What to Do When Your Email Program Gets a Black Eye
As many of us do at the end of the year, I took some time to reflect on the past 12 months and mull over ways to make 2018 a better year. Over New Year’s weekend, I caught a flying toddler to the face and wound up with a pretty spectacular black eye. I decided to use my shiner as inspiration, and came to three interrelated conclusions that also apply to the world of email marketing:
- We all make mistakes. How we recover from them matters most.
- We can’t always control what happens, but we can control our response.
- Sometimes, you just have to roll with the punches and look for a silver lining.
Email marketing is a fast paced and ever changing channel. Between learning new technology and features and pushing to get emails out the door, it’s all too easy to slip up and have a mistake go live to your audience. For those who have been in the email space for a while, it’s highly likely you’ve encountered one or more of the emails gaffes listed below. For those of you who are new to this space, be forewarned. Every email program is bound to take a hit at some point. How you recover can have a major impact for your brand.
For any of the common email deployment mistakes I cover in this post, I recommend evaluating the following as a first step:
- Determine the level of confusion and annoyance this causes your subscribers. Is this a major disruption to the subscriber experience? Are subscribers likely to report the message as malicious? Will they get so frustrated with the experience they’ll want to snap their keyboard in half? Or will they spot the error, casually shrug, and move on to the next message? If you think that a good portion of subscribers that see or interact with the email will have a negative experience or feel let down by your brand, action is likely required.
- Determine the impact this will have on your business and bottom line. Did you accidentally send a massive discount to your entire list rather than your best and most loyal segment that represents two percent of your list? If a substantial portion of the list acts on your message, will it have a major financial impact or cause undue stress to your business? Are you going to have to renege an offer or promise you made via email? If so, you’re going to have to take action. Quickly.
- Consider the legal implications. Sending a blank or erroneous subject line isn’t a big deal but including a suppression list in the deployment file may be. Depending on what you sent, who you sent to, and where they are located, you may want to consult your attorney before taking action.
Now, let’s dive in to some common mistakes that can leave marketers feeling a bit beat up.
You Emailed the Wrong List
Of all the mistakes an email marketer can make, this is the one we all dread most. The severity of this error is on a continuum, but I’ll speak to the two most likely scenarios.
Your selection criteria was off: Did you accidentally target non-purchasers instead of purchasers? Did you send a kid-focused email to self-reported non-parents? If the email isn’t a major disruption to the subscriber experience or your business, and it’s not a legal issue, your best bet is to just move forward. A few subscribers may scratch their heads and a few may unsubscribe, but overall, this error isn’t a big deal. Sending an apology email will only draw more attention to the mix up, unnecessarily bump up send frequency for the week, and may cause more harm than it’s worth.
You emailed your suppression file: Did you just email to the list of subscribers who have opted out, complained, or hard bounced? Not to freak you out or anything, but this is about as bad as it gets. Yes, you can recover, but there is going to be some fallout. This most commonly happens during a migration to a new sending infrastructure when files are being moved over from the old mailing system. Regardless of how it happens, here are some tips on what to do next:
1. If at all possible, pause the deployment. It doesn’t matter if 90 percent has already gone out. Pause it!
2. Get in touch with your legal team or a legal advisor. I can’t provide any legal advice, but you’re going to want some. Don’t assume you can email an “oops” email to smooth things over. Get recommendations from the pros.
3. Assess the damage. Here are some things to consider:
- Complaints: Your suppression file is filled with subscribers who no longer want to hear from you. You are likely going to see heavy complaint rates come through and may even get some choice words coming through via your Reply-to address.
- List hygiene: If hard and soft bounced addresses were also contained in that suppression file, you are going to see very high bounce rates and more than a few spam trap hits.
- Inbox placement: Your deliverability is most likely going to take a hit. If your reputation and placement rates were solid before “the incident,” they may rebound fairly quickly. If you already had challenges, it’s going to be a bit more of a slog. You may also want to review inbox placement and email performance across mailbox providers to determine if the damage is widespread or concentrated at a few providers.
