How to Say You’re Sorry When Your Email Goes Bad
Let’s face it. We all make mistakes. Add the crush of the approaching holiday season, and it becomes even more likely that email marketers somewhere (maybe even you!) are panicking about a misfired campaign, an email that starts with a cold “Dear <FirstName>,” or even a data breach. The list goes on and on.
When a mistake happens—and yes, it’s a matter of when, not if—it’s important to have a plan in place to limit the damage and start to make things right. Here are six recommendations for how to handle these difficult situations in a manner that’s sensitive to your subscribers and to your brand.
Own the problem. Acknowledging the problem and taking responsibility is the first crucial step in addressing a crisis. Trying to ignore the situation and hoping no one notices will only make it worse.
Put out the fire. It’s critical to put a stop to any active issues. How high to escalate the issue, and the steps required for resolution, will depend on the type of problem. If it’s a true crisis like a data breach, your company’s security and IT teams need to get involved (and take charge) immediately. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with something more benign like a subject line gone wrong, or a campaign sent to the wrong segment, a less drastic step like simply stopping the campaign if it hasn’t finished sending is appropriate.
Assess the business damage. Once you’re sure that no further active harm is happening, it’s time to take stock of the mistake’s impact. How many subscribers were impacted? Which segments? Was customers’ personally identifiable information released? What was the cause? Has (or will) it cost your organization money? Do you need to involve your company’s legal team or even law enforcement? As with the immediate crisis itself, some of these questions are appropriate for you as a marketer to address, but others are clearly in the purview of your company’s security and legal teams.
Create a plan. With the guidance of appropriate stakeholders in the company, lay out clear steps for telling subscribers what they need to know and for making the situation right. Your plan should consider both internal steps and what your subscribers need to be told. Do your subscribers need to take action themselves? Should the affected subscribers be compensated in some way (proportional to the damage)? Are there systemic or business process changes that need to occur? Identify the key people in your company that will be responsible for putting these fixes into place.
Inform your customers and apologize. When it comes time to prepare this important response email, be sure to consider the following elements:
DO use a clear subject line (e.g. “We made a mistake.” or “Notification of Data Breach”)
DO use a branded template for the email so that it’s consistent with what your subscribers are used to seeing (and are therefore less likely to mark it as spam).
DO include any steps the subscriber should take on their end to protect themselves in the event of a compromise, such as changing their passwords, enabling two-factor authentication, and so on.
DO be clear and direct. Describe the situation clearly and as succinctly as possible. Don’t bury the lede, obfuscate, or use weasel words.
DO apologize. Whether the error was big or small, saying “We’re sorry” is an important part of resolving the problem.
DON’T try to be funny. Just be straightforward and honest. Making light of your mistake when you’re apologizing doesn’t resonate well with subscribers.
DON’T use a “no-reply” You may need to address customer feedback in response to the email.
DON’T send the email to subscribers who weren’t affected. The last thing you want is to make another mistake by sending it to too many people! (And if you sent a campaign to an old suppression file, we strongly advise against sending an apology email. Again, don’t make the problem worse.)
Proceed carefully. After the immediate crisis has been resolved, it’s appropriate to take stock of its impact on your ongoing and future email marketing, including assessing damage to your technical sending reputation. Work with your deliverability team, or your ESP’s deliverability personnel, to spot check performance and proceed with caution and the understanding that you may see negative results on the next send.
Note: I want to be clear that the ramifications and solutions to security issues such as data breaches are well beyond what I can tell you here. Please turn to your internal legal and security teams for how to deal with this sort of crisis. But I do highly recommended that you notify your subscribers as soon as possible, and in some cases, you may be legally required to do so.
On the other hand, simple mistakes in email such as erroneous sends, mistargeted campaigns, or malformed messages are issues you should address with basic good business judgment, depending on the impact and your risk tolerance. It’s almost always better to err on the side of caution and send an apology. Apologizing and managing mistakes proactively will help you minimize the negative impact on your sending reputation and will ensure the continued goodwill and trust of your subscribers.