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For all the talk of email marketing best practice, there are still those that persist in duping their customers to generate artificially high click rates.

One company, alas, is gadget retailer Firebox, which yesterday sent me an email with the following subject line: ‘And the winner is… you!’.

“Brilliant”, I thought, “I’ve won a gadget!”

The only concern I had was that I couldn’t remember entering any competition. But stranger things have happened. 

I opened the email. I clicked on the ‘display images’ link. And the image-laden newsletter duly unfurled in front of my eyes.

Oh for a light sabre!

Hmmm. My WTF radar started bleeping. The email appeared to be nothing more than a monthly newsletter.

But hold on, I’ve WON dammit! I would not be beaten down so easily. I started to read every word, slowly, to find the hidden (free) treasure. 

Something about a TV. Something about fizzy vodka. Something about a USB VHS converter. Something about a Stylophone. Something about a keychain. 

Mother of God, where is my prize?

Something about a beanbag. Something about an Aston Martin. Something about a micro chopper. Something about a laser pod. 

I smelt a rat. I knew it… I knew I hadn’t entered any competition. There was no prize.

Firebox has historically sent me a newsletter every fortnight or so, and I reckon I have open and read most of them. Partly because I trusted the retailer, having purchased from it in the past, and partly because I like stupid gadgets. Sometimes I’d visit the site and buy a remote controlled helicopter or some other object of interest.

But this kind of crass subject line has essentially duped me. I carefully read and re-read the newsletter in full. Right down to the footer, which asked a pertinent question: “If you no longer wish to receive newsletters from Firebox click here.” I duly clicked, and that’s the end of the road for Firebox and me. 

An email subject line is a promise. Break that promise and you’re damaging a relationship. 

Having done all of this I now finally understand the subject line. It related to the awards shows that Firebox promoted in the newsletter (The Brits, Fashion Week, The Oscars). Maybe I’m a dumbass but I didn’t second guess the content of the email before I clicked… I simply opened the email to discover my non-existant prize.

UPDATE: Firebox has admitted a human error here. It happens. As such I'll retract that opening line about 'duping customers' as clearly this wasn't intentional on Firebox's part. It just goes to show that a) even the most savvy retailers make basic errors from time to time, and b) newsletter recipients occasionally act before they think things through properly.

Chris Lake

Published 19 February, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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David Bird

A shame because they do so well normally in other areas.

Have they got a new (less savvy) email marketer?

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hey David - I agree totally... they do a lot of good things.

That said, I can't believe you'd send out any subject line without considering how it would be perceived by recipients.

Maybe it was a newbie, or maybe somebody was being a bit cheeky, or maybe it's a sign of desperation. It's hard to say.

c.

almost 8 years ago

Stephen Pratley

Stephen Pratley, Digtal Marketing Consultant at Visibly Better Marketing Limited

One strike and you're out? That's just nonsense as anyone who has watched the long term numbers on a large scale email strategy will know.

If you've built a relationship and continually offer value then your customers will allow the occasional indescretion.

Test, test, test, and rely on the numbers is the only best practice, not guesswork on the customer reaction based on personal experience.

How do you know this wasn't a last ditch attention grabber sent to long-time non-respondents before kicking them off the database to save costs? Firebox's database is plenty big enough to test and roll out that kind of strategy.

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Yep, one strike. I'm amazed that you're surprised by that Stephen. Why should consumers be tolerant of this kind of thing? 

I don't bear any ill feeling toward the retailer in question (despite the lack of prize after being informed that I had won something) but I can do without these lame emails. It was a time sink, nothing more. You say nonsense, and I say it is a fact that I have unsubscribed, and presumably others have too.  

It's a question of persuasion, not testing. A subject line containing the words 'FREE' or 'WINNER' doesn't normally get opened. But because I trusted Firebox not to dupe me I opened it, and spent too long looking for something that wasn't there.

If it was intentional, it was a cheap move. If it wasn't then maybe I have been rash, but I know where Firebox lives on the web and can easily find it again. If it was a 'last-ditch attention grabber' then it was badly misjudged for all kinds of obvious reasons.

almost 8 years ago

Chris Averill

Chris Averill, CEO at We Are Experience

Two points, firstly if you like getting those scratch cards in magazines that say you have won a car, holiday, tons of cash and then phone up, you'll like this type of email......you are probably also an avid Watchdog fan.

Secondly, I would have put it into junk mail, you are too kind actually opting out. And junking newsletters is a huge problem I assume as everyone works so hard in staying on whitelists.

I'm only a consumer, I have nothing to do with email marketing, so maybe my view is the more important?????

almost 8 years ago

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Firebox

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the feedback. Our bad. We always try to choose a subject header relating to the overall theme of the newsletter - in this case “Awards Week” – and as stupid as it sounds, we hadn’t spotted our subject line could be mis-construed like this.

Hands held up, we’re sorry if this was irritating - and apologies to anyone else that got the wrong end of the stick.