4. Figure out how to bounce back. After this snafu, your email program is going to need to be on its very best behavior in order to get back into the good graces of mailbox providers.
If you are migrating to a new dedicated IP address or a new domain and this was one of the first deployments, you may want to jump ship and move to a new IP/domain. We rarely recommend trying to outrun negative reputation, but in this case, it may be your best bet. Mailbox providers apply extra filtering to IPs and domains with no sending history. If your sending history is dominated by one massive no-no, that is going to be hard to overcome. As you start over with another new IP/domain, proceed with caution and ensure that you have a solid strategy in place regarding audience selection and volume ramp up. You can read more about the process of migrating to a new ESP and IP here.
If you did not recently complete a migration, you’ll still need to put your best foot forward in order to repair damage to your sending reputation. Here are a few things to consider:
- Front load each deployment with your most engaged subscribers so they establish positive engagement patterns for the send.
- Only send to your most engaged subscribers for the first few sends and avoid sending to those who have a prolonged pattern of inactivity. When you do start adding in less engaged subscribers, do so over several mailings rather than all at once.
- Avoid any big jumps in volume.
- Keep your sending cadence steady and avoid ramping up frequency until you see your inbox placement even out.
- Avoid any major changes to your email program or tests that may disrupt the subscriber experience. This is not the time to update your template, launch new emails, or try out subject lines that are outside of your typical approach.
You Sent the Wrong Message or Offer
If the message or offer that you sent will confuse or annoy subscribers, and/or will have a negative impact on your bottom line and the link will be directed to an error message, you’re probably going to have to send an apology email. You can check out this post and this post for examples of apology emails as well as the results they drove.
I should add a caveat: you may not need to apologize to everyone. If your subject line doesn’t explicitly highlight the error and you don’t want subscribers to take action on the erroneous message/offer, you may be able to be more selective with the audience for your apology. At this stage in the game, most sending infrastructures allow marketers to automate the deployment of a targeted follow up. By automating the deployment of an apology email to those who opened or clicked the erroneous email, you can focus your apologies on those subscribers who may need it and avoid pestering those who don’t.
There Was an Error in the Subject Line
It’s not uncommon to see an email come through with a snippet of code instead of copy, a spelling error, “Insert subject line,” or even a completely blank space. While embarrassing and unfortunate, this is another scenario where the best bet is typically to just move on. Sending a second email will only call attention to the error, potentially annoy subscribers, and provide another opportunity to complain or unsubscribe. Take a deep breath and move on to the next campaign on your marketing calendar.
You Included a Broken Link
This is common occurrence but painful nonetheless. It can also be a very frustrating experience for engaged subscribers who want to take action on your message. If the intent of the email was to drive action via the broken link, it’s probably in your best interest to mail an apology email to the same list. This will put the new, clickable email at the top of the inbox and give subscribers a chance to click through immediately and avoid frustration. If you were to employ the automated follow up approach, subscribers would have to fail, wait for a secondary email, then try again. The more hoops you put in front of a conversion, the fewer subscribers you’ll convert. Make it easy on your list, be transparent with your error, and get that apology email out the door.
When in doubt, pause the deployment! I should note that if you catch any of the above errors immediately after hitting send, you may have time to pause the deployment and fix the error — especially if you’re sending to a large list. As an example, if you’re sending a message to 2 million subscribers, clicking send starts the deployment but it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours for all of those subscribers to receive your mail. Many mailing infrastructures and mailbox providers limit how many messages can be sent or received during a specific timeframe. These rates aren’t always consistent and can depend on default settings, reputation, and other factors. When in doubt, if the option is available, pause the deployment and assess the situation.
As a Senior Email Strategist with Return Path, Casey specializes in driving increased engagement and boosting deliverability. Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”