Email horror stories

Recent personal experience and a story relayed by a client have prompted reflection on how to deal with marketing email activity that goes wrong. (Some readers of this blog may even have been unwitting participants in the former incident themselves!)

Launching a new online data capture solution, my own company planned a series of emails outlining the benefits of the service, each email highlighting a different aspect. Unfortunately, in preparing the second in the email series, the first email was accidentally resent to the same recipients that had already received it originally. Not once, but twice!

Now, had it been resent just once (this was ten days after the first email), we might have quietly delayed the second execution and pretended it was a deliberate “follow-up”. Those recipients that opened it would probably this was the case (which was the plan, it was just supposed to be a different message). But having sent two emails, ten minutes apart, we didn’t think that would wash. The question we asked ourselves was should send an apology (adding a third email to our beleaguered and much valued recipients’ in-boxes)? Doing so might be appreciated by those wondering why they were receiving so many emails from us, but equally might exacerbate the issue with others. Still more people, who might not even have noticed the resends, would have their attention drawn to it.

In the end, we decided to send the apology. It’s obviously exceedingly embarrassing when situations like this arise, reflecting badly on our competence in an area which is meant to be a core skill. However, we thought that honesty was the best approach and indeed in our email we referred to the debate we’d had before taking action. We also invited feedback on whether we’d done the right thing, and of the responses we received, the overwhelming majority agreed with our approach, with only one or two saying we’d made the situation worse!

Separately, a client was recently forced to take action after a member of his sales force sent an email blast, utilising Word and Outlook to undertake a “mail merge”, rather than using the company’s approved email broadcast facilities. This DIY approach, breaking just about every rule in the email marketing book from poor targeting to contravening anti-spam legislation, resulted in a complaint from a recipient to various executives, copying the the US Federal Trade Commission (not a career enhancing outcome for the sales guy!). The original email was also criticised for not making clear the nature of its commercial content (as required by relevant legislation). All in, the transgressions could have attracted $11,000 in fines, and the complainant also demanded that no further email be sent, not just to him, but his entire company, and that there would be no prospect of doing business with them.

My client’s (rapid) response was to write back, apologising for the incident, making various assurances about some specifics of what had happened but above all assuring him that lessons would be learned. The response? An appreciative reply, stating that, after all, their services would be considered in the future.

The outcome of all of this is that honesty is certainly the best approach to dealing with issues when they arise. Whilst the complaint made by the recipient of my client’s email that the subject line was misleading was arguably unfounded, it highlights the importance of not trying to obfuscate the intent of a piece of communications. And although we garnered some criticism for our apology, most people who replied appreciated the gesture. True, the naysayers in some cases aired suspicion over a publicity seeking conspiracy on our part, but it’s worth bearing in mind the old adage of never attributing to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity!

Adherence to process though is equally crucial to avoiding issues in the first place. In our case, a more rigorous approach to separating the subsequent executions of our campaign would have avoided the problem. Had my client’s sales rep used the email system supplied for him, there would be proper provision for issues such as unsubscribe handling, opt-out suppressions and sender identification.

Learning from our mistakes is of course another important lesson – but learning from other people’s is even better, so I hope this post has been useful!

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