Category Archives: Email marketing

A Look Back at 2019: The Year in Email

Happy New Year
It’s that time again! Our annual looks back at email shenanigans. The things that worked and the things that didn’t. We look at the clever, the ill-advised and the sloppy. For our first example, we have one that is both clever and ill-conceived.

Please Read my … Email

As a rule, we don’t like to talk trash about the competition. We all make mistakes, and let he who is without sin, et cetera. Still, just to prove no one is above making mistakes, not even email marketing software providers (ESPs), here’s an example that turned up in our inbox earlier last year:

Clever pre-headerLook at the text above the blue banner. This has to be the most literal interpretation of the term “preheader text” you can get. At first glance, it might seem like it was intended as a placeholder, or maybe a novice worker was asked to “put the preheader text” at the top of the newsletter so they literally did. What they were trying to do here was a little too clever for its own good. By itself, the “Do’s and Don’ts of” subject line makes no sense, but if you receive the email in a client such as Gmail, which also displays the first text in an email, the message reads: “Do’s and Don’ts of…the preheader text.” If you click on the masthead it takes you to this:

preheadersIt’s an interesting idea, but unless it’s viewed under exactly the right conditions, the concept falls apart.

This Crazy, Upside-down World

upside-down imageThis also may have been intentional, but, like the previous example, there is nothing in the copy to indicate it. The fact that it advertises footwear by the avant-garde fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm might have something to do with it. but from here, it looks like they simply forgot to look at the email before sending it.

A Browser is not an iPhone

iphone example 1One simple way of checking the responsiveness of an email in a browser is to reduce the horizontal size of the browser window and see if the content re-positions itself for the smaller window. While this quick-and-dirty techniques works a lot of time, it can also fail. Witness the case of this mailing from FuncheapSF, a newsletter that lists free or cheap events in the Bay Area. If you check this by resizing your browser window, everything will look fine, but suddenly everything is out of whack on an iPhone.

Getting the dimensions right can be tricky and should be tested before sending. B&H Photo is usually pretty good about this, but here’s one that slipped by them:

iphone example 2If you check this one in a browser, it functions as it should. The problem is between the media query and the max-width. You’ll only encounter it if you look at the email on an actual iPhone, or an email rendering service that can duplicate the iPhone environment accurately. Checking it on an actual phone is safer.

E for Effort

Microsoft HalloweenThis past Halloween, Microsoft came up with a fun little email that offers a scratch-off panel that lets you use your mouse or finger to reveal a free offer. While it doesn’t work in all email clients, it offers a fall-back that will take you to a website where you can experience it outside of the email environment. Except Firefox, which takes you here:
Hallooween no formatThe funny thing is, when we opened the same email in other browsers, it did let us try out the scratch-off feature, but told us we didn’t win anything. At least the Firefox mistake gives us a discount.

Hurry, They’re Going Up Fast!

OverpricedWhoever put together this email for the sports apparel and footwear store Under Armour wasn’t paying close attention. Normally the strikethrough price would be higher than the one you’re now offering (shown in red). Does anyone ever want to pay more for something that’s advertised at a lower price?

Self-Responding Email

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, emails with the same subject line and content are threaded in Gmail, so that if you and a friend are sending emails back and forth on a specific subject, these messages don’t completely takeover your inbox list. It’s a nice feature and it rarely has anything to do with email marketing since each new mailing is, as a rule, unique. A marketer might resend a message because the links were screwed up (although you don’t have to do this with Symphonie), but even then, they would normally change the subject line to let you know why they are sending you the message again. Here’s a case in point:

OopsThe content of these two emails is the same. Only the subject line and preheader have been changed, with the former subject line now appearing as the preheader.

But that’s not what’s happening with the Illyusa emails. The subject lines, and the content for these two emails is identical, and all the links seem to work in both emails. Perhaps they forgot they’d sent the message and sent it again. Or perhaps their email marketing software handles the email addresses in each segment as separate entries (a bad practice—see List Segmentation Landmines for more on this). Whatever the case, we ended up with a threaded promotional mailing.

A more extreme version of sending the same thing twice came from Forever 21, who actually pasted the same content into an email twice:

Redundant copyThis could be something as simple as a person trying to paste finished content into their email marketing software and accidentally hitting the paste button twice. On the spectrum of email mistakes, this is minor.

