US Data Corporation Direct Marketing Blog

9 Worst Marketing Emails Actually Received6:53 am

By US Data Corporation
Email marketing campaigns can be highly effective when targeted well, used sparingly, and presented in a professional manner. But as beneficial as they can be, they can also cause a lot of frustration for the recipient, embarrassment for the sender, and damage to a company's bottom line. With these 9 Worst Marketing Emails Actually Received, we hope you can learn both what to do -- and what not to do - with regard to your own marketing efforts. Good luck! 1. Anonymous Dance Instructor Definitely NOT Sleeping with his Students A reader at sent in her take on the dumbest email ever sent by a company, and while the site would not provide names, it did give a few juicy details -- or not so juicy, depending on how you want to look at it -- on what made the owner's missive a big-time marketing no-no. According to the email, the owner of a dance studio sent an email to a listserv of thousands, pitching some exciting classes that were on the horizon for the New Year as well as a few TMI details on his relationship to (wife?) Karen. Apparently, despite what the listserv may have heard, he was not maintaining an affair with a student.
"I know that I dance with many of the students but there is no significance to that dancing and I would appreciate if you would refrain from starting such rumors," the studio owner continued. "And Happy New Year, everyone."
Even if the owner's personal life reveal hadn't been so, well, revealing, this would have still been a marketing message he should have never sent. It's okay to be conversational and folksy with your customers, but this email brought way too much of the sender's life into a business communication that was intended to promote upcoming dance classes. There is a line separating folksy from TMI, and we think he crossed it in a big way. Source 2. You Have Been Accepted to UC San Diego (Kidding) In 2009, admissions personnel at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) fired off 28,000 acceptance emails before realizing they had the wrong group. The "administrative error," UCSD admissions director Mae Brown called it in comments to The Los Angeles Times, gave hope to students like Cole Bettles. Bettles was beaming over his false acceptance. According to the newspaper, his mother booked a hotel in San Diego, and the extended family made plans to meet him on campus. Right before bed on the same day he got the good news, he checked his email again to find a retraction. Universities may be institutes of higher education, but that does not exempt them from effective marketing. And the most effective marketing that a college or university of any kind can establish is a positive relationship with students and potential students from one generation to the next. While we've all sent an email to the wrong person at some point in our lives, those mistakes probably didn't have the same negative effect on the recipient as disappointing close to 30,000 college hopefuls. UCSD didn't sink as a result of the error, but given the fact this story made national headlines, we're betting they would like a do-over, so not to go down in modern history as "that school that accidentally accepted everyone." Source 3. The New York Times Begs You to Reconsider Your Cancellation It hasn't been easy in the newspaper business the last 10 years. Even papers like The New York Times have felt the effects of lost subscribers and dwindling print sales. In December 2011, the publication decided to do something about it but ended up marketing their plea to the wrong group. According to TechCrunch, NYT sent out a mass email on December 28 of that year asking non- and current subscribers to reconsider cancelling the print edition. In addition to confusing thousands of existing and potential customers, the message also had two unintended repercussions despite its good intentions. 1) It called attention to the fact they were losing sales, instantly creating an image in the non-subscriber's mind of "why should I consider subscribing?" 2) For the subscribers, who were still receiving the print edition, it planted a seed of doubt in their minds as to why they were continuing to pay for something other people were getting for free. In both cases, the staff didn't come across like they knew what they were doing, and clarification had to be made. Source

4. Unknown Client Shorthands Herself into a Corner

Business etiquette author and expert Lydia Ramsey shared this story on her blog concerning an anonymous reader, who fired off an embarrassing email via BlackBerry. The reader, as many of us do when sending emails on our smartphone devices, used shorthand and business lingo while replying to someone she thought was a colleague concerning an upcoming project. In reality, she was replying to the client -- again, check those recipient lines, people -- with a message stating her intent to follow up. Unfortunately, she said she would "f/up on this one," to which the client replied, "Well, that doesn't sound encouraging."

