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June 30, 2017
Email Marketing  |  6 min read

5 Terrible Email Fails—And How you Can Recover

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Liz Alton

The very first email fail I personally experienced was about a year into my career. I was working with a high-end consultant who worked day and night to build a connection to the leader of an international bank and scored the chairman’s personal email. He wrote a thoughtful message about the issues he saw, the value that he could provide, and why this was a golden partnership in the making. Off went the message. Unfortunately, due to an apparent failure to spellcheck, I saw that instead of “Dear Bob,” he had written “Death Bob” as his salutation. Needless to say, we didn’t get the deal.

As my career has progressed, I’ve watched email fails as both a customer and consumer of general media with significant interest. Without naming and shaming, here are five examples of the types of email fails brands can experience—and how to come back from the brink when something goes wrong.

All the excitement with none of the payoff

A big name discount site sent out an email to their membership giving away millions of “dollars” to use on deals on their site to celebrate a big milestone anniversary. However, it was a lottery system, and most of the people who clicked on the link got a message that was one step above “sorry, loser.” What was their mistake?

You can’t whip your customers up into a state of excitement thinking that your brand is going to generate massive value for them and then fail on the payoff. It leads to disappointment, frustration, and the kind of negative brand sentiment that can drive people to the competition. Instead, consider spreading out incentives or giving everyone a discount, along with a chance to win big. Give every customer who engages with your campaign a reward to keep them coming back for more.

The accidental renewal message

One media giant made headlines when they accidentally emailed millions of subscribers that their subscriptions had lapsed—when, in fact, they were in good standing. Brands make this kind of mistake all the time. Sometimes they’re due to a hack, an employee error, or an email segmentation issue.

The best way to come back from this is to send a “mea culpa” as soon as possible, because your customers may be panicking that they let a valued product or service lapse. Consider doing something to make it up to them, such as a month free or exclusive content. Finally, take a look at the systems that failed, and add another layer of approvals before you send out marketing emails.

Abusing third-party data for lead gen

There’s an approach to email marketing that leverages third-party lists to find out who the decision makers are at a company. However, when inexpertly handled, this can lead to a Dumpster fire of a brand burn. One client of mine noted that a lead generation agency had purchased employee information for their Fortune 500 company, and then launched a campaign to try to sell their services as a lead gen partner. Their proposition: that they, the agency, were the perfect partner to generate qualified leads. Their strategy: emailing the same message to more than 200 different decision makers at the company. As you can guess, they didn’t get the contract, and they developed a bad reputation in the industry and received a call from a company rep to cease and desist.

Solution: don't use third-party data. Always make sure that you have permission to send someone an email. When you build trust and show respect through your email marketing practices, it cascades throughout your whole customer relationship.

The bad unsubscribe experience

People unsubscribe to emails all the time for a variety of different reasons. Maybe they don’t remember signing up. Maybe there’s too much going on in their digital lives and they need to create some white space. Recently, I got messages from a newsletter I didn’t sign up for, which was started by a LinkedIn contact. Upon clicking unsubscribe, I was taken to a page that required me to fill out a ton of information and create an account. After logging in, I had to fill out three pages of survey questions and an open-ended essay (minimum 25 words) on what they could do better—I had at least 25 choice words to offer.

Related Article:

As a brand, make it easy for customers to opt-in and opt-out of your digital experience. If your unsubscribe process makes people furious, they’re less likely to do business with you. Never hold a customer’s email address hostage.

The awkwardly timed sale

We’ve all heard about brands trying to make a buck by jumping on the bandwagon of the tragedy of the day or a day dedicated to honoring someone. It’s one thing to sell BBQ gear for the Fourth of July; it’s completely different to send out something like “If you’re bored during the storm, save 10 percent on your online order” when people could be experiencing life-threatening weather conditions.

Avoiding this starts by asking if there’s a clear, neutral connection between your products and the occasion. Then consider whether your timing is good, or if it could be offensive. Finally, if you made a mistake, own up to it as quickly as possible and incorporate that learning into your future plans moving forward. 

From poorly timed marketing messages that try to connect a sale to a tragedy, to misspellings that lose million-dollar deals, email marketing gaffes are no joke—even if they’re funny. However, the good news is that they happen to everyone. Be quick with a mea culpa, make it up to the customer with a discount or by creating value, and put the systems in place to ensure it never happens again. 

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