With as quickly as marketing tactics change online, it would be impossible to expect a big dusty rulebook that all brands are expected to follow – but I think there should be a short list of best practices. No matter how high tech the communication or service becomes, it’s all about the customer and the customer experience. Period.
Just the Facts
As a gesture, I sent flowers to a family member over the Thanksgiving holiday from ProFlowers.com.
Since that time approximately 26 days ago, I have received up to three emails per day. That’s a total of more than 50 emails in less than a month.
You might think that’s an easy fix – just unsubscribe, right?
I walked through the unsubscribe process but did not receive a confirmation that I had actually been unsubscribed and I continued to receive emails from ProFlowers and its parent company's five other brands.
I reached out to ProFlowers on social media, went through hoops and online conversations, and a message back said, “You have been unsubscribed. Please allow up to 2 weeks.”
Finally, I called the corporate offices requesting to speak to someone in either marketing or public relations to discuss the company's email practices. I received a phone call back within 20 minutes from the director of public relations. An hour later I received another call which included the director of public relations, the director of product and marketing operations, and the customer service manager to discuss my concerns.
This is my opinion about what went wrong
All of this frustration was preventable. I am a Web developer. I don’t believe it takes two weeks to unsubscribe someone from an email list. Everyone in this industry knows that an email should be able to be instantly removed from a list. ProFlowers says it takes up to two weeks to unsubscribe a customer from its list because emails are preprogrammed. I’m not really sure why preprogrammed emails would have anything to do with how long it takes to update an email list. Other email list services unsubscribe customers instantly. If customers were able to unsubscribe right away, I don’t think this would be nearly the issue that it has become for me, and for other customers who have complained about ProFlowers via social media.
Even if I didn’t unsubscribe, why is any company sending that many emails to a customer (or potential customer) in the first place?
This is not only a personal violation of my information, but it is unprofessional. I don’t remember signing up to receive their emails, not to mention multiple emails per day for several brands, but apparently the opt in box was checked, as I was informed by the director of marketing operations at Provide Commerce, the parent company of ProFlowers.com and five other brands.
Also, because I sent flowers to my family with my sister's name as the intended recipient, ProFlowers kept sending emails with her name in the subject “…do you want to send ‘name' flowers for…<insert occasion here>”. I get the tactic but it’s not going to be the same person I send flowers to each time, so why the hard sell? This is a separate issue, so #justsaying. I guess it could be worse:
.@ProFlowers , my girlfriend and I broke up a while back so if you could stop sending me emails about saving on her gift that'd great.
— Justin Kurilchick (@JKurilchick) December 19, 2014
No matter how large or small your audience is, this is no way to use a trusted customer’s email address. I understand – especially this time of year – the need to get in front of people’s faces, but companies, please make it clear how you intend to use the customer’s email address. As a company, please do not wait until people have received more than 50 emails and try to unsubscribe to explain the two-week process to actually unsubscribe. It makes people angry.
I am Not Alone
A quick search of @proflowers and #spam yielded results that go back a couple years.
@ProFlowers I get it already! You sell flowers. Special sales ongoing. Do i need to get several email a day about it?
— Ken Cresswell (@Polodude10) December 18, 2014
@ProFlowers How do I unsubscribe? Two emails a day is absurd.
— Richie (@dogloopy) December 17, 2014
— Heidi Matheny (@RelayForLifeSA) May 8, 2014
— StudioConover (@studioconover) May 8, 2013
And this is pretty much what I was experiencing in my inbox:
— Captain Stephanie (@SailCelestine) February 13, 2014
Thoughts from ProFlowers
When we reached out to the ProFlowers corporate office, we were impressed to end up on a brief conference call with the public relations director, customer service director, and product and marketing operations director. These are snippets of the phone conversation.
Jessica Rosengard (JR) – You intend to build a customer base and trust when you have a new customer like me, create an account so they can track their order, how do you intend to use my email address and information when I create my account? I intended solely to log in and track my order and look back on it, etcetera. What is the intention behind collecting that information?
“To communicate with our customers…just like any other retailer.” – Amy Toosley, public relations director, Provide Commerce. During the phone call, I expressed my opinion about what was happening on their website:
JR – There is a bug on your site, which is why I cannot unsubscribe. I am still signed up for emails from all six different brands. I’m telling you guys there are a lot of flaws here. I am a Web developer and I have this conversation with clients all the time. This site is not for you guys, this is for the customers. You might know what is on the site and you might know where the message is and how it works but If you’re being misunderstood then something is not being communicated properly.
I appreciate that retailers collect customer information and need to communicate with customers to market their products in order to advertise sales, holiday deals, and send other messages. However, what I didn't remember, was signing up for or opting-in to any kind email list during my ordering process or when I was creating an account. I thought the process to unsubscribe from the ProFlowers.com email marketing messages was confusing and I was frustrated that the company’s website did not provide confirmation of unsubscribing.
Scott Sabin, the director of marketing operations for Provide Commerce, verbally outlined the process for someone to unsubscribe. It was interesting to hear that from his perspective, the process was quite simple. Sabin asserted that each email a customer receives has an option at the bottom where customers can manage their email preferences, or customers could log in to their accounts to manage the preferences.
After the phone call the Provide Commerce team asked for screen shots and screen videos of my experiences so they would be able to investigate further. They said they appreciated the points I brought forth. Interestingly enough, the very next morning, I stopped receiving marketing emails from ProFlowers or any of their partner brands. Everything suddenly stopped. I suspect their team made every effort to remove me from the list at all costs. It seems it's possible to remove someone from the list in less than two weeks. Or it was an incredible coincidence that it happened immediately after having a call with the marketing and public relations directors.
