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Email as a PR problem

Email is a great way to connect to and engage with people. It is also a medium where the sender doesn’t get to control the message as well as they might in other media. This means that sometimes email campaigns go wrong in a way that drives a national news story about how you are a spammer.

In the stress and flurry of dealing with public accusations of spamming many companies overlook the fact that the underlying issue is they are sending mail that the recipients don’t want or don’t expect. If there is a public uproar about your mail as spam, then there is a good chance something in  your email strategy isn’t working.

Even in the recent White House as spammers strategy, there is a strong chance that they are actually using reasonable and industry standard methods to collect email addresses. However, in their case, they are a large target for people to forge email addresses in forms. “Bob doesn’t like the president, but I’ll sign him up for this list so he can learn how things really are.” or “Joe doesn’t like the democrats so I’ll sign him up for their mailings just to piss him off.”

When you are confronted with an email campaign that upsets a large number of people there are a number of steps you should take.

Step 1: Gather information

This includes information internally about what actually happened with the campaign and information from the people who are complaining.

Externally: Get copies of the emails with full headers. If you’re working with people who do not want to reveal any details of the mail they received then you may not be able to fully investigate it, but if they do you will have everything you need right there. Figure out where their address came from (you do have good audit trails for all your email addresses, right?).

Internally: Talk to everyone who worked on that particular campaign. This includes the geek down in the IT department who manages the database. Figure out if anything internally went wrong and mail was sent to people it wasn’t intended for. I know of at least 2 cases where a SQL query was incorrectly set up and the unsubscribe list was mailed by accident.

Step 2: Identify the underlying problem

Look at all the available information and identify what happened. Was there a bad source of email addresses? Did someone submit addresses of spamtraps to a webform? Was there a technical problem? Again, talk to your people internally. In many companies I have noticed a tendency to try and troubleshoot problems like this at very high levels (VP or C-level executives) without involving the employees who probably know exactly what happened. This sometimes leads to mis-identifying the problem. If you can’t identify it, you can’t fix it.

Step 3: Identify the solution

Once you know what the problem was, you can work out a solution. Sometimes these are fairly simple, sometimes not so much. On the simple end you may have to implement some data hygiene. On the more complex end, you may need to change how data is handled completely.

Step 4: Inform the relevant parties of the solution

Make a statement about the problem, that you’ve identified it and that you’ve taken steps to fix it. How you do this is a little outside my area of expertise, although I have participated in crafting the message, rely on your PR folks on how to communicate this. In the Internet space, honesty is prized over spin, so do remember that.

Every company is going to have the occasional problem. In the email space, that tends to result in the company being labeled a spammer. Instead of being defensive about the label, use the accusation to drive internal change to stop your mail from being labeled spam by the recipients.

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