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Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Best Practices for Apology Emails When to Send Apologies

Best Practices for Apology Emails

When to Send Apologies and What to Say

By Chad White

As was made clear by the 2008 inductees into the Retail Email Blog’s 1TUOopsy Hall of Fame U 1T, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid making at least small slip ups and mistakes in the fast-paced world of email marketing—even for the largest retailers. However, as cringe- inducing as many of those oopsies are, most do not rise to the level of requiring an apology email. For those that do, there is a set of best practices worth noting.

Do I Need to Apologize?

The hard and fast rule is: If the mistake is not likely to result in lost revenue or cause significant brand damage by annoying, angering or offending subscribers, then don’t send an apology.

For instance, mistakes in subject lines rarely rise to the level of needing an apology. If the offer in the subject line differs slightly from the one in the body copy, but the body copy is in sync with the landing page, people will realize that the subject line is just wrong. Even if your subject line says “subject line,” as one of Target’s emails did, it’s not worth correcting because it doesn’t affect any of the body content.

Glitches in personalization, minor coding errors, missing secondary images, egregious spelling and grammar errors—none of these rise to the level of needing to bother subscribers with an additional email.

Broadly speaking, we see apologies for four kinds of issues:

The email misstated the offer (body copy not in sync with landing page), contained broken links or otherwise didn’t function as intended.

The email suffered major rendering problems.

A deployment error sent emails to the wrong segments or recipients.

Server problems caused website availability issues that affected subscribers.

Limiting the Scope of Apologies

To head off the need to send a mass apology email, try to contain the problem. For instance, if you notice a serious issue with an email, attempt to halt the send. Then you only need to send a correction or apology to those that received emails.

Another way to limit the scope of your apologies is to only apologize to those subscribers that you know were affected by the glitch. For example, if a certain link in an email is

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 broken, note the subscribers who clicked on that link

broken, note the subscribers who clicked on that link and only send the apology email with the correct link to those people.

Apology Email Formats

Apologies come in three main formats:

1. Subject line only

In some cases just changing the subject line is enough. For instance, a Dec. 26 email from Harry & David (see 1TUFig. 1U1T) used the subject line “Correction: Up to 70% Off & FREE Shipping* on orders over $99.” The subject line of their earlier email had claimed that the after-Christmas sale featured savings of up to 40%.

2. Preheader message

Usually in addition to indicating a correction or apology in the subject line, some retailers included the apology message in the preheader text. For example, a Dec. 22 CompUSA email ( 1TUFig. 2U1T) includes a preheader message that’s highlighted in yellow and starts with “Correction:” in red type. Yellow highlights and red type are often used for apology messages in the preheader text.

3. A dedicated email

Particularly in the case of website outages, you’ll probably want to dedicate an entire email to apologizing. For example, Chadwicks sent a dedicated apology email on July 15 ( 1TUFig.3U1T) after it experienced website issues.

What Makes a Good Apology?

The point of any apology is to fix the mistake and get back in the person’s good graces. When it comes to retail apology emails, here are seven tips for a graceful recovery:

1. Send the apology email as soon as you can.

Apologies work better the sooner they’re sent. Placing the apology in the preheader text can be quick, but for those times that you need to send a dedicated email, consider creating an apology email template like Norm Thompson ( 1TUFig. 4U1T) and SmartBargains have done.

2. Make it clear in the subject line that you’re apologizing.

The silver lining about having to send an apology email is that some marketers say that they are some of their best performing emails. I suppose it’s rubbernecking meets the inbox. For that reason, if you’ve made a big error and are apologizing for it, make it clear in the subject line. Even if someone wasn’t affected by the problem, they’re likely to open the email just to see what you’re sorry about.

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Here are some examples of apology email subject lines

Here are some examples of apology email subject lines from the past 12 months:

Barnes & Noble, 3/24 — Correction: This Week -- Coupons, Exclusive Twilight DVD Offer, Jonathan Kellerman, Walter Mosley, MoreSmartBargains, 3/20 — We apologize - here are more rewards for you. Road Runner Sports, 2/17/09 — Our Apologies. You Deserve This Gift. Harry & David, 12/26/08 — Correction: Up to 70% Off & FREE Shipping* on orders over $99 SmartBargains, 12/11 — Please Accept Our Apologies. Norm Thompson, 12/9 — Oops! We made a mistake - please accept 20% SAVINGS CompUSA, 11/19 — CORRECTION: New 19" Samsung LCD $149 (DVI, 3yr Warranty, Save

$100)

