No, Wait!: Our Messaging Screw-Ups and What We Learned

Moderator Susan Scales, social media consultant, Humana, with panelists Stephanie Johnson, email marketing coordinator, The Biltmore Company; John McMahon, group marketing manager, Intuit, and Julie Witsken, director of email marketing, AARP, speak at MediaPost’s Email Insiders Summit in December 2018.

Stephanie: The Biltmore Estate is a 200-year-old home in the Asheville mountains One of our most engaged audiences is our pass holders, similar to at Disney. People come multiple times a year. Highly engaged. They have an open rate of 40 - 50%, an average click rate of 12%. These are the audience members we send out messages like “Your annual benefits. Don’t miss out. Be the first to see this wonderful event.” Christmas is very popular time at Biltmore. We bring in 35-foot-tall fir tree. Sent email and email to our pass holders, saying ”This is the way to enjoy Christmas, come and see this!” “Watch live 11/1.” That date was wrong. We had hundreds of calls to our call center. This was the first year that we were simulcasting on Facebook Live so if the date was wrong it also meant that our social feed was getting bombardment with emails. We had to work on our busy weekend to change the date and resend the email to 54,000 people.

Susan: How to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

Stephanie: We now have a rule that, if you see a date, check it. I always check a date. Implemented a list of roles and responsbilities for who checks what in an email. Having everyone check different things, team accountability. Correction email got the date, 12/2, correct. Our correction email got an even higher open rate and click rate.

John: Typically, we do not have free offers for Turbo Tax. When we do run offers, it’s rare and a big deal. We ran an offer and got confused whether midnight was Am or PM. Midnight is AM, noon is PM. This offer ended on the final day at noon. We got a lot of questions. We did give correct price as well as credited their account, reached out to them, spun it into a bit of a delighter. Now we use noon or midnight. We had targeted this group so we wanted to fulfill the promise. 

This is a special one. We  sent a blank email to a couple million people. We QA’d the heck out of it with correct data. But when program was looking for data field, they ame across a logic that didn’t match correctly. Didn’t pick up subject line or creative. We’re a tax company, if you see anything out of the ordinary, you can get scared. We got lots of calls from nervous people. Social questions. But we got a 75% open rate! Followed up with the sorry email. What we took away from this is that you can’t just QA with perfect data. The point of using QA data is that it works. The other point is that if you’re sending bad things through, you’ll catch it. Your programmer or your campaign will catch it. Now, if something’s not right, we eject the record and you don’t get anything.

[As far as sending an apologetic email,] if it could shake our customers’ confidence in the data that we have for them, we’re going to reach out to you as fast as possible. If it’s just a spelling error, we just move on from there.  

Julie: We sent an email with a missing first name, and an alert to missing information. We still feel PTSD when we look at this interest capture email. Our desire is to understand as much as we can about our audience and then deliver them a customized and personalized invitation. We wanted to invite people to tell us more about topics that interest them. We tried to leverage some tried-and-true tactics from our friends in the membership side. It’s more transaction in nature. Leveraging fear based generates the best response. We went that way. Let people know their account was missing information. The experience was that many of them got an error page because this email drew such good response rates, our website couldn’t handle the traffic. 

So many feared this was a spam email. From an email KPI perspective, it was wonderful, with great open rates, click through rates, surprisingly low opt-out rates but we did see there were more calls generated to contact center. Some were calling fraud watch network. Asking if it was a scam. Last but worst, one recipient was a blogger. He believed it was predatory on the part of AARP. Media relations saw it and it made its way up the chain.

To prevent this from happening again, we addressed the creative, even in advance of our organization reorienting itself more holistically to put ourselves in the mind of the consumer. Pretend we were the recipient of these emails. All putting that lens on. Flirted with the idea of having some of our senior members on the team looking at creative but realized that with the volume of email and creative that would be flowing through, that would not be a tenable solution; that would quickly become a bottle neck.

The other thing that we did was address a process gap. We had been communicating to our contact center, weekly call, gave information about upcoming campaigns. One of the things that we did was make sure we anticipated campaigns that might generate a lot of traffic so that we could alert dot org so that we could plan accordingly.

Longer term, we need our website to handle higher throughput but meantime we are making sure we throttle differently and/or consider batch deployment going out to a larger list that will generate more logins or registrations. 

Over time, we’ve developed internal best practices in terms of reaching out to this audience. We know that it may not always be clear to someone 50 plus, esp. older end of that range, what to do with an email. In our confirmed opt-in email, wee have just one primary CTA, “click to confirm.” We still get a handful of people who will reply to the email, “I’m confirming my email address.” Shows we need to be cognizant of the fact that not all people are aware of email. Majority of people that we’re bringing onto our list and into our membership tend to be younger people, in their 50s and they’re all pretty digitally savvy. Less of a concern for us.

Two takeaways: I would make sure CTA buttons are clear, nothing vague. Direct response guidance in general. And the other thing is that, thinking about their overall experience with your brand and what else might be in their inbox. We are very strong in terms of educating people in how to prevent fraud, that through our email, our members know what to be on the lookout for. They were alerted to the fact that this email didn’t function as expected. Our subscribers know what to look for, fraud wise.

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