Breaking the Rules -- or Adhering Too Closely?

  |  March 27, 2003   |  Comments

Optimization’s a fine line. Two studies: a company too zealous on procedure and an e-newsletter that’s successful in spite of itself.

Effective customer service and reader engagement are two critical email optimization areas.

Below, a real-life example of each. In one, a customer service department was on the right track but went too far and ended up angering the recipient. The other is a study of one of my favorite email newsletters. It breaks all the rules yet is successful thanks to a secret ingredient that’s easy to describe but much more difficult to practice.

Is Your Customer Service Group Trying Too Hard?

One of the benefits (pitfalls?) of this business is my friends and colleagues share email experiences with me -- good and bad. I heard one from a former boss earlier this week. He’s really devoted to a few companies. He loves their products and is happy to get email from them.

Earlier this week, he received a welcome message from a store in Ohio. It thanked him for signing up for email. Problem: He didn’t sign up. He doesn’t live in, or even near, Ohio. He sent a message asking (in his words), "Whassup?"

The company’s initial response was a good one: So sorry, our error, we’ve fixed the problem. But it went one step further. It told him his email address had been removed from its database.


He’s a loyal customer, someone who’s been receiving and reading email from this company for years. He didn’t ask to be removed from its lists entirely, he just wondered why he’d been added to a new list, without his permission, for a store he’ll never visit. He was unsubscribed from two lists he wants to be on. He’ll have to go through the sign-up process again to restart his subscription.

Lesson? Don’t be overzealous. Don’t assume email communication is an all-or-nothing proposition. In this case, the store actually damaged the relationship a bit by removing him from email he wanted to receive. As my friend asked, "Why is this so hard?" It’s not. It just takes a little thought and consideration of your reader’s needs. If you’re not sure, ask. Asking him if he wanted to be removed from other communications would have been a better approach than just removing him.

Breaking All the Rules -- Successfully

A big part of my writing, speaking, and consulting centers on email standards and best practices: whatever boosts usability, readability, reader engagement, and business objectives met.

I hate to admit one of my favorite email newsletters, one I read every time it appears in my inbox, is one that breaks most of these rules. It’s written by a friend who owns a couple of casual bar/restaurants here in town. Table of contents? No. Big blocks of text that challenge the eye? You betcha. Typos? Yes, many -- on purpose. Tracking and reporting? None at all. Regular publishing schedule? Nope.

Before you try this at home, this e-newsletter has one thing in abundance that makes it successful: personality. It has an editor who knows, really knows, and understands his audience and how to speak to them. It’s a fun-loving group, and the newsletter’s tone is very casual and friendly, which makes it seem very personal.

The newsletter is written in a stream-of-consciousness style. One thought flows into the next. A table of contents would spoil the effect. It oozes personality, from a graphic at the top drawn with text characters to the "Hey Howdy" opening to the announcement about "NCAA kollige basketball" and the "Na nee na nee boo boo" that follows another announcement. (Sounds crazy, but it works -- trust me!)

There’s no open rating tracking, as it’s only sent in text, and no click-through tracking (there aren’t many links to track). It’s published only when there’s something to announce and when there’s time (very sporadically). Yet it very successfully drives people to the restaurants and gets them to sign up and pay for the special events.

Could you get away with this in a business-to-business (B2B) environment? I doubt it. What you can take away is the importance of personality in email. My friend’s dispatch is an extreme example, but personality, above all else, can make or break an email campaign. Knowing your audience and knowing how to engage them is more powerful than design, grammar, format, or all the other standards and best practices.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’d love to know what you think and hear any ideas for future columns.

Take care,



Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a recognized expert in the email marketing industry and managing director of digital marketing for Digital Prism Advisors. She has more than 20 years of experience in the email and online marketing and product development world. Jeanne's direct-response approach to digital strategy, tactics, and creative direction helps organizations make their online marketing initiatives more effective and more profitable. Digital Prism Advisors helps established businesses unlock significant growth and revenue opportunities in the digital marketplace; our clients learn to develop and implement successful digital strategies, leveraging data and technology to better meet bottom line goals. Want to learn more? Check out Jeanne's blog and Digital Prism Advisors.

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