7 Epic Email Marketing Failures

Red Fail

Image by griffithchris via Flickr

Email gone wrong can get really ugly. There’s spamming people, there’s lack of permission, there’s confusing messages, and sometimes there’s just plain stupidity.

Here are several truly awful email marketing failures.

Read these and spare yourself the horror and embarrassment of these awful mistakes!

Me, me me! (an email marketing disaster)

So, a salesman really wants to win a company sales prize.  He sends out an email – telling his clients if they act soon they get a $25 certificate. Not bad, but the prize he would get  for winning the contest was much, much better. If you want to encourage people to do something, it should solve their problem, not yours.

Oops, no permission

I signed up for an event at a restaurant.  The place kept my name and started filling my inbox with coupons.  Event signup (particularly through a third party) doesn’t equal marketing permission.

Irrelevant offers

Attention marketers, sending ads for diapers to someone who just bought razors makes no sense.  How about a coupon for shaving cream instead?

BCC to everyone!

(Bangs head on desk).  I’ve seen people calling themselves experts say this, people on Linkedin, it’s everywhere. Do not use bcc to send marketing emails with Outlook or Mail or any other email software.  Use a proper ESP.

Oops, no content

An email newsletter recently arrived in my inbox, with only the words “message here.” Um, nope, not opening that.  It went straight to the trash folder.

Data failure (x3)

I got an email from an affiliate company warning me that their records showed I was using a tool that was being discontinued.  Actually,  I wasn’t using it at all.

Then last week LinkedIn emailed me suggesting I join 4 groups – 3 of which I already belong to.

Here’s another one; US Airways sent a reward email to the wrong list. Then, didn’t make it up to them in any way.

It’s electronic!

A car dealer sent out an email that was just one big image.  It looked blank if you had images turned off.  If you went to the trouble to download the image (which was very large), it was just a reproduction of a handout flier.

If you’ve been marketing offline, adapt your offline marketing to the web.  Don’t make, well, a “meatball sundae.”

What’s the biggest, worst email marketing failure you’ve seen? Or received?

How to Write Email Subject Lines That Get Opened


Library of Congress via Flickr

An email subject line is like the headline in an ad. It’s the first thing you notice – and the most important part of the entire message. It’s even more critical with email than with an ad.

If someone sees your ad, they may miss or ignore the headline, but be attracted by a photo or a sub-head.

With email, everything else is largely hidden.

If the subject line doesn’t say “open me!,” you’re sunk.

A writing tip from David Ogilvy

Whether in print or online, spend most of your time on your headline. To quote David Ogilvy (who never saw an email but knew a few things about headlines):

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar. -David Ogilvy

Good, bad, and ugly subject lines

Here are some sample email subject lines:

Stocks Set to Rebound After Yesterday’s Fall

The problem with this headline is that it tells you the entire story. There’s no need to click and read the entire email. I already know the market went down yesterday, and the headline tells me that they are expected to rise today.

Here’s another take on that same headline:

The Five Stocks That Survived The Market Slide

If the stock market has been sinking, knowing which stocks have retained their value is useful and important information.  Where do I click?

Or, what about this one:

Spark Business with Webinars, Podcasts, and Online Video

Looks like the email is about different ways to market your business.  All good tactics.  The trouble isn’t with the content.  The trouble is that they’ve given away the entire strategy in the subject line.  There’s really no need to read further.  OK, I can use these tools to promote myself, one, two, three, check.  Done.

What if we changed this a bit.  Make the headline say something like,

How to Spark More Business

With that headline,  you won’t know what the tools are unless you open the email.

Here’s another one:

5 Ways to Break the Rules of Email Marketing

It promises I can break some rules, but there’s absolutely no way to tell what I’ll gain by doing it. I also can’t tell whether the rules are legitimate or foolish.  What if, instead, the headline made a promise about how I can be more successful by breaking the rules.  Say something like:

Profit From Breaking Email Marketing Rules – 100% Legal!

Makes you wonder what the rules are, how you can make money, and reassures you that it’s legal (you’re not spamming anyone).  The contradiction between doing something that sounds dodgy, and knowing that it’s perfectly legal gets your attention. You now want to open that email to find out exactly what you need to do to increase your profits.

