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How NOT to Send an Email: A Day We’d Rather Forget But a Story We Need to Tell

In this post Shayne and I share the back story how we mistakenly sent an email to almost a million people that should have gone to a few thousand – (and we then share what we did about it).

From Shayne: Wednesday the 10th of April 2013 was a day I will never forget – for all the wrong reasons.

It was a brain draining day for me.  A huge business decision was made in the morning, followed by spirited discussions, followed by lots of work and climaxed in dramatic style.

A new deal had just been loaded on SnapnDeals and it was time to let our several thousand subscribers know about it via email.  The email was written, loaded, tested and good to go — so I thought.

I clicked send at around 7:30PM and headed for dinner.

About 30 minutes later I popped back into the office to finish up some work and immediately realised something wasn’t right.  I had over 400 out of office emails to an inbox that normally had only a handful.

With haste I jumped into our Aweber account and my heart sank.

I had sent the SnapnDeals email to ALL our lists. dPS, feelgooder and Problogger.  Almost a million people!

Not good. Not good at all.

Now that I have that admission out of my system (you can stop blaming Darren now) I wanted to share our actions and response to this no so happy moment so we can all learn from my mistake.

Step 1: Tell Darren

I didn’t really know what to expect from Darren because the situation wasn’t good. He was on holiday and this was the last thing he wanted to happen.  

I find you always really get to know someone at times like this and what I can share with you is that the perception that he’s the one nicest bloggers on the planet – when push comes to shove it is 100% true. 

His response… “It happens… let’s fix it”.  

From Darren: I was just settling down to watch some TV on our second last night of our vacation when my iPhone began to buzz incessantly with incoming emails – I knew something was up and on checking my inbox I knew pretty quickly what had happened.

The incoming emails were a mixture of direct emails from subscribers complaining of spam and unsubscribe notices from Aweber – mainly from ProBlogger readers – with comments that indicated they were not happy.

I was just logging into Aweber to see how many people had been emailed when Shayne’s text message came through.

My reaction: the first reaction was panic – seeing people quickly unsubscribe from a list you’ve put years into building up will do that – but I quickly realised we needed to react quickly and that panic and negative feelings wouldn’t get us anywhere.

Step 2: Evaluate Quickly

From Shayne: Every moment we waited to act was hurting us that little bit more. Together we quickly explored options.

  1. Hold our nerve and respond to anyone that contacts us directly
  2. Broadcast through social media and other channels about the issue
  3. Email people we mistakenly emailed, explain the situation and deal with the consequences.

We decided to do all three.

From Darren: Time was of the essence. Luckily for us this happened early in the evening here in Australia and most of our subscribers were asleep in the US – but the stream of negative emails and unsubscribes was constant and I wanted to react fast.

Even as I chatted with Shayne I drafted an email that I began to send in response to every person who was emailing me to complain or who had unsubscribed and left a comment via Aweber.

The email was short, apologised and briefly explained the situation.

I also tweeted about it pretty quickly to the ProBlogger account and also added updates to Facebook and Google+.

I was also pretty sure I wanted to email those who shouldn’t have received the email – however my reservation was that in doing so we may be accused of pulling the old ‘we made a mistake’ trick that some email marketers do by making a self serving mistake in their marketing.

While being seen to use that tactic wasn’t something I wanted to happen I could also see that by NOT emailing we’d do even more damage.

Step 3: Act

From Shayne: Darren immediately shared the news on social media as we set about writing a follow up email explaining what had happened.  About 20 minutes later that email was on its way. Nerves were high – and yes, I had to get Darren to hit the send button!  But it was also a relief to be clearing things up.

From Darren: Everything as though it was going in slow motion at this point – I couldn’t hit send on that email fast enough and as Shayne says – it was a relief to get it out!

Step 4: Watch

From Shayne: As the email was being delivered we both monitored all inboxes to understand the response our follow up email was having.  For the most part our pro-activity and transparency achieved the response we had hoped.

such as…

“I LOVED this message! I’ll take it as a benchmark of what to do when something wrong happens – because it often does, to all of us ;)

When I received the SnapnDeals email I was puzzled, but I wouldn’t have known it had a connection with you – we receive so much spam, anyway… so I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Receiving this apology, on the other hand, immediately caught my attention and had a very positive impact. It showed how a company or a consultant that cares for their contacts should behave, and made me not only sympathize with you all, but also admire your professionalism on a new level.