6gb

PC $549

Lillian Vernon, 11/16 — We Messed Up! Here's Your New Code for Our 15% Off Stockings Norm Thompson, 11/10 — We're sorry

SmartBargains, 10/23 — Please accept our apologies. Extra 25% off extended today. Walgreens, 9/30 — Correction: Weekly Ad Savings, Coupons & Bonus Offers Norm Thompson, 9/23 — Apologies for technical problems yesterday. FREE SHIPPING IS STILL AVAILABLE! Road Runner, 9/15 — Runner, we are truly sorry. Please accept this Chadwick’s, 8/8 — Special Bulletin: Our apologies and a limited-time offer! AbeBooks, 8/5 — We're Sorry - Here's a Coupon, Good Until August 19 J. Crew, 7/30 — With our apologies Chadwick’s, 7/15 — Please accept our sincere apologies Kmart, 7/2 — Correction: 4th of July Online Blowout Sale. 4 Days Only!

Ann Taylor, 5/9 — Technical difficulty for us

Neiman Marcus, 5/7 — Oops! The site is back up! Enjoy FREE SHIPPING at ANY price.

25% OFF for you!

3. Give them a reason to forgive you.

If you want to increase the effectiveness of your apology, give your subscribers a compelling reason to forgive you. You’ll notice that the majority of subject lines above included a reference to an incentive or reward.

For instance, if you have server problems that stop some of your customers from taking advantage of an email offer, extend the offer. That’s what SmartBargains did in a Dec. 12 email ( 1T UFig. 5 U 1T) when website sluggishness prevented some of their subscribers from activating the discount in their Secret Santa email. You don’t want customers to feel like they missed out because of your mistake.

4. Know when to use humor and when to be serious.

You can try to laugh off relatively minor mistakes, especially if your brand’s email personality is a little whimsical or jokey. People appreciate it when you poke fun at yourself, especially when no one was seriously impacted by your mistake. For instance, in a May 7 email ( 1T UFig. 6 U 1T), Neiman Marcus uses the image of a woman writing lines on a black board to inject a little humor into their apology. And in an Aug. 5 apology email (1TUFig. 7U1T), AbeBooks blames vampires for their problems telling subscribers about the latest book by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 However, the safer play in most cases for most

However, the safer play in most cases for most brands is a straightforward, sincere apology that shows that you respect your subscribers’ time.

5. When it’s really bad, have it signed by an executive.

When it’s serious, you escalate it—up to the head of customer service, to a VP, to the CEO. 2TFor instance, in a 2TJuly 30 email ( 1TUFig. 8U1T), J. Crew apologizes for website and call center problems in an email signed by two executives as a sign that they take the issue seriously. In a rather bizarre apology, an Aug. 13 Overstock email ( 1TUFig. 9U1T) used the CEO’s occasional column to apologize for a typo that apparently created an “inappropriate message.”

6. Don’t make excuses. Just fix the problem.

People don’t care why a problem occurred so much as what you’ve done or are going to do to fix it. For instance, in an Aug. 4 email ( 1T UFig. 10 U 1T), Spiegel assures subscribers that the “problem has been corrected.” Keep any explanation of what went wrong to a minimum, as J. Crew did in the previously mentioned apology email ( 1T UFig. 8 U 1T).

After you apologize—and preferably even before—make sure the problem is fixed. If you have to apologize repeatedly for the same problem, your customers won’t believe that you’re truly sorry. If you’re prone to deployment problems or coding errors, put a process in place to eliminate or at least reduce those errors. If your servers keep getting overloaded, find a way to expand your capacity.

7. Don’t make a mistake in the apology email.

This may seem obvious but we’ve seen this happen on more than one occasion. For example, on March 30, 2007, MLB sent an email with the subject line “Watch the Civil Rights Game LIVE on ESPN.” The email was completely blank. The next day they apparently tried to correct the mistake by resending the email, even using the same subject line. That email was also completely blank. If you’re really sorry, make sure that the apology email or any resend is flawless.

And this year, after sending a Dec. 11 email (1TUFig. 11U1T) that apologized for a malfunction in their Secret Santa email promotion, SmartBargains had to send another apology ( 1TUFig. 5U1T) when the response to the now-functional promotion overwhelmed their website. Although in this case the problems were different, the back-to-back apologies still looked bad.

Good Luck!

We hope that you’ll be able to avoid making any major mistakes, but if you find yourself needing to issue an apology, follow this advice and your subscribers will be more likely to forgive you.

