Confusing Emails: A Quick Story of Failure (and Learning From It) From the Team at NTEN

Our friend Beth Kanter says that when we make a misstep, we should “remove the demons of self-doubt and self-judgment,” share it publicly, learn, and move on. In that spirit…

On Wednesday we sent emails out to about 24,000 subscribers who (we thought) hadn’t opened up an email in over a year. We were hoping to confirm which folks wanted to remain a part of the community, let the others off the hook, and do it in a way that we thought was light-hearted, even a little silly. The gist of the email was:

Want to stay on our mailing list? Great! Here’s a happy dog video (because we’re happy, too). Don’t want our emails anymore? Ok, here’s a sad cat video (because we’re sad that you’re unsubscribing.)

The links were tracked so that if you clicked the sad link, you’d be automatically removed from NTEN emails, and if you clicked the happy one, you’d stay in (and if you clicked both we kept you unless you specified otherwise). Why pet videos? We’ve been including cats and dogs in emails for years, though none of us exactly remember why. We just like ‘em, and lots of NTEN members seem to like them too. Then some things happened that we weren’t quite expecting. Some people received the email who shouldn’t have gotten the message in the first place, some weren’t sure why they were being sent to a YouTube video instead of NTEN’s site, and others read the email in a way we hadn’t expected them to. And they let us know. In addition to the flood of “out of office” replies that usually comes in after a big email like this, we got lots of personal replies from people who fit one or all of the above descriptions. So, in the interest of transparency and learning from our mistakes, here’s a quick recap of our thought process, response, and lessons learned.

What was the goal of our project? To reach out to people that our system indicated hadn’t been active within the community for an extended period of time, find out if they still wanted to be a part of NTEN’s community, and complete their re-subscribe or unsubscribe action.

What actually happened during implementation?

  • The email went out to some community members who are actually very active, even though our systems indicated that they were inactive (hadn’t opened an email in year, never had NTEN membership, never attended an event, never had an invoice within our database).
  • We phrased the “click this link” sentences in a way that some people found confusing and suspicious, especially because the videos were preceded by noisy YouTube ads. (Those didn’t pop up when we found the links, we promise!)
  • Once they understood, some people actually loved the links and shared them with their co-workers. Others weren’t really into it.

What did we learn from the experience?

  • We’re still trying to understand why the email was sent to some of our community who are very active. One explanation is that we’re unable to track individuals who visit the website on an individual basis. Another is that we have misunderstood all along how our email host tracking works. (If you have other guesses, please feel free to leave a comment!)
  • Not a new lesson, but we remembered what a good friend the Gmail “Canned Responses” tool can be. As confused emails came in, we made an effort to reply to each one personally and address specific questions. But the base apology and explanation was consistent. If you find yourself relying on the same messages over and over, Canned Responses is your friend.

How can we improve the next time we do this?

  • If we continue our time-honored tradition of linking to cat or dog videos, we’ll be sure to have the email recipient click over to our own site and embed the video underneath a “Thanks! Glad you’re sticking around” message, to be sure people know nothing shady is going on.
  • If we send additional emails meant for people who have been inactive, we’ll take extra precautions to make sure it doesn’t go out to active community members.

What other suggestions do you have for us? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to everyone who reached out about the email, whether you found it confusing, off-putting, or funny.

Remember, as Beth preaches, failure is’nt an ‘F’ word! Did you fail at something this week? Care to share?

This post comes from Julia Smith, Brendan Blaine, and Michael Nealis, who all learned something from sending an email to more than 20,000 people.