I learned a lot, thank you and congratulations!”

There were a few that assumed we were strategically manipulating the situation.

“And by sending this ‘mistake’ out you inadvertently introduce your readers to your SnapnDeals site. Tisk tisk – shame on you Darren. A transparent marketing effort and a unprofessional marketing effort. “

Which we knew was going to happen.

We did lose some subscribers but we minimised the damage and being open an honest about what had happened.  

From Darren: the reaction from subscribers was pretty amazing. Within seconds of the email and social media updates going out we began to see reactions. They were overwhelmingly positive.

I’ve had hundreds of emails come in from those who received the Apology email and 99% of them were positive including some common themes:

  • Don’t be too harsh on the person who made the mistake
  • It’s good to see that even ‘ProBloggers’ make mistakes
  • Thanks for your transparency and admitting the mistake

Of course it wasn’t all positive – as Shayne mentioned, some did see this as a marketing ploy. I responded to each person personally when they reacted this way. My response was to explain there is no way I would risk a brand as important to me as ProBlogger to drive a little traffic over to a side project on a completely irrelevant topic to ProBlogger readers.

The costs of this saga were certainly higher than any unintentional benefits we may have received.

Thankfully though, while we continued to have some unsubscribes they slowed down a lot immediately.

Step 5: Share

From Shayne: Darren and I both like to share our experiences so without even having to say it, we knew this had to be written about on ProBlogger.  Not only to show you how not to run an email campaign, but also share that when something goes wrong, getting on the front foot and owning the issue, in the long run, is going to minimise the harm.  

It’s a story that I’m sure Darren and I will chuckle about in years to come, but also a story I hope we all can remember just before we hit that send button.

From Darren: There was never a question of not sharing this story. For starters we told many of you already with our apology but interestingly another of the common responses from subscribers was them telling their own mistakes (it seems we’re not the only ones to make this mistake).

Step 6: Learn

From Shayne: Now that we know what’s possible Darren and I will look as way’s we can make sure this doesn’t happen in the future. We might look at separating out the accounts on Aweber or putting a few extra checks in place before we send out emails.  

Either way we need to adjust what we do as I hope you’ll all forgive me this once, but should it happen again you have my complete permission to get angry.

So that’s my wonderful 10th of April.  I’m sure there’s a few more email catastrophe stories out there waiting to be shared!  

It’ll make me feel better if you do :)

From Darren: The thought of this happening again sends shivers down my spine. I’ve been at this long enough to know that honest mistakes do get made (I’ve made plenty) however the keys in this are to:

  • Learn from those mistakes
  • Own the mistakes and to get on the front foot in responding
  • Look for ways to turn the mistakes into postives

The last thing I’d say is that the mistakes you make – and how you respond to them – in many ways define you.

As I look back over the years at the times I’ve messed up it is often these moments that drive me most to improve, to change and to better what I do.

These are also the moments that others remember most – so how you move through these times is a really important part of building your brand (and character).

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. This is a great lesson to be learnt. Own up to your mistakes and find a way to solve it instead of wasting all of your energy moaning about who to blame.

    I’m glad everything went well for you at the end Darren.

    • Neha Jobs says:

      hi Darren, I agree with your thoughts.
      I always take the time out to reply to clients and potential clients out of common courtesy. You know what they say about ‘not burning bridges’. I think the same applies in the context of email communication.

  2. I appreciate your honesty and transparency. This is why I’m a loyal fan of ProBlogger. Keep up the great work guys.

  3. You are Awesome !!! Darren…..How calmly you handled this is an example, which shows why you considered as “Pro” when we talk about blogging and email marketing….

    Hey AWeber : are you listening to this? put a system in place which ask for a confirmation in form of a POP -UP ….like YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEND THIS to THIS LIST and AT TIME with THIS SUBJECT LINE

  4. Lori says:

    wow, did this post need a copyedit. kudos for the openness and apologizing, but it’s heaping bad upon bad to have it look so unprofessional with all the typos and grammatical errors.

    • Janet Huey says:

      Gee,Lori, your post is missing two words that need capitalization and your last sentence is referred to as
      a run on sentence.