In each case, the new subject lines work because they engage emotions, tell a story, or promise one.  You can do this by arousing curiosity, creating a mystery, setting up a contradiction, or promising useful information. And that’s why emails with these subject lines get opened.

Got a favorite email subject line? Or a question about writing them?  Ask in the comments.


Email Marketing Mistakes: Signs Your Newsletter Has Lost Its Way

maze image

Image thanks to svilen001

Even the most experienced email marketers can make mistakes (it’s OK).

If you do, the best thing to do is to admit it and correct it.

For example, I got an email yesterday from a top-notch internet marketer and copywriter.  He said that he’d gotten a complaint that he was pitching too much, and offering too little content in return.  He wanted to know (and I applaud him for this) if he’d lost his way.  If so, he wanted to fix it.

Here’s how to tell if your email newsletter marketing has gone wrong and some tips for fixing it.

Selling too much

People don’t sign up for pitches – they sign up for information.  They want solutions to their problems: whether that’s how to set up a twitter account,  how to build an app, or tips for growing an organic vegetable garden.

Newsletter signups are giving you permission to talk (you did get permission, right?), but not to sell, sell, sell.

The internet marketer’s newsletters were helpful.  However, there was a problem. He sent one monthly newsletter, and then six or seven promotional emails. And, you couldn’t tell which was which.

Selling in newsletters, or along with newsletters, is fine.  Just mix it up.  As a general rule, send three or four informational, helpful emails for every promotional one.

Not interacting with your subscribers

Do you answer your emails? I realize this can be tough if you get hundreds of them, but if your inbox is not that full, send out answers to reader questions.  Heck, they could become topics (with permission, of course) for another newsletter or a blog post (a win-win for everyone).

No reader exclusives

If you want to sell more, give readers a reason to want to hear from you.  Why not an incentive in the newsletter itself? Make subscribing special by offering something non-subscribers don’t get. Get raving fans.

  • Special offers available only to subscribers
  • First look at new products
  • Sign up for separate advance notice discount list
  • Offers that are fun: the Leave the Office Early Day sale!
  • First crack at entering a contest

No product tips/success stories

Show your readers proof your product works, or share tips on better ways to use it

  • regular updates (in the newsletter) on success other customers have had
  • send cheat sheets or point out hidden “easter eggs”
  • point out new ways your other customers have used your product

Essentially, make sure you engage with your readers.  Bring them in to the conversation (and make it a conversation, rather than a speech), encourage their feedback, and respond to their questions or concerns.

If there is a problem, address it quickly, particularly if it’s a bug or a public failure (your site is down for an extended period, you’ve been hacked, etc).

Share your thoughts

What do you think?  How do you handle your email newsletters?  How often do  you send newsletters?  Marketing messages?

Is Your Email Viral or Vile?

Viral tegument

Viral tegument (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An old adage says that happy customers tell three people. Unhappy customers tell 11 people. Viral marketing depends on using word-of-mouth, social networks (in-person or online) and email to spread ideas and information. And, in this age of social media, email marketing failures can spread faster than ever.

As in the real world, viruses can be helpful, or downright nasty. Remember that statistic? Three people if you’re happy; 11 if you’re not. Here’s what happened and how to avoid this email marketing mistake.

Is this email viral? Or is it vile?

A friend got a holiday email from a client a few months ago, which she forwarded to me.

It was addressed “Dear [name of company]  friend,”

It thanked her for being part of their family of customers, partners, and friends. Then, it directed her to a link. The link led to their web site, where holiday music played and the background showed all their offices worldwide.

It wasn’t personalized. Don’t you greet your friends and family by name?  Personalizing your emails make them more, well personal, more human.  Personalizing isn’t hard to do.  It’s just adding a simple field in your email form.

Are you being human and helpful? Or annoying?

But, this email wasn’t really about human connections.  It was all about the company sending it.

There was nothing to interact with except to see more… about them. How many offices they have, the number of people they employ.

It was entirely self-focused.  In fact, the only thing remarkable about it is how bad it was. The only reason I kept clicking was “for science.”

Is your email about you? Or about your customers?

Was it supposed to be viral? Make people care? Feel good about the company?

