EDITORIAL: Dear Knee Jerk, Please Go Away

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Got a letter from Cox Communications Orange County last week on behalf of 30 Minute Photos Etc. apologizing for errant e-mail I may have received as the result of a technical glitch.


The letter and the incident that precipitated it are a classic example of how the Internet's whining politically correct faction has influence obscenely out of proportion to online marketers' offenses and how company executives are driven to growth-stunting policies as a result:


"Dear 30 Minute Photos Etc. Customer:


"I am writing on behalf of Cox Communications Orange County ("Cox") to apologize for a technical error that inconvenienced you.


"On December 27, 2000, you may have received multiple e-mail messages from 30 Minute Photos Etc. updating you about a new product offering.


"We have reason to believe that a problem with an e-mail server owned and operated by Excite@Home caused 30 Minute Photos Etc.'s e-mail messages to be sent repeatedly to the same recipients.


"However, we want to assure you that 30 Minute Photos Etc. intended only to send each of its customers a single e-mail product update."


The letter signed by Cox's vice president of business services repeats that Excite@Home was at fault and then apologizes again.


The reason for the letter as opposed to a cheaper and far more efficient e-mail was because 30 Minute Photos executives were so spooked by the incident that they thought it needed to be addressed offline.


What's more, Mitchell Goldstone, president of 30 Minute Photos, said late last month that he would disband the e-mail system 30 Minute Photos uses to communicate with its customers in favor of the telephone and mail.


"People were receiving scores of identical messages about how we can make prints directly from their digital cameras," Goldstone said. "Within hours it leaped to hundreds. Customers were asking to be removed from the distribution list, yet they still received more e-mails.


"My company's reputation has been weakened, and we learned a distressful fact that the Internet proved to be fallible," Goldstone said. "Reverting to the phone, we were afraid to explain the situation via e-mail."


Goldstone's reaction and Cox's letter are understandable. After all, we're in a business climate where the most vocal anti-spammers' knee-jerk flaming rants have weight, and the least little electronic-marketing transgression calls for executives to grovel.


And everyone reading this column can guess what prompted Goldstone to pull his firm's e-mail initiative and Cox to send an apology letter: reactionary e-mail from a few hypersensitive weenies with too much time on their hands.


Rather than send letters to everyone in the database and kill the company e-mail initiative, 30 Minute Photos could have responded in the following ethical, and far more profit-oriented, way:


Fix the problem and e-mail a short apology to everyone affected. And don't try to get the folks who asked to be removed from the e-mail list to resubscribe. They clearly perceived no value in staying on it, and the glitch simply pointed it out to them, so let 'em go. No point in straining e-mail administrators with useless traffic.


And finally, respond to the long-winded rants with the following letter:


"Dear Offended E-Mail Recipient,


"We apologize for sending you multiple e-mails with the same message. It was an honest mistake.


"Serendipitously, however, the incident has given us an opportunity to identify and clean our database of some unprofitable relationships.


"You see, one of the lessons we learned last year in the so-called dot-com advertising frenzy was that not all customers are worth having. Some don't buy enough and consume too much of our time. And frankly, the fact that you had the time and the inclination to write a two-page rant tells us you're too high-maintenance to do business with.


"So, please, don't ever shop with us again, online or off. We're also hoping you'll do what unsatisfied customers are known to do and tell 10 of your friends about your unhappy experience with us. After all, if they spend time with you, they also will have the time to write human-resource consuming rants. And we don't want their business, either.


"If you ever find yourself in need of services like ours again, please contact [insert competitor here]."
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