Our long-term email subscribers will know that Firebox really doesn’t resort to tricks with our email marketing – this was just an honest oversight as it was getting near the end of the day :). We weren't trying to artificially boost open rates, which we know is a pointless exercise if it doesn't translate into clicks or sales.

PS. If you have any other feedback you can always reach us at @firebox (on Twitter) or info@firebox.com (on email).

Love,

Firebox.com

almost 8 years ago

Stephen Pratley

Stephen Pratley, Digtal Marketing Consultant at Visibly Better Marketing Limited

"I say it is a fact that I have unsubscribed, and presumably others have too."

Presumption, pure presumption, and Chris, noone's individual view holds any importance, it's the overall campaign success that matters.

If the blog post had given any indication of that then I'd have given it some credibility, but consultancy is not about inflicting ones personal values on clients, its about establishing processes that guide the client towards long term success.

Those processes need to include testing, and measurement of returns.

Writing a campiagn off as a failure because it upsets one person who happens to have the media platform to pass on that opinion to others who may be influenced by it is not consultancy. It's sensationalist tabloid journalism of the depths that the Daily Mail would be more suited to.

I've run campaigns on far worse subject lines in the past and it's never a case that you'll kill the whole list, just a question of how many marginal people you'll lose vs how many marginal people will be intrigued enough to go further and interact.

In the last 10 years I've been responsible for sending hundeds of millions of emails and one thing is constant - there are no absolute certainties, nothing that will please or upset everyone on your list, no matter how hard you try.

Cheap and tacky? Most definitely, but this is a brand selling "Sex Panther" cologne and that offers to wrap your presents badly on purpose. They're not exactly out to woo over broadsheet readers are they!

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hey Firebox,

Kudos for the fast / open reply. I thought it was out of sorts - as I mentioned I usually looked at your emails. There's no ill-feeling here, and I now feel a bit rash all things considered.

Cheers,

c.

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Stephen - LOL it's not sensationalist at all, it's a human reaction! I have a media platform but everybody else does too nowadays. You need to look beyond the scope of a campaign when measuring 'results' vs negative comment / word of mouth on and offline.

We're in the business of flagging up good practice and bad practice, to see what works and what doesn't. You can take the advice onboard or leave it as you see fit. The article here is about mislabelling an email, simple as that. It's obviously mislabelled, from a recipient's perspective.

It's a shame that I named a retailer that I like as doing something weird but that was my call. I thought it was a stupid subject line, and I gave the email far too much attention which left a bad taste. Do you really believe that I was the only one to get that impression? I know that I wasn't.

We know testing is crucial to optimising campaigns: we've been writing about it for years. But do you need to put your hand into a flame to know that it will melt?

Firebox has since admitted human error, and I have said that I'd been a little bit rash, though I opted out in the right way and hold no grudge against it as a retailer.

almost 8 years ago

Stephen Pratley

Stephen Pratley, Digtal Marketing Consultant at Visibly Better Marketing Limited

This issue is that you're passing off your own human reaction as best practice, there's no "what works and what doesn't" about the piece at all, just the reaction of one individual recipient. Firefox could have made a killing and enhanced thier standing amongst the people who actually 'got' the line for all you know.

"How to fail at email marketing and lose subscribers"

Your article wasn't about mislabelling an email, that's with hindsight and with the benefit of Firebox pointing out the original intention of it. It implied a black and white "do this and you'll lose 100% of your list".

It seems as if in the rush to be 'first' with a story or to provide enough volume of content eConsultancy is dishing out poorly researched or anecdotal data as hard facts, which does a lot of damage to your credibility when compared to the more in-depth studies and educational events that provide the value of membership.

Maybe if Firebox had bounced the email a bit further round the office then the double meaning of the subject line might have come out in time to change it. They at least have the excuse that the theme of the campaign had a very narrow window of opportunity.

Firefox's customers can be excused for acting before they think, but journalists touting themselves as guardians of best practice should take a little more care.

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Rubbish! The article was completely related to the mislabelling of an email. I received an email from a trusted source that informed me that I'd won something. There was no prize. I felt duped. The end.

I never said Firebox was sure to lose 100% of the email list. I explained why I unsubscribed from a newsletter.

Maybe it was the best-performing email campaign ever (I bet the open rate was excellent), but to discount the views of individuals on the basis of a best-ever open rate would be crass. Why *wouldn't* you want to find out why a campaign had the best open rate ever? It's why usability professionals conduct user testing in labs, rather than drawing assumptions from raw analytics data and nothing else.

I think we fundamentally disagree with the term 'best practice'. I think it is bad practice to say 'you have won something' in an email subject line, if there is no prize. And that's regardless of the overall success of that particular campaign. It's black hat, if it's intentional, because it's misleading.

PS - there was no rush to be first with this, as it's hardly a big deal, and we're not particularly bothered about exclusives.

almost 8 years ago

Chris Averill

Chris Averill, CEO at We Are Experience

Stephen, if i may say, this article may end up being titled "how to loose firends and alienate people".......