Email as a Predictor of Business Honesty

fake email

At first we were confused when we opened this email. We usually read email with the images turned off at first to see how people are handling alt tags. Some email readers will put in default messages about missing images; others, such as Thunderbird, display nothing unless there’s an alt tag. Even so, if all of the images are missing, there’s usually the required fine print at the bottom to give you some idea of what you’re looking at, but not with this particular email. When we opened it, it was completely blank. After assigning it as spam, We checked out the message source and found the content consisted of two image with href links. The top image would have been acceptable, but turning the physical address and the unsub link into a graphic is always taboo. A closer examination of the email revealed that it was phony from top to bottom. A good rule of thumb: If the unsubscribe link is an image, mark it as spam.

We get a lot of spam, but our favorite junk mail of the year came from this knucklehead:

bad phishingIt sounds so self assured. Putting aside, for the moment, the bad grammar, the fact that we don’t have a webcam attached to our computers, and that claiming an email came from our own account is not a good threat to try on someone who works in the email marketing industry, this scam is the king daddy of scam failures, Worried that spam filters would identify this for what it is, the scammer converted the entire message to a base64 encoded image! This means that even if you did want to give this bozo your money, there’s no way to copy and paste the bitcoin address per the instructions. All you’ll do is drag around the image.

Beanie and Switch

Beanie boobooStraight to Hell, a company specializing in hipster clothing, sent out an email advertising their new line of beanies. Most of this email was done well, with pictures of each beanie, and each image link going to that particular beanie. The only problem image was the first one, shown here. Which, when clicked, takes you to a page about their leather jackets, the subject of their previous mailing. Whenever an email has lots of links, and you’re working off an existing email there’s always a danger of this. Check every link!

This gets back to a topic we’ve discussed in the past and will, undoubtedly discuss in the future. If you’re going to show a product, make sure the link on that item takes you to the page containing that item. Too often, we click on links to pictures of products, only to discover that the product is buried five pages deep in the display listings, but this next example is even more insidious than that:

Bait and switch Putting aside the fact that boots are not accessories, and ignoring the mysterious “si” that appears between the images at the bottom, clicking on the boots takes you to Forever 21’s sale section. After scrolling through all 15 pages, we never did find these boots. Oh well, they probably wouldn’t fit anyway.

The Curse of the Template

empty linkTemplates are a great way to get an email designed with a minimum of work. The only problem is that it’s also easier to miss things such as links. That’s what we suspect happened with this email from Screen-o-matic. Most of their social links work, until you get to the Instagram icon, which contains no link.

While we’re on the subject, We received an email the last week of 2019 using this social bar:

no google plusSee any problems? Google shut down Google+ a year ago. Clicking on this link will get you the Google page explaining that the service no longer exists. Do all the social icons in your mailings work? Are you sure?

The other problem with templates is the danger of overlooking placeholders:

template issueWhoever put this together should have noticed the empty content box at the bottom of their mailing, or, at the very least, got  a second pair of eyes to look at it.

Problems of the Past

Target problemThe other problem with previously-constructed emails is that if you never checked them thoroughly across all browsers and email clients, you might have issues that pop up again and again. Here is a problem that Target has had for at least a year now. In most email viewers, this email looks fine, but in Microsoft Windows’ Mail program, you get the rather confounding problem shown above. The image on the right looks fine, but the image on the left has the words “The picture can’t be displayed” appearing across the top. It seems like a strange thing to say, given that the image is actually there. Fortunately, the buttons that appear on the images make it a lot easier to trace the problem. In this case, it turns out that the folks at Target have inserted the image on the left as a background to a table cell, rather than simply place the image in the cell as was done on the right. An empty image placeholder sits inside the cell, for some reason. Since that image can’t be displayed, it results in the message over the background image. Considering that the audience for this particular type of email is the general public—the very people that are likely to use the Windows Mail program—and that the problem has existed for over a year, someone should have noticed it in the Target marketing department by now.

I Talk Real Good!

Really Good Emails is a website that offers a selection of recent emails that they think are particularly outstanding. It’s a good place to visit if you are looking for creative inspiration. Normally, their emails are well done, but this one came in a couple months ago that reads as if it was written by someone for whom English is a second—or maybe, third—language.
bad grammarRGE responded a couple days later with an apology that also serves as an enticement to explore their site further.
Really Good EmailWell done.

Color Theory 101

back color choicesConsidering the importance of good color use in every other aspect of marketing, it’s surprising how lackadaisically many marketers treat color in their mailings. The number one mistake comes from marketers who don’t bother to think about how their mailings will appear when people haven’t turned on the images. In the image above, the links are virtually impossible to read. This could have easily been remedy with a color:White (or color:#ffffff) style added to the alt text (for more on this, see The Finer Points of Styled Alt Tags).

While the absence of linked text color formatting is the number cause of unreadable text in emails, sometimes, the problem comes down to bad design:

gold on pinkGold and pink are great colors for suggesting a certain pampered luxuriousness, but they don’t always go well together.

