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Email campaigns that failed

Email campaigns that failed Dylan Boyd

The more experience you gain as an email marketer, the more you come to understand the true purpose of an email.

It isn't simply to blast something to subscribers without relevancy or reason. It isn't to make a quick, dishonest buck off them. It isn't to pull off a massive bait-and-switch. It isn't even to release the hounds on the competition. It's about nurturing, building trust and relationships, and ultimately increasing and solidifying the reputation of your brand.

Every email sent must have a purpose and needs to personally relate to the subscriber. If the email lacks personalization or has no purpose, you're taking a risk that may cause subscribers to not only opt-out of your emails, but also mentally and emotionally opt-out from any future engagement with your brand. When this happens, the recipient immediately becomes emotionally unsubscribed. We in the industry identify it with a very technical term: email marketing fail.

Everyone fails at some point. A recent study by Return Path discovered that up to 20 percent of top brand marketers continue to send emails to addresses on their lists that have unsubscribed -- more than 10 days after a confirmed unsubscribe request.

Sending to an unsubscribed address is definitely Fail No. 1. This is a violation of CAN-SPAM, and results in complaints and possible legal trouble. You may find your email reputation soon relegated to that of a spammer. This is a slippery slope. When a brand has degraded itself past the point of no return with so many email marketing fails, it has basically strung itself out on spam. At that point, batch-and-blast spamming may be the only way to get in front of enough people to make a few sales. To avoid this, it's important to find the silver lining in a fail. Learning from mistakes will actually strengthen your skills and refine your habits as an email marketer.

Not learning from mistakes and getting strung out on spam is just one negative result of an email marketing fail. When campaigns are poorly executed, or give in to the temptation of slash-and-burn email marketing revenue, they forfeit any likelihood of meaningful, long-term customer engagement, not to mention powerful word-of-mouth or even viral campaign exposure. This is what separates poor email campaigns (fails) from excellent ones (wins).

So, what does an email marketing fail look like? Here are some examples.

Fail 2: Confuse me, then play me out

Culprit: IMAJ Designs

There is nothing more frustrating than receiving emails that are completely irrelevant to your interests and not having an option to opt-out of the subscription.

This email from IMAJ Designs is special -- two fails in one. I was immediately confused by the meaning of the statement "Please push your 'Picture Bar' located under the Subject Line." Using language nobody understands simply does not make sense.

The next problem was the footer, which, to paraphrase, essentially says, "This is a one-time email, there's no way to unsubscribe, and if it is not wanted, just delete it." This is the email marketing equivalent of hitting on every girl in a bar until one doesn't throw a drink in your face. IMAJ is saying, "Sorry we sent this to you, and we have zero interest in having a relationship with you. That is, unless you want to buy something now!"

Fail 3: The phantom save/co-reg handoff

Culprit: Dex

Check out this next email from Dex. It had tricky opt-out options, and why I even received it in the first place made no sense -- it is completely irrelevant. When was the last time I used a phonebook? Back in the '80s, maybe?

When I decided to opt-out, the company tried to get me to opt-in to other emails from an unknown place. The default position of the radio button selection is Dex's attempt to stop me from unsubscribing. I would not typically fault this, as it is a good idea to give people relevant options if they want to leave behind a subscription. The real question is why would a subscriber opting-out of your emails want to sign up for offers from an unknown place? Why not just let me unsubscribe if I don't find any value in this relationship and nothing new of value is being offered? The idea must be to make some money from co-registration with the yellow pages to help build its email lists. Sure, times are tough, and I can understand that companies want to keep email addresses that might be valuable to them -- but this could have been executed much better.

The Iceberg Slim switch

Culprit: HBO (and partnering brand lists)

Even the late pimp Iceberg Slim himself knew when to quit. So why are marketers still shamelessly pimping out their email lists? Partnering is one thing, but it's important to not overdo it. This can potentially harm relationships with subscribers and drive them to opt-out of your emails.

I opted-in for "Flight of the Conchords" from HBO. Recently, I was sent a store clearance email from HBO that had little to do in any way with the "Flight of the Conchords" content for which I had signed up. What made me want to share this is the "from" line. It was disguised as an email that I would normally get from HBO about "Flight of the Conchords." It was a complete bait and switch about buying merchandise in a sale campaign. I read through the copy thinking maybe I missed something. I suspected it was a list swap in its truest form.

