E-mail's 'Best of the Worst'

When you work in an interactive organization, it is pretty easy to lose sight of one key difference between e-mail and other online marketing channels. When you build Web sites and media creative, you can mitigate campaign risk with quick responses. Launch a Web site that contains errors, and usually a quick change will solve it. Same goes for online media, where normally there are ample review cycles before the media is trafficked.

However, there is a "point of no return" with the e-mail channel. Here are a few examples that take the proverbial cake.

  • In billiards, when you cue the ball wrong, someone usually cracks, "Chalk is free." Well, so is spell-checking, but I guess Circuit City--or shall I say, ""--didn't think about that. Spell checking is available in Photoshop.



  • Testing, testing, one, two. Have to give this one to Ad Age for proving the value of testing by sending the same e-mail with two different subject lines to the same person. I'd sure like to see the results of that test. Which one do you think won? The first one or the one received 19 minutes later?
    Subject Line 1: "See the Mash-Up (and, yes, they forgot to close the quotation)
    Subject Line 2: "See the 'Mash-Up" TV Spots Killed by Dr. Pepper

  • United Airlines has a new and interesting way of showing loyalty by extending multilingual communications to its U.S. audiences. After receiving a Japanese version of its monthly newsletter, I'm sure United had its most loyal travelers scratching their heads. Can any of you translate this one for me? It was also interesting how they addressed me in the salutation. My experience tells me someone new was playing with their e-mail system, as they addressed me as "Baker David C." And Alpha Bravo Charlie to you, too!

    Mistakes are a fact of life in this channel, and there is no recourse once the e-mail has left your servers. You can potentially change the source images if they contain the error (Circuit City could have done that), but 95 percent of the time you are dead in the water when an error occurs.

    So how should you react when it happens? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Assign a disaster team, sort of like FEMA. The team should convene immediately to discuss the error and outline potential courses of action. One member of the team will communicate internally about the expected fallout (opt-outs, complaints, replies). Don't wait until your vice president, who is seeded on the list, sends a note down the chain. Have your answers ready.

  • Minimize impact. If you see that there is an error and all the e-mails have NOT been sent, many ESPs have the ability to cancel the e-mails in the queue, thus minimizing the extent of the error.

  • Don't change protocol. 99 percent of the errors we see are due to teams sacrificing good process for urgency. Was it a system error? A human error? Did you sacrifice what you know is right to get it out quickly?

  • An error doesn't always justify a response. Spare your customers from a slew of meaningless apology e-mails. If you misspell something in an e-mail or subject line, do you really need to send an apology to those that didn't even open it? What if you sent the e-mail twice, or sent it in the wrong language? Discuss what constitutes an apology and who should receive it, and if you should reward the consumer.

  • Lastly, develop a protocol for apology e-mails. Use them for marketing and loyalty purposes. You'll get a higher response, so use this as an opportunity to let them know how important they are to your business. And, be sure not to waste that opportunity on a poorly thought-out apology.

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