Everyone makes mistakes. Your customers know that.

How you handle those mistakes, though, determines whether your customers click that unsubscribe link. Don’t ignore the error – 51% of people won’t do business with a company again after a single bad experience. But don’t labor over it either – one study found that extended apologies actually tend to backfire.

Here are 5 steps you should follow in such a situation, along with some real-world examples of effective apology emails.

1. Determine the severity of the problem

Did you misuse a possessive or misplace a comma? Don’t sweat it, and don’t worry about sending an apology either.

On the other hand: Did you accidentally send an email template? An offer that’s already expired?

Did you send an email to the wrong customer segment? Did a popular item go out of stock? 

Did you suffer a data breach?

Your problem likely lies somewhere along that spectrum, from “mistake that probably irritated some people” to “this is a major issue and we need to go into crisis mode now.” Figure that out and then decide what course of action you should take.

2. See if there’s anything you can do without sending another email

You may be able to correct the error and mitigate most of the damage by updating image files, fixing redirect links, or simply changing landing page copy. If that’s the case, then you probably don’t need to send a follow-up email. Most people aren’t excited to receive yet another email, so skip the apology if you can.

3. If you need to send a follow-up, figure out what tone you should take

In the case of an errant email template, or an expired offer, you could simply resend the message with a revised subject line and a brief note at the top of the body. Don’t get into an extended explanation of what went wrong – just offer a sentence or two. In the case of something like an expired offer, extend the deadline or give them a new deal to make up for the mistake.

If the faux pas was more serious than that, though, you’ll want to send a follow-up email. You may also want to alert your customer service folks, social media team, PR department, and anyone else who could have to deal with the fallout from the problem.

Here are 3 companies that appropriately handled this kind of email:

Framebridge: “We think you’re pretty awesome”

Someone at Framebridge was diligent about managing their email list, which is crucial for any company that wants to maintain a strong sender reputation. Unfortunately, they sent their “Do you still want to get email from us?” message to the wrong group of people. Oops.

Luckily, this was the kind of “What a silly thing we did” error that allowed the marketing team to have some fun with their follow-up message. They kept it brief but pleasurable, even going so far as to quip: “It goes without saying, but we think you’re pretty awesome and we’re honored to frame the amazing items from your life.”

Note that they didn’t try to slip in a promotional message since that wouldn’t have gone over well, and they closed with an invitation to send them some feedback, which was a nice touch. After all, they goofed, so why not take a moment to let customers voice their opinions?

Barnes & Noble: Sorry this sold out, but here’s a gift card

Barnes & Noble’s new Nook Glowlight Plus eReader turned out to be so popular that it quickly sold out. That was good for the company, but irritating for customers who wanted one and missed the boat.

Rather than just email the people who placed orders that couldn’t be filled, B&N messaged all of (or a large chunk of) their list. It was a smart way to get in front of the situation while scoring some goodwill with an offer to receive a $10 gift card with a purchase of the device when it’s back in stock.

The “Notify Me” CTA button made sense here, since customers who want one will appreciate the chance to be alerted when it’s back in stock.

SPARK: We have some bad news…

In January 2019, SPARK, an organization devoted to autism research, suffered one of the worst things that can happen to any business: a data breach. Unfortunately, they weren’t aware of it until several days after it happened, and then they needed a few more days to assess the damage. They decided to send two emails, one to all their customers and another to people whose personal data may have been accessed.

They handled the mass email, as well as any organization, can in such a situation. They laid out the details in an FAQ format, making sure to put key information in a bold font and closing with an invitation to email them with any questions or concerns.

Some marketers might quibble with their decision to apologize at the end, rather than at the beginning, but they clearly thought it made sense to get the bad news out of the way before saying how sorry they were about what happened. At a time like this, people often want to get the bad news upfront, rather than scan through an apology to find information about the incident.

4. Watch your metrics after sending the email

As with any message, you’ll want to check, among other things, your:

• Open rates
• Click-through rates (if applicable – avoid CTA buttons unless they’re warranted)
• Unsubscribe rates (yes, even an apology email needs an unsubscribe link)
• Bounce rates (always apply good list management practices)
• Spam complaints (those shouldn’t be an issue, but it’s good to keep an eye on them)

You’ll likely notice a higher-than-usual open rate, but that doesn’t mean you should adopt a pseudo apologetic tone in future emails to increase your metrics. For example, saying “We’re sorry…” in a subject line might get more people to open your email, but if the body header says “For the discounts we’re offering,” you’ll likely see a higher unsubscribe rate and other long-term ill effects. Most people don’t like feeling tricked.

5. Create a plan for next time, if you don’t have one already

You likely won’t make the same mistake twice, but there’s a decent chance another type of error will pop up in the future, or something beyond your control will affect your customers. You should have an action plan in place for such a possibility, along with templates for the different types of apologies you’ll want to send, from “Forgive our silly goof” to “We sincerely apologize for this bad situation.”

You may also want to keep in mind some words of wisdom from Chad S. White at Litmus, who said in a blog post: “Yes, email marketing mistakes aren’t great, but not making any could be a sign of much bigger structural problems with your email program and within your company.”

He said that because, according to Litmus’ 2018 State of Email Survey, over 50% of brands didn’t send an apology email for an email marketing error during the previous 12 months. While some might see that as a good sign, he viewed it as a likely possibility that mistakes were happening and not being addressed.

Don’t be one of those companies.

~ Casey