashes across the screens of people trying to get their brand’s message out to the world. So a lot of their users are in various stages of stress. It’s good then, that Kiefer Lee is so easy-going and tends to see the upside. This is a woman who’s hard to dislike.

We met at the Sound Table in the Old Fourth Ward early one weekday evening, before that night’s festivities would transform the chic bar into an art-show-dance-club. Over boozy classic cocktails we touched on her upcoming book, Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose. The project, co-authored with Nicole Fenton, came about naturally. Everyone writes for the web—a lot of brands could be doing it better. The former Paste magazine editor who attended NYU believes strongly that web writing impacts the way we feel—her team’s interactive style guide Voice & Tone has won favor all over the internet and MailChimp puts her on the road to share their learnings. Throughout the year Kiefer Lee travels extensively: Norway, London, and Johannesburg, among others. But she’s super pumped about MailChimp’s impending crosstown move from the west side to Ponce City Market.

When is MailChimp relocating? We’re so excited. I think by next spring, so we’re planning for about a year from now.

You guys are huge but you still feel pretty local. I started working at MailChimp four or five years ago and I was the thirtieth employee. Now we have more than 200 people. We’re constantly hiring, growing so fast. We’re reaching out to more Atlanta organizations, especially now with the move.

I know MailChimp sponsors the local Creative Mornings chapter. Yes, and Living Walls, which we love. MailChimp sometimes gives organizations money or MailChimp employees volunteer in some way, like with the Wren’s Nest.

Do you work with the Wren’s Nest? I haven’t done the Scribes Program because it’s weekly, and I travel so much. But I talk about voice and tone to the kids in the publishing group. We work on writing in their own style and mission statements. It’s so fun. You remember being that age. For a lot of them it’s the summer after high school, before college, and they put out this literary journal. They’re so excited and it’s such a tender time, this weird place between being a total kid and kind of an adult.

So tender! But not anywhere near being an adult. But you think you are, though! When I was 18, I was getting a tattoo of a music note on my wrist because I thought that was symbolic. Because like everyone else in the world—I. Liked. Music.

What a timestamp. I’m getting rid of it.

No! I am.

Your book, Nicely Said, comes out in June. How’d you meet your co-author, Nicole Fenton? I met Nicole when she worked at Facebook through the content strategy web community. We ended up interviewing each other for different projects and had great conversations there. That kind of evolved.

How long have you been collaborating? About a year. We worked out the publishing situation pretty quickly after we decided to write the book. We each work on a chapter. It’s definitely an industry piece.

What do you talk about when you’re on the road for MailChimp? I’m mostly speaking at conferences, and I talk about the work that we do. Last year I talked about Voice & Tone. This year my new talk is called Touchy Subjects. It’s about writing for sensitive situations and writing with compassion.

That’s a big one. I think there are a lot of industries and topics that are sensitive by nature. Healthcare, banking, and industries that have your private information. They have to be careful with what they say all the time—watch it with the jokes. Then there are everyday things like error messages and failure notifications. Sometimes people just miss the mark. It’s important to be calm and get right to the point. And then of course, writing apologies is a big part of it. I’ve been researching apologies lately, which is so fun.

How do you research apologies? I’m really interested in apology letters, and modern corporate apologies, like crisis management. Companies almost always get it wrong.

And when you’re not writing? I am thinking about what show I’m going to watch next. So True Detective, did you watch it?

Yes. I was very satisfied. Me, too.

I felt respected as a viewer. Me, too. Matthew McConaughey and his tight-fitting pants. I was one of the people that got obsessed with the theories. Without giving things away, it’s such a great piece of writing that part of the finale was kind of incidental. Some of the best acting I’ve seen. Right before True Detective we finished the Sopranos.

Throwback! Why did it take you so long? We just missed the boat and we kept saying we’d get to it. I am one hundred percent pro-Sopranos finale. I can’t imagine a more satisfying ending.