Everyone else feel free to join in and well done Firebox for actively tracking feedback, I just hope we are as good at we are:london

almost 8 years ago

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Ian Brodie

Chris - you're repeatedly missing Stephen's point (and causing him to get increasingly frustrated).

Here's the deal. Your headline: "How to fail at email marketing and lose subscribers" (in Stephen's view) implies that the post will impart proven advice as to what will cause email campaigns to fail and lose subscribers.

What the article actually does is impart your own personal opinion based on your experience. But your experience (feeling duped and unsubscribing) may well not be what the majority of recipients experience. It could be that the campaign was a huge success.

You're using your (perhaps expert) opinion to guess that the tactics used didn't work - but there's a huge risk for consultants in assuming their own personal experience applies to others. Often consultants have very different experience bases, preferences and tastes to the norm.

You could be right. Misleading headlines are not a tactic I like or approve of. But Stephen has a valid point too. For all you know this tactic may have worked. It may have increased open rates by enough to overcome any disappointment at not having actually won a prize. You don't know without seeing the stats. Stephen's argument is that when labelling something as a good or bad practice - or listing it as an example of "how to fail" you need more than opinion, you need empirical evidence as to its results as well as your opinions. In the absence of this, you should clearly mark your opinion as being just that - opinion.

Ian

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Ian - I understand Stephen's point completely, and have taken his comments onboard, but we're confusing performance and ethics here.

Best practice to my mind is about optimising your performance via ethical strategies. Stephen's argument seems to revolve around the notion that performance trumps everything else.

I don't have access to Firebox's stats so can't tell you whether the overall campaign was a hit or a miss. Maybe my headline could have been clearer. Maybe it has been taken as 'totally fail' and 'lose all your subscribers'. But I feel we're getting into semantics. 

What I can tell you is that I opted out of a newsletter because of a misleading subject line. Other recipients might not have shared that view. Fair enough.

We don't have access to private stats for many site reviews we conduct, but they're grounded in the knowledge accumulated from years of research. Do you suggest that we stop writing these because we can't monitor the performance of individual sites? Can we not take a view on best practice unless we have access to stats?

almost 8 years ago

Stephen Pratley

Stephen Pratley, Digtal Marketing Consultant at Visibly Better Marketing Limited

Hi Ian, yep, thats' a nice summary of whaty I was getting at:

"Stephen's argument seems to revolve around the notion that performance trumps everything else."

I'd say that's pretty much spot on. But I'd rephrase that as "long term performance trumps everything else". Pushing the boundaries here and there to find where they are will not necessarily result in long term loss, and in many cases will uncover new opportunities for long term gain.

Constantly moving outside the tolerable ethical boundaries of your customer's relationship with the brand will result in long term loss, but each brand needs to discover where those boundaries are. I imagine the boundaries of taste and ethics of the best Firebox customers are more liberal than most.

As for whether these sorts of reviews should be carried out without stats, I'd say no.

If the piece was on your personal blog, and it was implicitly or explicitly your personal opinion then it would have passed by without comment but it isn't.

Where it was published makes it a piece of work by Econsultancy and passing off personal opinion as absolute fact is not consultancy. It misses an essential step of data gathering in the consultancy process that identifies the problem, or even if there is a problem.

Almost every day we are faced with clients wanting to leap onto the next shiny bandwagon, or copying competitor's tactics with no background knowledge of whether they are working or not or, just as importantly, whether that success can be successfully transplanted onto another business.

There are SO few absolute certainties in online marketing that without testing or analytics the vast majority of claims made in the market about what 'works' are no more than trading opinions. We warn clients that if they won't put testing budgets aside then they have to accept that in many cases they are just taking a punt in copying others' tactics. An educated punt in some cases, but a punt nonetheless.

If you don't have access to the site's own performance stats then at least an independent opinion from a group in the target market, and not buried 24/7 in the online marketing world would be a start.

It will lower your weekly word-count, but make a considerable difference to the quality of the site.

It's a shame that in this case, and several others I've noticed recently, the editorial content of the blog fails to meet the exceptionally high standard of your industry reports, training and events.

almost 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

We fundamentally disagree then. I think it is perfectly acceptable to critique web strategies / websites / ad creative without having access to stats. We're a publisher, not a consultancy, and the blog has plenty of room for opinion, observations, anecdotal evidence, as well as whatever data we can get our hands on.

Our judgement is steeped in years of research, background reading and hands-on practice. But ultimately it is all opinion, which you can take or leave. 

I agree that there are 'few certainties' in online marketing and believe it or not I'm as big on testing as you are. As such whatever advice we pass over via this blog (which mirrors what is found in our reports) shouldn't be applied blindly. What works for one company won't work so well for another.

almost 8 years ago

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Maggie

It is unfortunate, but it does happen, even to the best of us!

almost 8 years ago

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Richard Metcalfe

Hi All,

I have just started with marketing via email i found this post while searching for tips and tricks through google.

There are alot of things i have taken into account.

Great Post!

almost 7 years ago

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