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Creative Gallery Fig. 1: This Dec. 26 Harry &

Creative Gallery

Fig. 1: This Dec. 26 Harry & David email had the subject line “Correction: Up to 70% Off & FREE Shipping* on orders over $99” and followed an email earlier in the day for the same sale that had the subject line “After-Christmas SALE: Up to 40% OFF!” >1 TUBack U1T

SALE: Up to 40% OFF!” > 1 TU Back U1T Fig. 2: This Dec. 22 CompUSA

Fig. 2: This Dec. 22 CompUSA email didn’t indicate in the subject line that it was an apology email, but it included a prominent preheader text message. >1TU Back U1T

a prominent preheader text message. > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T: 206.774.0199 | www.smith-harmon.com

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 3: This July 15 Chadwicks email dedicated the

Fig. 3: This July 15 Chadwicks email dedicated the entire email to the apology and prominently featured an incentive to reengage affected subscribers. >1TU Back U1T

to reengage affected subscribers. > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T: 206.774.0199 | www.smith-harmon.com

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 4: Norm Thompson has created an email template

Fig. 4: Norm Thompson has created an email template for their apology emails, allowing them to respond quickly when mistakes or outages occur. Below is a Dec. 9 email. >1TUBack U1T

outages occur. Below is a Dec. 9 email. > 1TU Back U1T Fig. 5: In this

Fig. 5: In this Dec. 12 email, SmartBargains extends the maximum discount offered in their Secret Santa email. >1TU Back U1T

offered in their Secret Santa email. > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T: 206.774.0199 |

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 6: In this May 7 email, Neiman Marcus

Fig. 6: In this May 7 email, Neiman Marcus uses a little humor to try to recover from a site outage. >1TU Back U1T

to try to recover from a site outage. > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T:

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 7: In this Aug. 5 email, AbeBooks blames

Fig. 7: In this Aug. 5 email, AbeBooks blames vampires for their problems telling subscribers about the latest book by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. >1TU Back U1T

by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T: 206.774.0199 | www.smith-harmon.com

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 8: In this July 30 email, J. Crew

Fig. 8: In this July 30 email, J. Crew apologizes for website and call center problems and has the email signed by two executives for extra sincerity umph. However, the email doesn’t give subscribers any reason to accept the apology—and worse, the subject line, “With our apologies…” sets the expectation that there will be a reward or incentive in the email. >1TU Back U1T

be a reward or incentive in the email. > 1TU Back U1T Fig. 9: In this

Fig. 9: In this Aug. 13 email, Overstock has their CEO, Patrick Byrne, apologizing for a typo that lead to an “inappropriate message.” >1TUBack U1T

lead to an “inappropriate message.” > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T: 206.774.0199 | www.smith-harmon.com

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 10: In this Aug. 4 email, Spiegel assures

Fig. 10: In this Aug. 4 email, Spiegel assures subscribers that the problems affecting their site’s performance has been fixed, and they have the message signed by the president and CEO.

>1TU Back U1T

signed by the president and CEO. > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. | T: 206.774.0199 |

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 Fig. 11: In this Dec. 11 email, SmartBargains apologizes

Fig. 11: In this Dec. 11 email, SmartBargains apologizes for their Secret Santa email promotion not functioning properly. However, after sending this email, the response overwhelmed their website, prompting the need to send another apology ( 1 TUFig. 5U1T). >1TUBack U1T

another apology ( 1 TU Fig. 5 U1T ). > 1TU Back U1T Smith-Harmon, Inc. |

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009

Best Practices for Apology Emails April 2009 About the Author Chad White is the Research Director

About the Author

Chad White is the Research Director at Smith-Harmon, an email marketing strategy and creative

services agency. The founder and author of the 1TURetail Email BlogU 1T, Chad is an authority on email

marketing strategies and trends in the retail industry. He regularly writes research reports on

email marketing best practices and trends, is an Email Insider columnist for MediaPost, is an

active member of the Email Experience Council, and supports Smith-Harmon clients with his

advice and exclusive research.

About Smith-Harmon, Inc.

Smith-Harmon is a unique agency providing email marketing strategy and creative services.

Since its founding in 2003, Smith-Harmon has developed a stellar reputation for email expertise,

maximizing performance and driving results for leading brands from Alaska Airlines to Williams-

Sonoma. Service offerings include email strategy consulting that includes innovative engagement

tactics, training in-house teams to become email experts, and email creative services. Beyond

serving clients, Smith-Harmon is an active member of the email marketing community, helping to

develop best practices with its research and outreach efforts and its leadership roles with the

Email Experience Council and the Email Marketing Roundtable.

For more information, visit 1TU http://www.smith-harmon.com U1T