ProFlowers followed up to my screen shots in an email, here is an excerpt where they address the bug in their system that kept me from unsubscribing:
I understand this was one of the forms you used this week to update your email preferences and when you clicked Update Preferences the page refreshed which gave you the impression that your preferences were not saved. In fact, your preferences were indeed saved in our systems, however a bug with the dynamic web form page refresh caused the page to appear to refresh with the prior selection. If you would have navigated away from the page and then checked your email preferences again, the page would have displayed the correct values. We investigated the matter and discovered that a recent update to our website likely caused the unexpected behavior. I really appreciate you bringing this to our attention and your feedback on this. We have updated the page to avoid similar confusion from customers in the future. – Scott Sabins, Director, Product & Marketing Operations
Additional excerpts from their email response include:
There are 2 ways for customers to opt-in to promotional emails:
1. Sign up for emails in the footer of our website
2. Sign up for emails at the time of order confirmation “The first method is simply an email sign up form on our website (I’ve copied a screenshot below). This is the only method for people to sign up for emails without placing an order on the site (it is meant to give potential customers email deals on our gifts).
Yes, ProFlowers is right, Customers can sign up on a screen that looks like this. However, as a Web developer and customer, I don’t think this screen tells me much considering how many emails they end up sending. It doesn’t indicate how many brands I will receive emails from or the frequency of those emails, or anything else.
ProFlowers goes on to say,
The second method is to opt-in at the time they place an order with us. The majority of our customers opt-in to receive promotional marketing messages from the brand they purchased from as well as our sister brands, and the majority continue to stay subscribed in order to receive discounts on future gifts, reminders about important dates, information about products, etc…
While it may be true that a majority of their customers opt-in, I would be interested to see the unsubscribe rate, which is why this tweet caught my attention:
I think this guy hits the nail on the head with the word “sneaky.” It’s the feeling I had when all of this started and it’s the word I had searched for but couldn’t quite find. As a Web developer, let me tell you why I think this is sneaky.
Take a look at this screen shot, which is the order confirmation page from ProFlowers. All of the important information is on the right side of the screen – words like “confirm order now” – this is where your eye is drawn.
Notice the one piece of information that is on the left side of the screen – it’s the box that is automatically checked that read “Yes, please send me emails about special offers and promotions from our brands…”
There are a few points I would like to make about this opt in. Yes, it is sometimes an online marketing tactic to have an opt in box already checked, but just by the way this opt in box is situated, it seems tricky. As a best practice in Web design from a user experience perspective, I believe any customer who comes to you should be allowed to opt in knowingly (as in, let them click the box). Customers shouldn’t accidentally be opted in and have to work hard to unsubscribe. I believe that if your company’s success is the result of deceptive marketing practices, your company is doing it wrong. It is abusing the trust of customers and that’s not a way to succeed.
A Good Example
Actions speak louder than words. I would like to highlight Soap.com (since this article was first published, soap.com no longer exists) as a website that has ten brands on one site that has the customer user experience in focus. I am not employed by Soap.com, I am not affiliated with their company or brands in any way, but I appreciate how they do business on the Web. I will say that because they are so accommodating and easy to deal with, I am a loyal customer and I recommend the site to my friends. Bottom line, the way they do business is honest.
Take a look at the screen shot below. I went to Soap.com (since this article was first published, soap.com no longer exists) and the box for receiving offers and deals in email form is not checked as the default setting. This is a best practice and I’m happy to see that this website is following the ethical rules that I believe exist. This user interface is more obvious. The check box has great placement right above the “create an account” button. It’s way more likely that a customer is going to see the opt in option.
There are multiple brands on the Soap.com site, but I’m not getting an email from each of those brands every single day. Also, when I felt the need to unsubscribe from Soap.com emails, I clicked “unsubscribe” and it worked right away. It was much easier to deal with. Bravo.
Email Marketing Best Practices
Here are our simple and ethical rules for email marketing.
- Don’t sign customers up without asking and do not trick people into signing up. Let them sign up intentionally. The mantra? Let people opt in, don’t make them opt out.
- When a customer signs up or opts in, make it very clear what the frequency of email offers will be.
- If your company represents multiple brands, make sure customers are aware in a very obvious way just how many different brands they will be hearing from. Don't make customers hunt for the information or bury it deep on a separate page that will drive the customer away from the page they are already on. Perhaps a hover tip or pop up window would work instead. (For an ecommerce website, the last thing you want to do is drive a customer AWAY from the site right as they are about to place an order.)
- If you don’t have permission, don’t put someone’s name on a list.
- If you’re going to send more than one email per week to your customer list, make it clear upon sign up that it is a possibility and allow them an option to set frequency preferences quickly and easily. Or allow in your email preferences list how often they want the email. It shouldn’t just be an all or nothing situation.
- User interface matters. Make it easy for your users.
Bottom line: Take Responsibility
If a customer is confused, it means there’s a disconnect between the company and the customer; the company is responsible for how the message – or Web interface – is understood.
“It's really easy to blame the user/student/prospect/customer for not trying hard, for being too stupid to get it or for not caring enough to pay attention. Sometimes (often) that might even be a valid complaint. But it's not helpful. What's helpful is to realize that you have a choice when you communicate. You can design your products to be easy to use. You can write so your audience hears you. You can present in a place and in a way that guarantees that the people you want to listen will hear you. Most of all, you get to choose who will understand (and who won't).” – Seth Godin, ‘The posture of a communicator'
Do a gut check
How is your company using customer information? What are your online policies and marketing tactics? Are you effectively communicating with your customers about how you will use their contact information?