How to recover from an email-marketing mistake

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We all make mistakes; it’s part of being human. Sure, mistakes are embarrassing and they can hurt your reputation, but they don’t have to cause permanent harm. You can recover from most gaffes (unless your gaffe was poor handling of a previous blunder!). Here’s how to recover from an email-marketing mistake with grace.

The first step is to recognize the mistake and take it seriously. Let’s go back to school for a minute and look at the two textbook case studies on this issue: Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol poisoning and Exxon’s 1989 Valdez oil spill. Both of these were major crises, but one company turned the crisis into a major piece of brand equity and the other only got past it when a competitor messed up even worse.

When Johnson & Johnson heard that Tylenol was linked to deaths in Chicago, J&J dealt with the crisis by immediately acknowledging the crisis and courageously recalling their bestselling product. Prior to the murders, Tylenol had a 37% market share. That dropped overnight to 7%, but because of how J&J handled the crisis, Tylenol’s market share jumped up to 30% only a year after the crisis.

Exxon on the other hand, responded slowly when their tanker ran aground and begin gushing crude oil into the Alaskan landscape. Exxon continued to deal with the crisis poorly by generally trying to avoid as much of the blame as possible and appearing to not take the crisis seriously. The result was a damaged reputation that never really recovered (it wasn’t until BP screwed up even worse in 2010 with their Deepwater Horizon spill, that people started to forget about—not forgive—Exxon’s transgression).

Obviously, messing up a marketing email isn’t the same as selling a product used by a sociopath to murder people, or being responsible for a major ecological disaster, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn lessons from these crises: Lesson one is that how you handle the mistake is crucial. Don’t ignore and hope no one will notice. Make it right for your customers as far as is possible.

  1. First, examine your mistake; does it warrant a public response? Can you fix it privately without highlighting your “oops” to the world? You always want to be careful not to bother your customers with too much email, so think before you send a blast email fixing or apologizing for the slip-up—sometimes you can make a fix behind the scenes and the folks on your list will never know.For example, if you included the wrong link in your email, talk to your IT folks and have them redirect visits from the wrong link to the right one. (Or, if you put the wrong product URL in, you obviously don’t want to redirect all traffic away from it, so just put a prominent link on the page to the correct page). Did you misspell the coupon code? Again, talk to IT and try to change it.
  2. Not all mistakes can be fixed so easily and invisibly and some will need a response, for example if you gave the wrong discount percentage in the email, or if your email works so well that your website crashes from all the traffic.If your blunder warrants a response, then respond faster than ASAP. Try to get in front of the crisis and acknowledge that you “oopsed.” If possible, include a solution to the problem you created in your apology, but don’t delay an apology to draft a solution. Instead, apologize and promise that a solution is forthcoming.
  3. When you do respond, put the “me” into your “mea culpa.” The mistake came from a human, so the apology should too. This is not the time to get defensive or hide behind corporate speak. You can use less formal language or inject some humor into your response. This goes a long way towards mending the bridges you inadvertently broke with your customers. This “whoops” email from Pet Supplies Plus (Subject: Whoops! We hit the wrong button!) nails it perfectly.
  4. Lastly, as far as possible, make it up to your customers somehow. It’s not their fault you mistakenly promised an impossibly good deal and they’ll be understandably upset if you take it away without providing anything in return. If you accidentally extended a sale by typing the wrong date in the email, find out if you actually can extend the sale—will it break your business? If you can’t deliver what you accidentally promised, look for something else you can provide as a consolation prize (tack on a small value add to your service for free or offer a discount on a future purchase?).

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. We’re all human and we’ll all make mistakes, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. It’s how you handle your mistakes that makes all the difference.

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