Oops…Just Kidding!

Petco deceptionPetco isn’t exactly a fly-by-night organization, so I’m surprised to see that whoever is in charge of their email marketing thinks it’s okay to use techniques that are normally the providence of spammers. Neither of the emails with “Oops” in the subject line is an apology. They are simply promotional mailings. The email marked ‘CONFIRMED” is just an attempt to get you to use their dog grooming services. The fact that it’s all caps only furthers the suspicion that Petco’s email marketing manager comes from the world of spammers.

Click Here to See This Picture, Again!

Vinegar SyndromeIf you’re going to add a link to an image, the best thing to do is to add a link that takes you to the page that the image references. Vinegar Syndrome did add a link, but it’s a link to the image in the email. Clicking on it just shows you the image by itself. I’m sure this one is a mistake. Remember to check your links. Fortunately, Vinegar Syndrome has provided other links in this mailing.

Dear Me

Missing names are a common mistake. They’re usually the result of using a mail merge command that requires content in the first name field. The problem is easy to avoid by using dynamic content instead. That way, if the first name field is empty, you can finish the salutation with something meaningful (e.g., “Dear Reader,” Dear Subscriber,” etc.). They also lose points for the white type in the footer on a pale pink background.

Blackboard Bold or Spam Folder Bait?

Blackboard BoldYou may have received an email or two that appears to feature a unique font in the subject line and wondered “How’d they do that?” The answer is, the same way they use emojis in a subject line: by using alternative Unicode characters. Buried in Unicode are a few special characters that are virtually identical the standard alphabet except for their appearance. The most popular ones are those called the mathematical double-struck characters, sometimes referred to as “𝕓𝕝𝕒𝕔𝕜𝕓𝕠𝕒𝕣𝕕 𝕓𝕠𝕝𝕕.” There is also 𝕱𝖗𝖆𝖐𝖙𝖚𝖗 𝕭𝖔𝖑𝖉, ⓑⓤⓑⓑⓛⓔ ⓣⓔⓧⓣ, 𝒸𝓊𝓇𝓈𝒾𝓋ℯ, and many others. As fun as these things are to play with, we can’t recommend using them. They are often used by spammers to try and get their messages across without tripping the keyword searches, so there’s a higher chance that your email will end up in the junk folder with these characters. If you don’t believe it, take a look at your junk folder.

That’s it for this year. Do you have any examples of email marketing fails that you’d like to share with us? If so, let us know in the Reply box below.

Drag-and-Drop Solutions

Drag and Drop interface
Perhaps it’s because I had already spent so much time learning HTML, or perhaps it was just prejudice, but, until recently, I gave drag-and-drop email design solutions little consideration. After all, how hard is it to create a few divs and tables then add images and text? It’s not rocket science; it isn’t even Python. But after spending a few weeks using the new drag-and-drop interface in Goolara Symphonie, I’m here to say, I’m a believer.

Since its inception, Symphonie has had a visual editor to help with the creation of emails, but not a drag-and-drop template builder. As most of our customers already have HTML designers working for them, adding a drag-and-drop builder to Symphonie was never a priority.

Then, when we started testing the new interface, something surprising happened. We found it was both robust and easy to use. Sure, it’s easy to write the code for a basic HTML email, but the template builder was even faster. Best of all, the finished designs automatically include responsive media queries and those pesky conditionals so necessary for displaying your emails properly in Outlook and IE (example: <!–[if (mso)|(IE)]><table width=”100%” cellpadding=”0″ cellspacing=”0″ border=”0″><![endif]–>).

Suddenly the thought of creating an email from scratch again seemed challenging. Using the drag-and-drop interface it’s possible to create a multi-section email template (example: Logo, hero image, salutatory text, three sections with images, text, and buttons, and a footer) in a little over a minute (yes, I really did time this).

Now I’m firmly in the drag-and-drop editor camp. Even for simple emails, it is faster and easier to use. Additionally, we’ve added lots of ready-to-use templates (all included for free) to make the process even easier. We think you will enjoy the new feature as much as we have. If you want to see it in action, contact us for a demonstration.

Privacy Report 2020

data privacy
The second decade of the 21st century is shaping up to become known as The Privacy Decade. Recent legislation, both internationally and in the United States, is primed to change the parameters regarding what information about a person you can or can’t collect, and the limitations on what you can do with that information. One thing these regulations have in common is that they don’t restrict their data privacy requirements to emails sent from within their borders. If your emails are sent to subscriber inboxes within any of these states, you are deemed culpable for those violations and can be subject to hefty fines. Unlike previous legislation, such as CAN-SPAM and CASL, these new laws are not aimed specifically at email but are intended to address privacy issues across all devices, platforms, and services. They all do affect email because email involves the gathering of private data in the form of email addresses and, in some cases, names and locations. Each of these laws comes with its own set of restrictions, some more draconian than others.