So, is this OK to do? From a marketing perspective, the answer is yes. From the perspective of the relationship and expectations from those that opted into a certain list, absolutely not. Remember, you need to think not only about your own goals but carefully consider the relationship you have established and the trust that you have put in place.

I know that many of you out there are jaded when it comes to list rental campaigns. Here are four reasons I dislike partnering brand lists:

  1. They often will not perform to expectations. Many brands expect these lists to be so well found and segmented that they will achieve the same reach and performance from their own lists. This will never happen.

  2. They are not from the original brand. And they should not be. Many times, such as with HBO, they are sent from the original brand and not the purchasing brand. This disconnect is bad for all, and results in more list attrition from the list owner if done incorrectly.

  3. They can affect the list reputation of the original brand. If you're doing list rentals, you should be aware that they could have a negative impact on your brand. People could consider you a spammer.

  4. You could get a spam complaint. This email, although not technically sent from you or your ESP platform, can cause you to be blacklisted due to your domain(s) being in the links of the email.

There are so many other ways to do lead generation campaigns that better connect and resonate, in a best practices way, with your new subscribers. Be smarter about how you approach a relationship, and don't just gun for the automatic sale.

Fail 5: The overachieving design

Culprit: Ubisoft

Don't set yourself up for a fail due to lack of basic email marketing principles. The fundamentals still stand strong and will do so throughout time. It's disappointing when companies like Ubisoft send emails that lack these principles. Ubisoft sent out the below email with zero copy -- not even image text. What is the reader supposed to do? Maybe click on it and discover a landing page where it takes four minutes to load the Flash? The result is an ambitious yet completely failed email marketing attempt. An addition, the fundamentals for CAN-SPAM compliance were missing from this email. The lack of a footer with an unsubscribe link and physical mailing address is a complaint or lawsuit waiting to happen.

Fail 6: All form, no function

Culprit: Becker Surfboards

Becker Surfboards also failed with this email it recently sent me. The main problem here was that the email lacked functionality and only focused on how it looked. Using a massive image file for an email campaign is not fully utilizing it as a marketing medium. Using web text and chopped, alt-tagged images ensures that if the images are blocked, your subscribers are not going to get an empty email with only a footer. Design is the start of the battle to win the hearts and minds of your subscribers, but the email also needs to take those first fundamental, best practice steps to effectively engage and turn them into long-term customers.

The insecure brand

Culprits: FedEx and Subway

Some might say that marketing is part promoting your own brand and part disparaging the competition. More often than not, however, bashing the competition via email is just a bad look. There is some merit in showing how you stack up, but when you start pulling competitor brands into your messaging, you're setting yourself up for a full blown war. Your competition is most likely receiving your emails to see what you're up to, just like you're receiving their email campaigns to see what they're up to.

If you choose to leverage your competitor's weakness and faults, as with these emails from FedEx and Subway, be prepared for your competitors to retaliate. Instead of focusing on your competitor's weaknesses and slamming its brand, highlight your strengths and how they address customer needs and challenges. Use your own brand positioning to educate and show how you are performing better than others in your market niche. Use examples of good customer success stories that illustrate how your products, programs, or services deliver the best experience for your loyal customers.

The expert fail

Culprit: Constant Contact

Lack of personalization in an email campaign can damage your email reputation. The strength in a good email campaign lies in its ability to make the message personal to the recipient, intriguing them to open and actually read the email. When I received the email from self-proclaimed email marketing solutions expert Constant Contact, I spotted a big no-no. There was no "First Name" data for me, hence I got this greeting: "Dear ,"

This illustrates the importance of quality data when running any type of dynamic content or personalization. If your CRM or other data source is flawed, you're setting up your email marketing to be flawed as well. Good data will let you effectively personalize, and more importantly, it gives you the ability to target the most relevant offers to each recipient segment or profile. A more powerful email campaign would have included a relevant article or interesting subject line to engage the subscriber, instead of relying on standard JV personalization. This is a good example of how you can get into trouble using JV personalization. Why would the viewer care to read the email if it has nothing to do with anything that interests them?