  5. It happens. Apparently to all of us.

    Did you do a count on how many subscribers you lost and how many subscribers you potentially saved by doing the preventive social media announcements and email?

    A great learning lesson nevertheless.

  6. Theresa says:

    Both Shayne and Darren handled themselves like Pros! Great reactions to an honest mistake!

  7. sandi says:

    …who works, makes a mistake…

    Thankfully, people understand this – some of them do not.

    Similarly, it happened to me, but to learn from mistakes

  8. Well done Darren.

    Admit the mistake, learn, move on.

    As for any UNSUBS, no worries. Why? These people did not trust you, and since you act with integrity, and are trustworthy, these impatient folks were bad matches. Or they simply do not trust themselves and project on you.

    Thanks!

    Ryan

  9. Ah, the price of being human….

    I’ve made many a mistake in my former corporate life, and I’m still making plenty now in my entrepreneurship realm. It’s refreshing to see that A) it happens to everyone and B) it’s ok to forgive and move on!

    Thanks for sharing.
    Lisa

  10. Siegfried says:

    I had no idea such horrors happen in Aweber world, LOL
    best regards!

  11. Edward says:

    I think trends speak louder than limited instances of things like this. Your rep is high enough I didn’t give it a second thought and liked how it was handled. I’ve been in both positions before and know how things get perceived, but more importantly, how it gets forgotten under the trend of good work. Those that left probably weren’t in deep anyway and were a bit hyper sensitive. Again, is this your 80 or your 20, and if they can’t see that, then they weren’t really watching anyways.

  12. Abbie says:

    I didn’t think it was that big of a deal in the first place from my end!

  13. Hi,

    I am one of the people who say ” Opps! pro blogger made mistake too”. This horror story remind me of my own mistake where I misplaced a important document at work. It took triple the time to recover that document and that experience definitely not a pleasant one.

    However, we did learn and came out with a system to store our document and this system greatly reduce the probability the document went missing ( in fact it didn’t happened since). I guess something we learn more from horror experience than pleasant experience.

    Anyway, it is all about trust when thing like this happened. No doubt there will be people thinking that mistake is a marketing ploy but I think your explanation is valid. The return from spamming people compare to the problogger brand is insignificant and make no sense for someone to do that stunt.

    It is good that now thing are settling down, and I will be looking forward to your new post while digging around your blog for those old classic.

    /Kian Hwee

  14. Steve says:

    As the tradesmen say, “measure twice, cut once” in our rush to get-it-done we can undo good work.

    I don’t think you did in this case. I think it says something about in what esteem people hold your various brands in how the majority responded.

    I’ve had that same ‘sinking’ feeling with a very large email list I manage seconds after it says ‘email sent’. Scrambling. Wondering, how I can hover the email back up the email pipe to fix the screamingly obvious typo.

    All you can do is say sorry until you think you’ve said it too many times (then most people have heard it), be on the front foot and move on!

  15. Ha haaaaa!

    It’s hilarious what happens when you let humans run your company.

    I think the way you handled it was bigger than the problem itself.

    Its one of the things I learned about marketing from college.

    The real opportunity is not when things go well but when something goes wrong.
    Think about how your feel after you report a problem to your favorite restaurant.

    If they handle you poorly then you usually vow to never return.
    If they treat you well then you become the loyal zealot.

    You guys handled this not that big of a problem extremely well.
    I think it sets a great example though from a transparency standpoint.

  16. I was one of those that said it actually helped to see a problogger ,are public mistakes as it does take the pressure off. We live in a day where everything is so immediate and public and people seem to be so unforgiving of errors. It is normal to make mistakes and the key is to learn from them which you are doing. Thanks for sharing with us.

  17. Saanvi says:

    I agree with your thoughts.
    I always take the time out to reply to clients and potential clients out of common courtesy. You know what they say about ‘not burning bridges’. I think the same applies in the context of email communication.

  18. Meh – mistakes happen. You realized it and dealt with it, and while it probably seemed big at the time, it’ll be no more than a blip on your radar in a few weeks. Some people will overreact, because some people always overreact. If they truly don’t get enough value from your list to deal with the occasional mistake, let them unsubscribe and be done with things :)

  19. Loving your openness. I don’t know any marketer who hasn’t screwed up on email, from broken links, to typos, to sending to the wrong data.