Is that the right way to interact with your customers? And make them feel good about being your customers in the first place?

I don’t know how many people saw this email, or if my friend sent it to other people as well, but I do know I’d never hire this company.

What do you think? How could they have done better?

Avoid These Seven Common Email Marketing Mistakes

email marketing mistakes

Email newsletters are a great way to keep in touch with your prospects, get speaking engagements, and establish yourself as an expert.

It can be really tempting to take shortcuts when you use email marketing. After all, it’s so easy. Email is also cheap to send! And you can harvest address without paying anything at all! Free leads!

Sure, email marketing is easy and cheap and can be a great way to market your business without busting your budget.

However, if you’re just starting out, it’s easy to make “newbie” errors.

Before you press that send button, here are seven common email marketing mistakes to avoid (and how to fix them).

1. Cold email marketing

This means sending your newsletter or promo emails to people who didn’t sign up for them.

That includes people in forums, people you met at events, people you’ve been working with on a project, and email addresses from project group emails. It also includes searching the internet for contact information or buying (not renting) lists of email names, then sending email to the people you find.

It’s technically legal in the US. However, it will be perceived as spam and perception is what counts. Think of it this way, the FDA tells us that irradiated vegetables are perfectly safe. Doesn’t matter whether they really are. Nobody wants to eat them.

Try it in Canada and you could be in big trouble.  They’ve recently enacted a tough anti-spam law which requires implied (or express) consent for any contact. Implied consent can include handing you a business card or publishing contact information.  Express consent is written permission.  More on this on the Canadian fight spam website.

Whether it’s in the US or elsewhere, it’s also likely to get your email address blacklisted and your account suspended. Then, none of your messages (even the legitimate ) will get through.

2. Using cc to send marketing emails

You get an email addressed to you and 20 other people. The person who sent it ccd everyone, rather than bcc. Some of those names and companies look awfully tempting.

They could be prospects. You could sell them stuff!. It’s a bad idea. If you really think you can help them, ask for an introduction from the person who sent the email. A warm contact is better than a cold one.

3. Using Outlook for email marketing

Do not use Outlook (or Mail or Thunderbird) to send mass emails. You’ll have to add and remove names manually. It’s easy to make a mistake and cc (rather than bcc) your list or not remove people quickly enough.

Letting people who don’t know each other see each others’ email addresses is unprofessional and makes you look like a newbie. Don’t bcc either.

Instead, use an ESP (email service provider). They’ll automatically add subscribers who opt-in, remove people who opt-out, and make sure that your subscribers don’t see each other. You’ll never have to worry about sending addresses in the open by mistake, or to people who asked for them. I use AWeber (affiliate link) for this. Really, it’s worth the few dollars for peace of mind! Any of these services will automatically add or remove names, and include the opt-out link.

4. No affiliate link disclosure

In the US, you must disclose if you have an affiliate relationship.  Even if you’re not in the US it’s a good idea (in my opinion) to disclose your relationships. And, you can have fun with it. I like to say I get milkshake money. Chris Brogan calls it beer money.

5. No address

To comply with CAN-SPAM, you’ll need a physical address listed in every email. A P.O. box is OK. Just include it in your email at the bottom. A reputable email service provider will do this automatically.

6. One email, eight topics

I know, there’s a big fight about short copy vs. long copy (for sales letters, for blog posts, and for emails). It’s not a new fight. However, it is true that it’s harder to read large blocks of text online. Keep it within a page or a page and a half (about 500-600 words). Break up the text into small bits so it’s easier to read.

If you’ve got lots of news, spread it out over several emails. Just think, this way you’ll have eight newsletters’ worth without any extra work.

7. Being irrelevant

You may be excited about your new cat, Miss Eartha Kitty, but your subscribers signed up for design tips. Keep your emails focused on what your prospects and clients want to hear from you. If you like, put Miss Kitty up on Flickr, and send the link to your friends.


I looked in my spam folder some time ago and found a message from Technorati. Definitely not spam.  I think the images were the problem.  Check your outgoing messages (email newsletters) with spam checker or another tool to minimize the chance they’ll get stuck. And, send a plain text version (this also works better for mobile users).

And remember, be careful out there (bonus points if you can identify the TV reference).