More Restrictions

While some people might not care if everyone knows where they are every hour of the day, most of us value our privacy and like to have some say over what a company may or may not know about us. Accepting this and working with it is the best tactic for any email marketer. Try to game a subscriber’s private data was never a good idea, but all signs point to more restrictions and greater penalties for doing so as every country gets into the act. While there are no plans for upcoming legislation in this Congress, states such as California and Vermont have created their own stringent privacy laws and 2018 saw the passage of data breach notification laws in several states.

GDPR Arrives

The legislation that started the privacy protection ball rolling was the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This regulation set a high bar for an individual’s rights to access any data about them that a company gathers, as well as the right to have that data deleted (for more on GDPR, see our three-part series on the subject). It covers a staggeringly wide range of data—everything from a person’s email address to the geolocation featured in many digital cameras. It extends to any person living within the European Union, regardless of their nationality. If you send email to a person in the EU, you need to be GDPR compliant. Full stop.

California Picks Up the Torch

Taking its cues from the GDPR, the state of California came up with its own privacy regulation. Passed in 2018, the requirements of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) goes into effect January 1, 2020, and features many of the same restrictions as the GDPR, including the right to obtain one’s data from a company and the right to be forgotten. No other state has, as yet, passed such a strict law, but it looks like Washington State is set to follow suit with their Washington Privacy Act, which is also modeled after the GDPR.

As strict as the CCPA seems, it’s got nothing on the GDPR. The California law applies only to for-profit businesses, so nonprofits can breathe easy. Additionally, for-profit businesses need to have a gross annual revenue exceeding $25 million for the law to take effect, and your active email list must exceed 50,000 subscribers. It also only applies to tax-paying residents of California.

Brazil Follows Suit

In August of 2018, the Brazilian government signed into law the Brazilian General Data Protection Act (Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados Pessoais or “LGPD”). Like the GDPR, after which it was modeled, its scope is global, with companies in any country facing fines for violating its rules. As with the CCPA, the Brazilian law goes into effect in 2020. One notable difference between the GDPR and the LGPD is the latter’s inclusion of terminology pertaining to “non-discrimination”). It also addresses credit and health records with more specificity. Originally, the law had provisions for the establishment of an independent data protection authority, but the President rescinded that in a line item veto. The LGPD is more punitive than California’s law but less so than the GDPR. The maximum fine under the LGPD is 2% of a company’s Brazilian revenue up to 50 million in Brazilian Reals per infraction (about 13.4 million in U.S. dollars). Compare that to the GDPR’s 4% of an organization’s annual revenue or 20 million Euros (about 22.6 in U.S. dollars), whichever is greater.

And Then There’s India

Also getting in on the post-GDPR drive for stronger privacy controls, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) in India has been hammering out its own privacy regulations—a process they started back in 2010. Following the 2017 Indian Supreme Court ruling declaring that privacy is a “fundamental right,” the MEITY finally got on the ball and drafted the Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 (PDP Bill), which contains many of the same features as GDPR, but with a few curveballs that already have companies crying foul. The main one is the requirement that all “personal data” on people residing in India must be maintained at a facility within India (although the bill doesn’t define what constitutes personal data—they’re leaving that up to the government). India isn’t the only country mandating such a restriction. China and Vietnam have similar restrictions, but neither of those countries could be considered free. Their governments exert a great deal of control over every aspect of data transfer and Internet use.

India, on the other hand, has a free market economy—some might say too free. It also has an online market second only to China in size, with close to 500 million Internet users. Restrictions making it harder for companies to conduct business aren’t welcome, and this requirement is already meeting with criticism and opposition. When the MEITY requested feedback on the bill, they received nearly 600 recommended changes, from both businesses and governments, including the United States.

Perhaps this is why, since its introduction, the government has had a few opportunities to pass the PDP Bill, but decided to wait until June 2019, after the new government is in place.

Congress Changes Its Tune

In 2009, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont tried to get his Personal Data Privacy and Security Act passed, but the bill never reached the floor. It was too much, too soon, and nobody had any idea yet the extent to which sites such as Facebook and Google would use personal data. Still, data privacy restrictions would be a hard sell in Congress, even today, if not for the increasing number of states tackling the problems on their own. All fifty states have laws concerning the reporting of data breaches, and 35 states have laws regarding the disposal of data. To complicate matters, the laws in each state are different. Some state laws apply only to business, while others only restrict the government, leaving private businesses to do what they want with your data. Some are quite stringent, while others are written in such general terms as to be virtually unenforceable.

