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Ouch! What Shutterfly's Email Marketing Disaster Can Teach Us

My nightmare. It wakes me up at night: emailing the wrong distribution list. If you’re involved in the fields of email marketing or marketing automation, you definitely feel me. Recently, we even summed up what emailing the wrong list feels like in The Life Of A Marketer In 21 GIFs:

As you may be aware, the latest email marketing failure has been perpetrated by Shutterfly, the image publishing service. They accidentally mass-emailed “Congratulations on your bundle of joy” to the wrong list, congratulating everyone on their newborn. Many customers immediately voiced their frustration:

I don’t want this to happen to you or your company so I figured I would write a few tips on how to prevent email failures. (Note to Shutterfly folks: you might as well print it and pin it right by your computer monitor.)

Double-checking is not enough

When the time has come to hit that “Send email” button, it goes without saying that you have to double-check all the elements of your email. This includes the sender, the distribution list, the subject line and the copy. But you have to go the extra mile if you don’t want people to have a good laugh at your emails - which means putting even more thought into it.

You’ve verified that you’re using the right list, but does the size of the list even make sense? Maybe the label is right, but are you really supposed to email 50,000 people? Always keep an eye on the count!

We all use personalized fields in emails like company name, first name and last name, but make sure that you have all of the data to back them up in the first place. Missing words like in “It’s a pleasure to do business with you <first name>” kill all the charm. Exclude people who are missing those fields or create a tailored message for them.

Audit your marketing automation

Unfortunately, marketing automation does not automate everything. You still have to do the thinking behind it and you have to make sure that your program stays up to date.

Regularly review your automated flows and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this flow still relevant or does it overlap with a new marketing effort? Your recipients will be annoyed if they’re targeted by many campaigns at the same time.
  • Are all of the processes in place to trigger or feed the automated flow? Emails are often triggered by events or contact properties. If those properties are not up to date, you will act upon the wrong data.
  • Is the content inside your messages up to date (prices, dates, contact information)? Be sure to remove any mention of a promotion or event that’s over.

Also review your overall marketing automation program by mapping out all of the flows. The big picture sometimes reveals issues like infinite loops (event A triggers event B and event B triggers event A) or dead ends. You want your interactions to be consistent and coordinated.

Always have an out

In this age of big data, we try to send super-targeted messages. But it’s a big gamble to use data to guess important life events or anything that can be remotely emotional. I would advise against it unless your customers have stated the information in a form or in an interaction with your team.

You’re putting yourself at risk each time you assume anything. You hope the data is accurate but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes you may not interpret it properly and things can get a little awkward. Make sure that you have a backup plan: have an out in your messaging so that even if you’re wrong, it’s not such a big deal.

Be transparent about your assumptions. Where did you get that information from? What makes you think that they’re going through X? If the recipients understand the underlying thought, they won’t be mad at an honest mistake.

Keep in mind

One thing to keep in mind though... shit happens. No matter how hard you try to keep your data clean and have the best processes in place, you will make a mistake or two in the long run. So be ready to make mistakes and apologize about it... but remember that it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Find more email marketing advice in our free eBook, The Complete Guide To Email Marketing. Get it here. 

About the Author

Francois Mathieu is a Marketing Consultant and Entrepreneur based in Toronto, Canada. He is the Co-Founder of <a href="">Hōjicha Co.</a>, a specialty tea distributor and retailer.

Profile Photo of Francois Mathieu