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How to Recover from Email Marketing Mistakes: Webinar Recording


“I’ve made an email marketing mistake. Now what?”

That’s not a question you want to answer on the fly and in a panic with your boss standing at your desk. You want to have a plan in place so you know exactly how to respond in a variety of circumstances.

We recently hosted a webinar where we shared a decision framework for how to recover as gracefully as possible from email marketing mistakes, and then put that framework into action, applying it to 10 real-life case studies of email marketing errors made in recent years.

Didn’t have a chance to make it to the webinar? Don’t worry—we recorded the whole thing!

View slides & recording →

Attendees of the live webinar had some great questions, which I’d like to answer here.

Do you think “too many cooks in the kitchen” can affect the risk of a mistake slipping through due to conflicting opinions and feedback? What do you recommend about handling last-minute requests for changes?

Yes, conflicting feedback can definitely lead to mistakes. This is where having a strong process can help. First, start with a brief for every email that explains:

  • WHO should get this message? All of your subscribers? A certain demographic or geographic segment? Only subscribers who perform a certain action?
  • WHAT do you want your subscribers to do? Buy a product? Register for an event? Tweet a hashtag?
  • WHY will your subscribers be motivated to do that? What messaging, evidence, incentives, social proof, experiences, etc. will you use to convince them to take the desired action?
  • WHEN should subscribers receive the message?
  • WHERE are subscribers likely to read the message? On what devices are they likely to read it? In what context? In what location?
  • HOW will you measure the success of this email? Do you have the right tracking in place?

Refer to the brief throughout the production process. This will help keep everyone on the same page.

A solid approval process timeline can help address last-minute requests. Any requests that are made after a particular element is approved means that it has to be approved all over again. Anecdotally, a fair number of mistakes do appear to be caused by last-minute changes, in part because those changes were rushed through without re-approval by the usual people.

In the webinar, you mentioned that it’s smart to allow email metrics dictate your reaction to a mistake and to help gauge the size of a mistake. Which metrics would you use and what variance would constitute a reaction?

It all depends on your goals for the particular email—the “HOW will you measure the success of this email?” that I mentioned above. Unfortunately, most serious mistakes tend to be black and white when it comes to metrics.

For example, if the goal of the email was to drive sales of a particular product and the link to that product was broken in your email, then that goal becomes seriously impacted. Similarly, when the interactivity in our live Twitter feed email broke, it didn’t have the desired effect of driving tweets with the #TEDC hashtag.

However, some mistakes do fall into a grey area. Some typos and missing images, for instance, can cause significant confusion in terms of the offer or what you want subscribers to do. In these cases, metrics can be useful in determining just how detrimental that confusion was.

If it’s your biggest campaign of the year, your tolerance for anything less than perfect may be low. But for your typical campaign, you might be willing to tolerate a 10% to 20% deviation from the norm without sending a correction or apology email.

How do you deal with rebuilding internal stakeholder trust after an email mistake?

First, hopefully those stakeholders understand that email mistakes are practically inevitable. We ran a quick Twitter poll that we think is reflective of just how difficult it is to avoid mistakes.

Second, we hope that the mistake didn’t arise out of any recklessness and that there’s no pattern of mistakes. If you can show that you were being diligent and that the mistake still slipped through, that can help you regain the confidence of stakeholders.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, if you take responsibility for the error and pursue process changes that will reduce or eliminate the possibility of this error happening again in the future, that can also help mend things with stakeholders.

It’s also a good opportunity to discuss whether or not you have all the tools and resources you need to be successful. Your stakeholders don’t want mistakes, but will they support your needs?

How do you recommend reacting to forgetting to include an unsubscribe link in an email?

First, I’m obliged to point out that I am not a lawyer and do not give legal advice, and that you should talk to your legal counsel. That said, I’ve never seen a brand apologize for this particular error—and I’ve seen this error many times over the years. The legal risk associated with one-time omissions is extremely low, as all the legal actions that I’m aware of involve chronic behavior.

If there isn’t a mistake in an email, but the email was mistakenly sent numerous times to the same subscribers, what do you recommend doing?

It’s a question of degree. If you were to send the same email twice in quick succession, I wouldn’t do anything. Subscribers will understand that as an error and probably gravitate toward the most recently sent email. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a brand apology for a double-send of the same email.

However, the more emails that get sent, the higher the risk that subscribers will become irritated or become concerned that you’re going to be increasing your email frequency to them going forward.

For example, on Dec. 9, 2010, Sports Authority was doing some A/B testing of subject lines and accidentally sent all five subject line variations to everyone on their list. Especially given that email volume is already elevated during December, Sports Authority was wise to send an apology.

Do you recommend using plain-text, letter-like emails for apologies? Or using something more branded?

When you’re apologizing for something serious and not just correcting an offer or trying to laugh off a moderate mistake, nothing communicates sincerity like unadorned text. However, I wouldn’t recommend using plain text for the entire email.

For brand consistency and identifiability, your header and footer should be your usual HTML designs. But I wouldn’t include any other images in the email. The Alchemy Worx and Shutterfly apology emails that we discuss in our How to Recover from Email Marketing Mistakes report are great examples of this approach.


I answer these questions—and more—in our presentation, “How to Recover from Email Marketing Mistakes.” Check out the slides and recording for more helpful information on how to respond appropriately when mistakes are made.

View slides & recording →