    As I work at an email provider, we’ve often considered different ways to help avoid this stuff, and built a few bits in to the system, such as the ‘ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO SEND X TO X’ feature referenced above by Shanker.

    BUT: sending campaigns myself, I’ve worked my fave way (so far) to avoid this. Split test something in every campaign. That minimizes the risk as the versions go to a portion of the database, giving you testing time of an hour or so, before it goes to everyone else.

    Also, what are people’s thoughts on sending ‘sorry about the last email’ to everyone the wrong email was sent to – or do you think they should go triggered just to those who opened?

    P.S – you have given me a fab content idea. Thank you!!!

  20. One of the best lessons I learned when I had my first grown up job was that if you make a mistake, tell someone immediately when it can be fixed. By delaying or hiding, it makes it harder to fix a mistake later.

    What’s hilarious is that mistakes I’ve made that I was convinced would freak people out were received with a “it happens” response. Since then, I’ve always wanted to work for and with people who always kept things in perspective and didn’t allow a mistake to equate to a meteor crashing into the planet.

    Great right up. I think this is one of my favorites. Reminds me that we’re all human and Shit Happens :)

  21. beachmama says:

    Horrifying! Handled well . . . as expected from ProBlogger.

    What have you put in place to prevent a recurrence?

  22. Wayne says:

    I think that receiving anything dodgy from a reputable brand would make think that there was a problem. Never would I think that it was a cheap marketing ploy. Those who engage your brand Darren would know. Probably you inadvertently pruned those who weren’t engaged anyway.

  23. Clarabela says:

    Mistakes happen and that’s how we learn.

  24. siddharth says:

    I agree with your thoughts. thanks

  25. Honesty is the best policy. A moral instilled in me by my parents, and very true.

  26. Carol Smith says:

    I loved hearing about this story. Stuff happens. It’s how you deal and adjust that matters the most. I crafted an email on behalf of the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. The CEO had made one word change to my draft but that one edit was critical. Sigh. I sent out the unedited email instead to news sources and the entire HP employee base. Hey, it’s only the world. Gulp. Anyhow, I knew immediately what I’d done (don’t you just wish there was a retract button on email?).

    How did I solve it? I immediately went to the CEO and confessed what I’d done and explained it was a mistake. The CEO of HP understood and probably no one else in the world even noticed.

  27. Danny says:

    Darren, very true of how I reacted, also.

    When I got the email and the apology, the first thing I thought was that you and the Problogger team are the least likely people to go and ” spam bomb ” their email list…

    So, when I read the apology and saw your name, I was going to send a return email (or comment on your site) saying “no harm no foul”….

    If it were someone else, it would have been a different story….the reason is that, currently I am being crushed under the weight of spam emails being sent by certain people, who have really gone over the top… and in their cases, I will be hitting that “unsubscribe link” …….

  28. Thanks for sharing. And letting us see the Pro in Problooger! :)

  29. Roger says:

    Well there was this one time that I mistakenly emailed A BILLION people about a new male enhancement product.. boy did that make a lot of people angry.

    Just kidding. Hah, sorry, I can’t outdo your story!

  30. Laura Jane says:

    I don’t think I would have even noticed the extra e-mail, but I am glad to know I’m no the only one who makes mistakes. It’s a little scary how quickly a mistake can be made as soon as you hit the “send” button. My biggest mistake thus far is that soon after I started my mailing list (before I had made a dime), I was trying to save money by not using an actual e-mail list manager like aweber. I was using feedburner to send out my posts and then would export the e-mail addresses to Excel, filter out the unconfirmed ones, and then cut and paste into the e-mail. I was sending a promised freebie, and at the time I had a little less than 400 subscribers. In my hurry and brain fog to get the e-mail out at 5:30 am before I left for work, I cut and paste the e-mail addresses into the “to:” field instead of the “bcc:” Whoops! Only two people responded with a complaint, and I don’t think I had a huge number of unsubscribes. Needless to say, by that night, I forked over the $15/month and was all set up with Madmimi.

