My Top 5 Favorite Apology Emails

Chad White on
  • Categories: Channel: Email Marketing, Email Marketing, Email Marketing Column, How To Guides: Email Marketing
  • Email marketing mistakes are not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Email is too dynamic, too complex, and too quick a medium to avoid mistakes completely. So given this inevitability, it pays to be prepared for the worst.

    When trying to recover from an email marketing mistake, your action plan may include sending an apology email. A good apology email does three things:

    1. Says that you’re sorry.
    2. Explains what went wrong (and perhaps provides reassurances that it won’t happen again and, if appropriate, that no data was compromised).
    3. Gives subscribers a reason to forgive you.

    With that in mind, here are my top five favorite apology emails from over the years.

    5. Fab

    On Aug. 3, 2014, retailer Fab sent an email with the subject line “[TEST] PM Tracking Test” to all of their subscribers. That email contained the image of a cat, and nothing else except for their usual header and footer.

    I would argue that this email was obviously a mistake — and a cute mistake at that — and therefore represented little risk to Fab in the form of spam complaints or subscriber unhappiness. In light of that, I would not have recommended sending an apology email.

    However, Fab did, anyway — and it was a pretty epic apology. Fighting fire with fire, Fab recovered from sending a random test email with a cat image in it by sending a humorous cat-filled apology email.

    While they used humor in explaining the mistake and saying they were sorry, they also gave subscribers a reason to forgive them in the form of a 10-percent-off offer. They concluded the email on a more serious note to reassure subscribers that they were indeed taking the mistake seriously.

    Two caveats: First, if your brand isn’t known for having a sense of humor, then don’t try to be funny in your apology. You’re better off playing it straight.

    And second, this apology email is so great that it smells a bit like a pre-planned apology for a manufactured mistake. This has unfortunately become more commonplace in recent years.

    Because apology emails tend to grab subscribers’ attention — who doesn’t delight in the mistakes of others a little bit? — some brands have started planning small mistakes for the sole purpose of apologizing for them and getting a bump in email response.

    Since it’s difficult to measure the long-term brand damage done by routine apologies, my advice is to save your goodwill for when you actually make a mistake.

    4. OfficeMax

    On June 15, 2012, OfficeMax sent an email with the subject line “Last 2 Days to Save 20% + First Look at June 10 Ad.” You can tell from the subject line alone that something’s not right.

    I’m getting a peek at the June 10 ad when it’s already June 15? It turns out that OfficeMax had accidentally resent an email from the previous week that was full of expired deals.

    What they did next is really interesting. Because they were able to recognize this mistake quickly, they were able to update all of the image files used in the email to turn this outdated email into an apology email.

    Gmail’s move to cache images has made this tactic less effective, but updating image files is still an effective way to alter email content and minimize the impact of incorrect content post-send.

    Marketers can also sometimes redirect links and clarify offers on landing pages to avoid the need to send an apology or correction.

    3. The Sharper Image

    On Oct. 12, 2006, The Sharper Image sent a $20 off $60 purchase offer to promote a store in San Antonio. Unfortunately, they messed up the geo-segmentation and sent the coupon for the San Antonio store to everyone nationwide.

    That’s not a very relevant message to anyone not in the 210 area code. Plus, it makes those subscribers feel like they’re missing out on an offer that others are getting.

    The Sharper Image recognized the risks here and sent an apology email with the subject line “Oops! Texas isn’t THAT big! Save $20 anywhere” and provided a coupon that was good in any store. (Email flashback: Check out this 2006 design aesthetic.)

    They used a bit of humor to laugh at themselves, but then they gave subscribers a reason to forgive them. These kinds of mistakes can be costly and mess up a brand’s promotion plans, but taking a good deal away from subscribers is sure to breed resentment and lead to unsubscribes and fewer store visits.

    The best course is almost always to extend the deal to everyone.

    2. Shutterfly

    On May 14, 2014, Shutterfly sent an email congratulating new moms. However, instead of going to the women that they’d identified as just having had a baby, the email was broadcast to all their subscribers.

    While Shutterfly’s mistake was nearly identical to The Sharper Image’s, the ramifications of Shutterfly’s error was much more serious.

    Very quickly, the email sparked negative buzz on social media, particularly from recipients of the email that had had miscarriages or infertility issues. This email caused them genuine pain, and they made their pain known.

    Within hours, national media had picked up the story, with some of the articles being shared thousands of times.

    It was a tough situation that came from an innocent mistake. Shutterfly’s “all hands on deck” response included this wonderful apology email.

    This email is spot on because it’s brief and incredibly efficient. In just six sentences over two paragraphs, Shutterfly says that they’re sorry (twice), explains what happened, promises that corrective action has been taken and invites feedback.

    This email also does two things that I’ve seen repeated over the years when a brand wants to sincerely and seriously say they’re sorry: 1) They use mostly text. Nothing says sincerity like text. You’re not hiding behind or trying to distract with fancy images. You’re putting the focus on your words.

    And 2) the email is “signed” by a high-level executive at the brand. This apology is coming from a particular individual, not from the brand in general.

    When the mistake is bad, a person stepping up and taking responsibility sends the message that you’re not dodging accountability.

    But My Favorite Apology Email Is…

    The one that’s never sent.

    Ignoring pre-planned apologies sent in response to manufactured mistakes, brands are sometimes a little too quick to apologize for email marketing mistakes that are minor and easily understood as errors. Broadcasting an apology email brings more attention to the error when most of your subscribers won’t have seen or noticed it.

    Also, every broadcast email you send generates more unsubscribes and potentially more complaints, so marketers should be mindful of sending an email that doesn’t move a relationship forward.

    Here’s my litmus test for determining whether to send an apology email: Action is needed when an email marketing error significantly impairs subscribers’ ability to act on the message or causes significant brand damage by annoying, angering or offending subscribers.

    If a mistake doesn’t involve one or both of those conditions, then don’t send an apology email — just move on. If there’s any doubt, you can use your email analytics to determine if your subscribers’ ability to act has been significant impaired.

    And you can use subscriber feedback via social, your call center and other channels to determine if your brand image is at significant risk.

    All of this said, brands are far more likely to apologize for website outages than any kind of email mistake. And since the holiday season is here, it’s prime time for site meltdowns.

    So make sure you have your apology email template handy, that it’s up to date with the latest brand elements and navigation links and that you’ve tested it across every email client. I hope you don’t need it, but the chances are higher than normal that you will.


    About The Author

    Chad White
    Chad White is the author of Email Marketing Rules and Research Director at Litmus, a provider of email creation, preview, and analytics tools. He has written thousands of posts and articles about email marketing -- as a journalist at Condé Nast and Dow Jones & Co.; as a researcher and analyst at the Direct Marketing Association, Responsys, and Salesforce.com; and in his current role.