The messaging identity crisis

Culprit: Technorati

Where is the line between a transactional email and a marketing email? From my understanding a transactional email is one that:

  • Confirms an order or action

  • Alerts you to a change in status or account

  • Informs of a change in relationship, privacy policy, or access

There is a fine line in transactional emails where, according to best practices, you can allocate 20 percent of the email to marketing messages. Apple does this well with iTunes transactional email receipts. The company does not lead with marketing, nor does it interfere with the transactional email message. Subject lines are clear, copy is clear, and the message can be easily scanned to understanding what is occurring.

I recently received the below email from Technorati. I had to pause to understand if this was a transactional email or a marketing email. My first thought was that it was alerting me to changes at Technorati in regard to features that would be of interest to me and my account. As I read through it more, it seemed to be a straight marketing message. The problem is this email was disguised as a transactional email and didn't have the CAN-SPAM compliance in the message.

The drive-by train wreck

Culprit: Vista Print

Why is the below email from Vista Print such a train wreck? First, it's coming from a valid company but being sent from someone spoofing the offer. It seems that it's a third party trying to drum up some business for Vista Print.

Second, note the enormous header text link to show images. Really? Is that your main concern ahead of the email offer and creative?

Then we have the box of copy telling you not to respond to this email, as this email address is not monitored. That's not exactly a great email marketing tactic. Basically, the sender is saying, "We sent you this, but don't bother responding as we don't read the emails you send to us."

To sum it up, it ends with some of my favorite words, "This message is an Advertisement," with a whole footer about CAN-SPAM compliance and how this email is not a violation of this law. If it has to be stated, then it is most likely unsolicited email and worthy of a complaint.

The brand biter

Culprits: "Twitter" and Ben and Jerry's

Using popular brand names to gain credibility in your email campaign is a bad practice. The "Twitter" email below, though in no way related to or from Twitter, uses the Twitter brand and brand marks of trusted news sources to try to give the email some credibility. I would wager that many people simply place trust into emails since they come with the brand/site themselves. This is just another way to spam.

I'm sure many people are wondering how many brands and individuals are using the new president as a way to jump into the marketing efforts of the Barack Economy? I have been on the lookout for brands and discovered the Ben and Jerry's email below, which is riding off the past election and using this event as a way of cashing in on search and tying the company to the optimism surrounding the new president. Before you infringe on another brand to promote your own, ask yourself how you would feel if you were in that brand's shoes -- particularly if the campaign was poorly executed.

Hopefully this article will give you email marketing enthusiasts out there an idea of what not to do. Let me again say that everyone makes mistakes, and making mistakes is how we improve. As shown in eROI's recent study on email analytics, thinking outside the box, testing different methods, then making decisions based on those analytics will lead to optimized email campaigns. That said, it's important to base your initial approach on best practices.

For some good email marketing ideas and examples, check out eROI CEO Ryan Buchanan's article on "11 email design best practices."  Following these tips will ensure balance in your email marketing force.

Dylan Boyd is VP of sales and strategy at eROI.

On Twitter? Follow Boyd at @dtboyd. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

I lead Growth at Urban Airship, a mobile services platform provider that develops tools for marketers using the mobile channel to engage and retain customers on mobile apps. I lead business development efforts, strategic partnerships and agency...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Andrea Mocchi

2009, July 08

Hi Dylan,

very useful article. Analyzing emails and showing mistakes is useful not to make the same mistakes!

I'd got a question for you: you say (concerning Fail 9, Technorati)
"As I read through it more, it seemed to be a straight marketing message. The problem is this email was disguised as a transactional email and didn't have the CAN-SPAM compliance in the message."

Reading this, I can argue that transactional emails do not need an explicit CAN-SPAM compliance, isn'it? And only explicit makerkting emails need.. I am italian, I am sorry but I don't know how CAN-SPAM works..

Thank you very much!

Commenter: Kevin Sonoff

2009, July 06

I've always believed that the key to successful email campaigns is solicit feedback from your recipients. Put in place a mechanism that allows them to easily submit suggestions and ideas to help make the next email correspondence even more relevant to their needs.

Kevin Sonoff
Founder, Digital Marketing Buzz

Commenter: Anthony Green

2009, July 06

Great article Dylan. You picked some (not so) great examples. I particularly liked the Constant Contact entry - ESP's should be LEADING the best practice!!