  31. Well, last time I checked, Daren & Shayne, you guys were still human–which means you still make mistakes. I kind of wondered about it, but then the apology made all things clear again. I think the saying “don’t sweat the small stuff–& it’s almost all small stuff” is pretty much on target here. It’s not like yall inadvertently sent a nuclear warhead speeding off to blow some unfortunate part of the worl to smitherines or something similar.

    Most all sermons on the “prodigal son” focus on the dad. Few focus on the son & his willingness to admit he was wrong, ask forgiveness, & draw up a plan to make restitution. Much can be learned from that, & the lesson was clearly not lost on yall.

    5 years from now yall will both probably laugh at this. My opinion is you may as well start sooner.

    Whatever you do, be blessed.

  32. Louisa says:

    When I got the apology email I wanted to write back to you to say “no big deal and in fact, thanks! – I had registered that you had started snap’n'deals but hadn’t had a moment to look at it properly so your email was a good reminder’ – I agree with the other commenters that it is your integrity and strong personal ethic which impacted my response – it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be a marketing effort on your part as that is the antithesis to the way you work. Appreciate your transperancy and willingness to share your experience – we’re all human!

  33. Hello, I did not notice the first email (SPAM is SPAM and is constant), but did notice the apology. I didn’t for a second think it was a manipulation. And I was interested in reading your story. We have all been there and made mistakes. I have had marketing jobs for large companies and these things (sadly) happen. Your follow-up was great and I hope the price you paid for this was not too big.

  34. “I thought I made a mistake, once, but I was wrong…”

    Show me a person who has never made a mistake, and I will show you a person who has done nothing. I barely glanced at the firs e-mail. Not my field of interest, but not a glaring SPAMMY!!!! heading.

    Only realized the problem with the second e-mail. I think anyone who would unsubscribe from a list after one such e-mail is being a little precious an perhaps worth being without.

    It is not the size of the mailing list, it is the quantity and quality of the responses that matters…

  35. Miki Vicioso says:

    Can happen to any of us, wonder how you stopped the flow of emails from being sent or they just went through to everybody? anyways, good that you fixed it.

  36. Tracey Grady says:

    Here was my thought process upon receiving the accidental email:

    ‘What’s this? I don’t remember subscribing to something called SnapNDeals. Spam, obviously.’

    I immediately went to unsubscribe, which was when I saw that it came from ProBlogger.

    ‘ProBlogger! That’s not like them. Oh well I won’t subscribe but if I get something else like this I’ll give it some more thought.’

    Not long afterwards, the apology email arrived.

    ‘Ok, it was a mistake. Not to worry, these things happen. I’m glad it wasn’t spam after all.’

    Why did I cut you guys some slack and not automatically take it as a cynical marketing ploy? Because over time you have successfully built up a good level of trust and goodwill. You’re not in the habit of pulling dodgy marketing stunts, and you are straight about the ups and downs of blogging and email marketing, so the mea culpa seemed to be just that. Well done on a great response.

  37. Michael says:

    Oh man. I can’t imagine how bad your heart sunk. I know what that feels like, but probably not to that extent.
    Crazy!

  38. John Houser says:

    Oddly enough, this accident has been coined the “Oops Email Campaign”. It happens to even the best of us and your reaction was seamless. When it happened to me, it generated a nearly 100% increase in sales so it’s not always a bad thing.

  39. The stress levels must have been sky high after you started receiving the first unsubscribes and realising what had happened!

    A great response guys and something we have put into place in case something like this happens to us (praying it won’t).

    It has also made us look at other areas where mistakes have been/could be made and how we would deal with them, so we have everything in place to respond as quickly as possible.

  40. LeAnna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story! Even reading the first paragraph gave me that sick feeling in my stomach I remember getting after hitting send on emails with mistakes. Thank you for sharing how you handled it with grace and transparency- the risks you took to repair the damage definitely paid off and will be a lesson to me in the future! (crossing my fingers that something like this doesn’t happen anytime soon!)

  41. I can’t help but wonder – Did Darren get to finish his vacation!? :)

    Seriously, thank you for sharing and letting us learn from your less than ideal moment! A lesson in grace for us all. Mistakes remind us we’re human beings with minds, bodies, and souls as opposed to senseless, unfeeling robots. When we remember our humanity, I think that should remind us all to have a bit of mercy.