The reader said she agonized all weekend over the mishap, and called at "8:01" Monday morning. Luckily, the client laughed it off, but don't expect everyone to be so understanding. If you're not going to double-check those recipient lines, at least get in the habit of refraining from jargon and shorthand on a smartphone. Predictive type often thinks it knows best when in reality, it can leave you with a lot to explain.


5. MyLife Subscribers Offer Companies a New Way to Spam

Have you ever signed up for a new service, then gave said service permission to access your address book thinking they would hunt down people in your contacts, who are also part of the same network? Unfortunately, many newly minted social network users grant those permissions without realizing embarrassing situations, through no fault of their own, like this one can occur. Case in point, people connection service MyLife uses your permission as a cue for bombarding friends/business contacts/family members with invitation emails in your name.

Often these automated messages are directed into your contacts' spam boxes. If not, they usually end up there anyway. The example above is one of the worst types of marketing emails actually received because it takes users -- the people who've entrusted their private info to you -- and turns them into spam bots, thus building resentment and also causing their contacts to shy away from signing up. This type of email is only effective for connecting two mutual contacts, who have already signed up for your service. Don't overreach.


6. Jenny 'The Bloggess' Lawson Attacked By PR Guy

PR stands for "public relations." One PR guy could have used that reminder when he responded to a lead's rebuff by calling her a "f***ing b***h." While snark is one of Jenny Lawson's (aka "The Bloggess") strong suits, and that can set some people the wrong way, we doubt "Jose" from @BrandlinkComm should have approached her in this manner. The whole dispute started because Lawson was tired of receiving unsolicited emails from PR firms with the latest celebrity-did-this story. As a standard response, she would send an image of Wil Wheaton collating papers.

The person, who sent the message, then responded that Lawson's message wasn't "very nice." Lawson was prepared to leave it at that when the message from Jose came through. Two lessons here: 1) So someone doesn't want to be on your email list. Big deal. The world is a big place, and you can handle a few rejections -- even snarky ones. 2) Emails are permanent. You may not think they are, but they are. If you've got to get something like what Jose said off your chest, do it verbally to someone who isn't recording you.


7. Toyota's Sebastian Bowler coming to a City near You

In 2009, Toyota launched the fictitious outlaw Sebastian Bowler in a marketing scheme to advertise the Toyota Matrix. Bowler sent emails to opt-ins letting them know the police were after him, and he was coming to their house to hide out until things cooled off. Participants could use Bowler to "punk" their friends. Nice creativity, yes, but also a lawsuit waiting to happen, and that's exactly what occurred, according to CBS News.

L.A. resident Amber Duick was "punked" by Bowler and ended up suing Toyota for emotional distress. Duick maintained that Bowler was "stalking" her, going as far to send her a bill for damages he'd caused to a hotel and stating, "After I'm done visiting you, I'm going to go back and sort out that front-desk Muppet." Toyota claimed that the opt-in personality test gave them the right to have fun with their email list. Duick's defense complained that details of the marketing were buried in verbiage and thus "indecipherable." No word on how the case settled, but that's not the point. The point is, you don't want your marketing emails to cause potential customers undue stress and initiate a lawsuit.


8. Aviva Investors Announces Employee Terminations...for the Whole Company.

Dateline, April 2012. Rumors that UK-based Aviva Investors will restructure its entire board hang in the air. There is a feeling of uncertainty all around, but what happens next ends up sounding worse than anything the company's 1,300 employees could have imagined. Human Resources sends an email to everyone letting them know they're fired and contractually obligated to not disclose confidential information concerning how the company operates.

In closing: "I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and wish you all the best for the future." How nice. Needless to say, an apology email followed minutes later with the revelation the original message was intended for one employee and not the remaining 1,299. While this sounds like a personnel matter, personnel matters can quickly become marketing manners if you fail to exercise caution in internal communications. The moment a story like this one breaks into major news headlines -- this appeared in the UK's Telegraph -- you've set back the efforts of promoting a strong corporate image, and you haven't done much to improve employee morale.


9. Spirit Airlines Offers Lance Armstrong Dope Deals -- Too Soon? (a brand loyalty marketing firm) asked whether this effort from Spirit Airlines was "clever" or "clueless." We vote clueless, and here's why.

