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Bad Apology E-mails Have Long Tails, Too

  |  December 30, 2009   |  Comments

When should you send an apology e-mail and what you should, and shouldn't, say.

Just about every e-mail marketer has made a bonehead move that necessitated an apology to the mailing list: sending the wrong offer, mailing to the unsubscribe database instead of the active list, linking to the wrong landing page...You name it, somebody somewhere has done it. Most of them follow up with an apology. Sometimes they work, but other times the apology just makes the problem worse.

You can avoid this problem by being careful about whether you apologize and when and how you do so when something goes wrong. More important, you can restructure your working process so that you don't have to apologize for anything.

First, a bit of perspective: when a good e-mail goes bad, the true impact is smaller than you think. Mostly, it's on those who opened your message and wanted to convert but couldn't. Considering maybe only 10 percent to 25 percent of your list opens a broadcast e-mail, an apology that goes to your entire list can do more harm than good.

A Publisher's Apology Goes Wrong

A trade newsletter publisher sent me a bulk e-mail message recently, apologizing for being unable to send that day's newsletters. It also listed links that would take me right to the stories I'd missed.

A thoughtful gesture? Not exactly. I'm a registered user, but I read the newsletters in an RSS feed. I actually unsubscribed to the newsletters previously, so my address should have been on a suppression list. What was this publisher really trying to do with this e-mail? Frankly, it smelled like spam, a misguided effort to lure me to the Web site to read e-mails I hadn't signed up for.

Even assuming the apology is legit, this publisher has a detailed subscription center and knows who subscribes to which publications. Thus, the message could easily have been sent only to e-mail subscribers affected by the outage. The message, while appearing to be a customer-service missive didn't have unsubscribe or account-management links, and it certainly wasn't personalized with my name or the newsletters I read via RSS.

All it ended up doing was making me angry enough to want to report it as spam.

Bad Apologies Can Have Unexpected Consequences

Bad apologies can do more than just upset subscribers or customers:

  • Poor targeting can trigger ISP blocks. In this case, the sender sent an e-mail to the wrong list. Most often, this happens when the sender mistakenly e-mails to an opt-out or suppression list. If this happens to you, you'll probably end up sending to so many invalid or spam-trap e-mail addresses or you'll generate enough spam complaints that you'll trigger ISP blocking or filtering.

  • Apology e-mails can anger and overwhelm recipients. This happens often when you send the wrong offer to your list. Maybe you re-sent last week's offer, or it was intended for a different list. It happens, although e-mail programs that depend more on automated messages, like triggered and lifecycle e-mails, are less prone to human error. Your first instinct is to send the correct offer. Now you've sent two e-mails to the list. Sending a third e-mail to apologize for the first mistake can annoy subscribers and trigger ISP blocking or filtering. If your audience was eligible for the offer but not interested, no harm done. Wait a day or so, and then send the correct offer. Skip the apology if you don't intend to say anything other than "oops."

How to Avoid Apology E-Mail Trouble

The best way to avoid running into problems with apology e-mails is to avoid having to send them altogether. Yes, everybody makes mistakes. But if you keep having to generate apologies, there's a problem somewhere in your workflow.

Mistakes like sending the wrong message or targeting the wrong subset of a database or e-mailing the opt-out list instead of active subscribers happens when management leans on the e-mail team to execute more campaigns or when the team has no quality-control process or preflight testing. Simple checks, such as comparing your distribution list count against your last send before sending the e-mail, can highlight these mistakes and stop you in time.

If you send an e-mail with a broken link or image, fix it behind the scenes in your e-mail application without calling attention to it with an apology.

When Should You Apologize?

You should incorporate an apology into a corrected e-mail message if you send an offer or other kind of message to your entire list that only a fraction of the subscriber base can participate in, such as a special offer only for paid subscriber or registered users.

Here, the correct response is to apologize and open the offer either to everyone who opened or clicked on your e-mail or to the entire list if you can't target by click action. Thus, your apology actually benefits your list.

If you can't honor the offer, alert your customer-service team to expect an influx of complaints and let them handle the situation.

When you do apologize, play it straight. Unless you sell baby goods, saying "Oopsie!" or something similar looks amateurish and insincere.

Until next time, keep on deliverin'!

Stefan is off today. This column was originally published Aug. 26, 2009 on ClickZ.

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Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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