Always Having To Say You're Sorry: Our Love Affair With Apology Emails

In the past two weeks, our team has received heaps of "apology" emails from various companies, ranging from a consumer packaged goods conglomerate to a travel organization. Either email marketers are making a lot of mistakes -- or they are apology-happy. I think it's the latter.

This love affair with sending apology emails for the most trivial of transgressions is perplexing. It could be that marketers are afraid of being "outed' by fans and friends on various social media platforms. Although who would take the time to post -- or even read -- about being offended by being asked to update a driver's license that has not yet expired, as happened with one of the emails we saw?

Another explanation may be that marketers have a false sense of what's important to their customers. As Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, "Apology is only egotism wrong side out." It seems that an email apologizing for sending birthday specials that don't coincide with the receiver's birthday fits this description (another recent example). Special coupons and it's not my birthday, how offensive!

Of course, there are good reasons to send an apology email. An apology is needed if there is the chance that secure data has been compromised, or if it appears that way. Mint.com, a place to manage your money and finances online, did a good job of addressing this using humor, but then failed in execution when the company sent a half-dozen of the same apology emails to recipients:

MINT-Apology

Regardless of the reason for these apology-happy emails, there is an easy step that marketers can take to avoid them in the first place: testing. By testing emails, marketers can catch typos, prevent broken links, and ensure that data feeds through correctly and segmentation works. If marketers tested every email, this would virtually eliminate the need for apology emails.

If you must send an apology email, a few best practices are available to guide your decision-making.

1. Do you really need to send an apology email? Ask yourself how severe the error is. Is it simply a typo or a wrong coupon code -- or will recipients view this as a major mistake, such as their personal data being compromised? If the error is minor, let it go.

2. Be brief. Apology emails should be concise and to the point. Do it with one communication.

3. Match your brand. Apology emails should resemble your brand in color, structure and logos so you don't create even more confusion.

4. Take responsibility. Pushing the blame for the gaffe off on a service provider doesn't make you look better. It appears the service provider is not being monitored appropriately, which creates even more issues with credibility, as in the email below:

ANDERSON-Apology

5. Send only to those who are affected. There's no reason to apologize to your entire email list if only a segment received the wrong email. Look at tracking reports to determine which recipients were affected.

Mistakes happen. It is how they are managed that determines their impact on customers.

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6 comments about "Always Having To Say You're Sorry: Our Love Affair With Apology Emails".
  1. Rita Allenrallen@freshaddress.com from FreshAddress, Inc. , November 30, 2010 at 12:34 p.m.

    Boy, do I ever agree. I received an apology email from a retailer this week who apologized for sending me a Black Friday coupon offer that was intended for their 'other' customers...really caught my attention...might never shop there again. Would have been better to provide me with their 20% discount.

  2. Elizabeth Sklaroff from Round Social Marketing , November 30, 2010 at 12:51 p.m.

    I can't agree more with this post, especially point 5. Recently, I have received numerous emails apologizing for erroneous emails that I never even opened, essentially making me acutely aware of a mistake I would have never known about otherwise!

    A simple query (a feature available using any email service provider or marketing automation platform) to determine who opened the email – and then apologizing to them only – would have corrected drawing additional attention to the initial error.

  3. Kate Lafrance from Hartford Woman Online Magazine , November 30, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.

    Like the others I agree especially with point 5 - I scan through my email box and delete MANY of the "offers" I receive without opening - but I do think it would be awkward for them to go back and tell a customer after a purchase "Sorry we MEANT to say a 20% discount NOT a 25% discount - we're gonna need more money from you." NOT cool. Honestly, if the "incorrect" offer isn't going to break the bank I think I'd say nothing and just eat it. I have received so many of these "sorry" emails lately that I am not sure I trust any first offer right now. Is there ANY chance this is a new tactic to get readers' attention? If so, it does work, up to a point. I am more likely to open an apology to see what the dumb mistake was. If these are truly mistakes then one must wonder why this is happening? Could they be trusting their marketing to people who don't understand the importance of accuracy?

  4. Georgia Christian from Mail Blaze , December 1, 2010 at 8:19 a.m.

    Thanks for the post Neil. I agree with Kate and Elizabeth on #5 but also agree that #4 - Taking Responsibility is something that not enough e-marketers take into consideration. 'Passing the buck' so to speak is the easy way out and makes you look unprofessional and unable to deal with the situation at hand.

  5. Vicki Monti from Kisseo.com , December 1, 2010 at 8:58 a.m.

    I was thinking along the same lines as Kate, wondering if some marketers were using the apology email as the new transactional email - meaning, they know it has a high open rate so they're sending more hoping they'll get more response. People are curious by nature and most of us want to see how badly the people flubbed up, and while we're looking at the email, we might decide to buy something. I hope that's not the case, though, because eventually it will erode trust in apology emails.

    Or maybe marketers are just getting sloppy, either from sending more emails during the holidays or having shorter deadlines because of all the days off work. No excuse for sloppiness, though!

  6. Mark Vogel from Vogel Marketing Solutions LLC , December 1, 2010 at 9:13 a.m.

    Amazing how many email campaigns are sent without thorough review by stakeholders .... like this one from EmailInsider! I wanted to learn more about the author, and clicked on the link "Neil Berman is president of Delivra, an email marketing software and services company. He can be reached here." All I got was a page that said "Sorry, nbermanin doesn't live here."

    I fully expect an apology email for that broken link to be sent to every email address on the planet! :)