The "Tour de Fares" promotion made light of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal with a subject line that read, "Dope deals end tonight." Upon opening the message, recipients were greeted with a Livestrong bracelet and a "75% off flights" -- hold on, wait a minute, that's 7.5% off -- discount. Giving a man space to deal with deep personal turmoil would have been the high road here, but it's not the questionable lack of tact that has us shaking our heads.

No, it's the formatting of the message as a whole. Spirit Airlines chooses a font and color style that calls attention to the 75. While they do insert a decimal point between the 7 and 5, it's with a small red dot. The initial reaction in the reader's mind is, "Wow, 75% off. Then, when they take a closer look, they see 7.5% and think, "Big deal, it's sales tax!"

Lesson: Only market deals to your subscribers when you've got something worth marketing. A 7.5% discount is a nice surprise at checkout, but making a big deal over it with a special campaign seems more than a little pathetic.


Those are our picks for the 9 Worst Marketing Emails Actually Received. Got any you think should have made the list? Share them with us in the comments section.

  • Very funny stuff. It blows my mind that even the biggest companies still make these kind of mistakes.

  • Daisy

    You have really found some doozies here! I can understand the occasional human error. The ones that get me are the campaigns marketers somehow decide are great ideas and put out there on purpose. In a climate where lawsuits lurk around every corner, you’d think executives would know not to “Punk” anyone. Especially a major brand like Toyota, and especially something as serious as making people think a dangerous criminal is coming to their house.

    Spirit Airlines must have a crack legal team. The first thing that comes to mind is, as you mentioned in the article, that Lance Armstrong should probably be left alone but how is that promotion even legal at all? I didn’t know you could legally mimic someone’s personal brand for any reason in order to promote your own business. And 7.5% isn’t even gratuity on a restaurant check.

  • The worst error I’ve ever seen in email was a while back and is just plain silly. A company decided to send a mass marketing email to their entire customer base. The marketing team sending it out didn’t use any sort of email tool. They got a junior person to send it out, and that person sent it to their entire mailing list using the CC: line in an email client. Every single one of their customers got their entire customer email address database. Many people replied-all to complain. Not pretty!

  • It is crucial not to be overwhelming; people are deluged daily with more information and images than they can process and prove.

  • Of course, some of these are blatant. If you’re sending third party emails to try to make news, they try to fool us into saying it isn’t spam. I’ve seen ridiculous justifications of why “this campaign” isn’t spam. People have actually told me, “This isn’t spam because they can opt out!”

  • I once received a call from a Congressman in California who asked for a list of all the email addresses of people who lived in his district. When I explained that would be spamming, he got irate and claimed that he had a “Constitutional right to free speech” that gave him the irrevocable permission to email all the people in his district. After all, he claimed, “I represent them!”

  • Some of the emails that are most annoying are the ones that pretend they are personal, e.g. “I looked at your website, which I liked, by the way” or “Dear info…” but as you say, a good provider should resolve that one.

  • You are so right! I’ve just been having a conversation with a professional practice who are dipping their toes into the email newsletter world and I’ve recommended they read this.

    Getting it wrong sends all the worst messages. Unprofessional, amateur and uninformed are not words I want in the heads of my potential clients!

  • Your best and most visually appealing email marketing campaign will only be effective if it makes it to the inbox and actually gets opened by the end user.

  • Some inexperienced marketers think that sending an attachment with additional information about the subject is a good idea. Sending attachments is actually one of the worst email marketing mistakes for several reasons..

  • What’s interesting about this mailing too often is that, it’s not really about the raw number of times you email your readers, it’s about how many times they expect to be emailed. If I’ve signed up for a once-a-day email, I will be thrilled to get an email every day! But if I’ve signed up for a once-a-month email, I’m gonna be downright mad if I get one from you every morning at 9am.

  • Good article and a great reminder to stay focused on the values of our information to our customers. I’ve fallen into not sending consistent announcements, note the word announcements…and I need to reconsider how I write copy that be of more value to my customer. Thanks for the reminder.

  • -A

    Great blog!



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