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3 Hard Lessons from 1 Very, Very Offensive Email

“This Week in Golf” is an email newsletter distributed by Global Golf Post, an international golf publication. It’s an informative, content-driven, professional and even benign newsletter, aimed squarely at (you guessed it…) golfers.

They aren’t trying to be edgy, irreverent, controversial or buzzworthy. They just want to talk about golf.

Yet, somehow this NC-17 email eluded their quality control team:

In case you’re wondering what exactly is so offensive about this (besides how poorly it renders in Outlook), let me zoom in on that subject line for you:

Yes, if you use a little imagination, it says exactly what you think it does. (If you need a little hint, the first redacted word starts with “mother” and ends in “er”…and the second rhymes with “witch.”)

Ouch!!

My guess is that this was nothing more than an unfunny, but honest mistake.

In fact, here’s how it probably went down…

It’s late in the afternoon. A few members of the marketing team are sitting around hoping to finalize an email after countless revisions.

As a joke, one of them puts a filthy subject line in the test email in hopes of lightening the mood and getting a cheap laugh. Unfortunately, no one thinks to go back and check the subject line on the final draft. The “Send” button is clicked…

…and BOOM — instant image disaster.

Now, I’d be lying if I said we’ve never made this kind of mistake. Okay, so we’ve never done something THIS BAD but we’ve definitely had our fair share of embarrassing screw-ups. Send enough emails and it’ll happen to you, too…

Our business — much like Global Golf Post — is run by people, and people make mistakes. It’s a regrettable, but common part of what we do … the trick is making sure the same mistakes don’t happen again.

So, what can we learn from this unfortunate misstep by our friends from the fairway?

Here are the three big lessons I reiterated to my team. I suggest you do the same (even if you’re a team of one)…

Lesson #1: Have a Standard Operating Procedure for ALL Email Broadcasts

checklist

Even the most experienced pilots use checklists before every flight. And since a single email can cause your marketing message to “crash and burn,” you should too.

Here are a handful of items you should double-check before clicking “Send”:

  1. Contextual links and URLs — Even if you use the same link twice, five times or 500 times, all links need to be tested. The smallest typo can cause a link to break, potentially costing you serious money.
  2. Phone numbers — Once, at DM, we accidentally added a fake number to an email send and never checked it before doing the final review. Well, it turns out that 99% of fake numbers actually lead to adult chat lines. Fortunately someone caught it (thanks to this SOP) but still…lesson learned.
  3. Images — While a linked image may appear in your test email, if the source link is broken, the image will not appear to your recipients. Broken images can seriously damage credibility for any publication, so make sure they’re ALL working.
  4. Dates and times — If you’re emailing about a webinar, live event or other time-sensitive occurrence, an incorrect date or time can cause your readers a ton of confusion … and cost your company a ton of potential leads. Ask me how I know… ­čÖé

Additionally, as great as you think you are at drafting copy, you should NEVER edit your own emails. Have a minimum of two sets of eyes reviewing every email before scheduling or sending.

Finally, read your email OUT LOUD.

You’d be amazed how many typos, redundancies, phrasing mistakes and confusing points you can catch when hearing┬á words in your own voice. You want readers to hear your messaging in a clear, consistent manner, and you’ll never achieve that by staring blankly at a white screen.

Lesson #2: Keep It Classy

You-Stay-Classy-San-Diego-Anchorman

We are nothing without our customers. So, whether you’re a one-man show, or part of a well-established marketing machine, make sure every communication to your customers is treated with that level of reverence.

I’m not saying you can’t have fun (heck, I just inserted an anchorman GIF into this post)…

…but always be respectful to your customers. Even when they aren’t supposed to see it!

This means no unnecessary joking to customers, with customers, or about customers. Yes, we know a test email isn’t supposed to be seen by your audience. But, just scroll up if you need a quick refresher on how a joke can become deadly from one seemingly minor oversight.

Lesson #3: When You Screw Up, Admit It

This part is crucial, because no matter how hard you try, mistakes are going to happen. Maybe you posted the wrong start time for a webinar. Maybe you need to change an incorrectly listed price. Maybe you listen to more gangsta rap than you probably should, and added a subject line similar to the one pictured above.

It’s a human mistake, and that’s why it’s important to be just that — human.

Don’t hide behind thin, insincere, corporate apology-speak from some distant ivory tower. Instead, follow these three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the mistake — It makes no sense to brush an error under the carpet. They saw it. You saw it. Own up to it, and your honesty will likely win back anyone who was deterred.
  2. Explain what happened — This means telling the truth. Don’t spin tales of how your system was hacked, or how a disgruntled employee took control of your marketing efforts. Simply explain what happened — in this case, “a joke that got out of hand” — and how you’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Say “I’m sorry,” NOT “I apologize” — In your personal life, if someone wrongs you and offers a sincere “I’m sorry,” you’d likely accept the handshake and move on, no? Now, imagine the same person coming up to you and offering the words, “I apologize.” Not as endearing, is it?

This difference is even more noticeable in writing. Just look at how Global Golf Post handled the situation:

Jim Nugent seems like a good guy, and I have no doubt he means what he says. But this email comes across as a little detached. Before the reader even has a chance to learn about the situation, Jim is already “sincerely apologizing” for letting it happen.

Then, instead of explaining why and how it happened, Jim decides the logical next step is to tout the pristine journalistic standards (and squeaky clean morals) of the publication and its people. In his eyes, he’s being reassuring. In the reader’s eyes, he’s washing his hands of responsibility, implying there’s no way HE would allow such filth to occur.

If I’m reading this email, I’ve already tuned out…dismissing this outreach as nothing more than pre-packaged, form-letter sentiment.

So, don’t say “Please accept our apology.” Say “We messed up…” and “I’m so, so sorry.”

Asking a reader to accept your apology unnecessarily puts the onus back on them, and you don’t have the right to ask them for anything in this situation. If they want to forgive you, they will … and it will likely come from your sincerity, not empty corporate phrasing.

Regardless of whether the person actually means it, this subtle shift in language has a major effect on the outcome. And, in a damage control situation, such as that of Global Golf Post, there’s only one desired outcome — to assure readers that you own up to the mistake, and are truly sorry for any inconvenience it caused.

Only then can you resume business as usual, and win back readers’ trust by providing them with the valuable, engaging, appropriate content they signed up for in the first place.

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