Shutterfly's email faux pas: When marketing automation goes wrong

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It happens to the best of us. With Big Data, CRM and marketing automation, more marketers trust templates. As a result, they push the responsibility and accountability of quality control down farther the food chain. While most mistakes are innocent, some HURT if you are on the receiving end of the wrong one, especially if it's from an opt-in digital marketing list.

This literally just happened to Shutterfly. Shutterfly is a wonderful company adored by many, including me. So imagine my surprise when my 16 year old boy, my wife, and I all received a personalized email addressed to each of our opt-in email accounts, congratulating each of us on becoming “new parents!” Oh boy. In a classic call for action, the direct e-mail which clearly was the result of great creative copy, asked if we want to create a birth announcement of our newborn. There only one problem: none of us, to the best of our knowledge, were pregnant (especially not me or my son). Now, my wife chuckled at the prospects of having a baby planned for us by Shutterfly without our knowledge. I forwarded it to Ben, my son, to ensure he was not the world's first pregnant man, and that he doesn't have something to tell us.

The very next day, in less than 24 hours, came the sincere and strong apology from Shutterfly's Chief Marketing Officer, John Boris, entitled “We're truly sorry for yesterday's email.” The apology letter continues to acknowledge that “We mistakenly sent an email yesterday that was intended only for new parents who recently made baby-related purchases at Shutterfly. We're truly sorry if you received this email in error. We realize this is a very sensitive issue and we did not mean to upset you in any way.”

Naturally, I am certain that Shutterfly didn't apologize for it without getting some nasty emails and phone calls from angry folks. I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that one might have felt if an email like that was received by someone who just miscarried, is infertile, or is just not interested in having babies. I truly commend Shutterfly on doing the right thing by owning the moment and issuing a sincere apology. I am staying on as their customer because they proactively managed their mistake.

The question for everyone else in marketing is: how does a BIG BRAND, with BIG DATA, and plenty of staff make such a BIG MISTAKE? Easy! The mistake is trusting Marketing Automation over Marketing Brains.

Here are three tips to avoid having marketing automation make your marketing operation go gaga.

  1. Marketing Automation and templates are great, but you still need a human that can read and proof the emails and digital marketing pieces for CONTEXT, BEFORE they go out.
  2. Marketing Databases are not bullet-proof. Verify that email merging fields are actually connected to your designated audience. Don't assume your system is accurate without doing a test mailer to your own account to see if something went awry.
  3. Establish a human chain of command in your marketing organization to ensure more than one pair of eyes, no matter how senior they are, have seen each piece before it goes out. It's better to have more proof-readers to ensure you make good mistakes instead of dumb ones.
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