Airlines Automation Gone Wild: Messaging Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

The power of automation is seductive. Many enterprise marketers send millions of targeted, custom email, social, and SMS messages before dawn every morning – with no human intervention. The “machine” is a huge time-saver and productivity boost. Not only does the subscriber/recipient get a personalized experience, but the marketing team is freed to focus on other important projects. It seems like a huge win-win…and it is.

Except when it “goes wrong.” Many email marketers around the nation realized too late that messages going to East Coast residents contained inappropriate offers (like the one from the daily deal site that featured a weekend in Atlantic City at the moment that area was being pummeled by 15-foot waves). The automation was doing what it was supposed to do – automate and customize. However, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy illustrates once again that technology alone isn’t going to advance your digital messaging program. You need strong (human) oversight and a flexible, adaptable strategy. It seems clear in the marketing aftermath of the storm which companies had that contingency plan and could respond quickly.

In most cases, the people in the Northeast were not even paying attention to inboxes or social networks – either because they didn’t have power or Internet access or because they were distracted by the life and death struggle to survive and pull together some semblance of normalcy. So many automated “mistakes” were delivered but went unnoticed by the people they could have offended.

Some residents in our hard-hit areas of New Jersey and New York (some of whom still don’t have power restored now 10 days after the storm – as of this writing) told me that they would have preferred a message that “offered me free gas and a new generator.” Of course, they also don’t have Internet access, so sending these kinds of messages would likely not reach them in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, there was also great indignation from many marketers and industry pundits (and some consumers) from outside the Hurricane zone. This was mostly about how some marketers sent inappropriate messages or even took advantage of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. I applaud the ability to act quickly and adapt to market forces – although some of the approaches did seem crass. The most widespread outrage was pointed at American Apparel for sending out an email with a 20 percent off sale offer: “Hurricane Sandy Sale! 20% off of Everything!” A message from retailer Jonathan Adler also offered a Sandy-themed sale, “Storm our Site: Free Shipping through Monday Nov 5th.”


However, both American Apparel and Jonathan Adler enjoyed very high read (open) rates (based on panel data from Return Path) of 29.1 percent and 28.6 percent respectively – both significantly higher than “normal” read rates. The American Apparel message was targeted to East Coast residents, although the Jonathan Adler message went to its full list.

Several marketers stopped their automated messaging and took the time to customize in a humanistic approach. Kimpton Hotels is a good example, sending East Coast residents a note on October 29 with the subject line, “Stranded by Hurricane Sandy? We are here to help.” The notes were branded, but in a simple letter format, expressing empathy and making it easy to either cancel reservations out of town or to make one close by (where there was power).

United Airlines sent a targeted message (see attached image) to people outside the affected areas inviting frequent flier members to donate to the storm using miles. The headline was, “Support Superstorm Sandy relief efforts and receive bonus miles.” That spoke to the helplessness people outside the region were feeling, and was a good way to engage loyal customers to join with United to do good.


Some brands, like Verizon (see screen shot) simply sent messages that shared information about emergency services and its work to restore service. In this case, Verizon offered free device charging (a huge issue for those stranded) and free domestic calling. This also was a very targeted message to residents of affected Zip codes. Several banks took the same approach.


At the end of the day, a natural disaster brings out the best and worst in people. We saw incredible acts of heroism and volunteerism here in New York City, and also some looting and “Mad Max” anger (especially in long gas lines). The reaction to marketers who did what they do – market! – during the disaster was impassioned…but also generated high response rates. Ann Taylor, which sent a beautifully crafted letter expressing sympathy and noting that the firm itself suffered some loss, did not see high read rates (according to the Return Path panel data), even though the subject line was empathetic: “We Hope You’re Safe and Sound.”

So which would you rather be: the marketing team who generated response or the team who expressed sympathy? Perhaps that is an unfair comparison – and that in the longer term the value of empathy will return higher sales in the future. Either way, using your automation technology with purpose – and stopping it when need be – is the best way to respond quickly to outside events that affect your customers. Do you have a plan for quick reaction in place? If not, get one organized today so that the next opportunity does not pass you by.

Please do share your Hurricane Sandy marketing examples and reactions in the comments section below.

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