Mostly in response to California’s legislation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other business-based groups are lobbying Congress to pass a federal omnibus privacy and data protection law that would pre-empt the CCPA and other existing and future state data protection laws.

Email’s Role in All of This

Unlike CAN-SPAM and CASL, this recent legislation doesn’t focus exclusively on email. In the case of GDPR, it regulates everything from website visits to in-camera geolocation. They all affect email marketing, although how much depends on your subscriber list. If your list is exclusive to the United States, and your gross revenues don’t exceed $25 million, then you can go about business as usual. None of the recent legislation will have that much impact on your email efforts. There is a lot more legislation on the books now concerning data breach notification, but that’s of more concern for the IT department than the marketing department.

If you have international subscribers or own a business that brings in over 25 million a year, we recommend you follow the rules of the GDPR. It is still the strictest of the current laws, so if you are in line with it, you should be fine for the others. For everyone else, there are a few things you can do to avoid problems. They include the following:

Make Your Terms Clear

Spell out in the clearest possible language exactly what you plan to do with the data you collect and make sure you include a statement to the effect that you will not use this data for other purposes or sell it to other companies.

Leave Boxes Unchecked

If you do any business in the European Union, this isn’t simply a suggestion, it’s the law. It’s less important in the States, but, like the single- vs. double-opt-in controversy, each approach has its supporters and detractors.

Respect the Privacy of Your Subscribers.

Email marketing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, we all like our privacy, but on the other, we also prefer receiving emails about things we are actually interested in. As an email marketer, the only datum you actually need is the email address, but, by itself, that makes for generic, “batch-and-blast” emails. Personal data helps improve the engagement and the receptiveness of your subscribers to your mailings. But don’t abuse it. Just because you can send an email saying “Hey Jill! I noticed you just visited our website fifteen minutes ago” doesn’t mean you should. It makes you look like a stalker, so avoid it.

The Ground’s Still Shaking

One thing is certain: This story is far from over. Right now, most of the fretting over the new laws has been a waste of time. How much they affect you is extremely variable. New legislation is cropping up in countries around the world every day and, as time goes on, it appears more and more likely that some national legislation in the United States will be enacted to bring the various states back into line. When that happens, we’ll take a look at this subject again.

The Year in Email

Happy New Year
Here we are again. Another year has come and gone. As always, there was no shortage of email flubs this years and we’ve collected a few of our favorites. Interestingly, we saw fewer of the “Dear [customer name]” errors that used to plague email marketing. Either people have finally made sure that their name fields contain information, or they’re starting to use dynamic content more. Either way, it’s nice to see that one go away. We’ll start the list with the one thing that doesn’t appear to be going away: the inactive unsubscribe link and CAN-SPAM violations.

Don’t You Dare Unsubscribe

unsub failAfter receiving ten unsolicited emails in just a few days from a company pretending to be Dawgs—a purveyor of ugly sandals—I tried to unsubscribe. This is what I got. How much of this is the sender’s fault and how much is the fault of their ESP, I can’t say, but needless to say, all of their emails went straight to the spam folder.

Unsubscribe? Never heard of it!

no unsub
How do I count all the things wrong with this email? From the needless word breaks to the disconnect between the offer (car rentals) and the company offering the deal (North Hills Clothing), this email cries “spam” at every level. How it ended up in my inbox is beyond me. I never would have clicked on the unsubscribe link on such a suspicious email, but this one doesn’t even have an unsub link!

See, We’ve Got an Unsub Link. I Think…

inactive link
East Midlands Trains does a good job of providing their physical address, and it looks like they’ve provided an unsubscribe link, but click on that link and nothing happens. A look at the email’s source code show where the problem lies:

<a href=”<%unsubscribe_link_text%>” target=”_blank” style=”text-decoration:underline; color:#333333;”>How to unsubscribe.</a>

There should be an actual URL listed in this href. Somewhere along the line, the unsub link got screwed up. Whether this was the email’s creator typing it in and accidentally using the wrong number of percentage signs, or HTML that was copied verbatim from a different ESP is hard to say.

Click Here. Go ahead. I dare you.

spammerYou can click on that unsubscribe link all day and nothing will happen. This is an odd one. If you look at the email’s source code, you’ll find an unsubscribe link that works and a physical address (Royal Caribbean Cruises), but you won’t find either in the email when it’s opened. There is an unsubscribe, but the one that’s displayed is missing its URL. It’s a sloppy piece of coding that has the body copy closing before the final content. Add to all of this that the email supposedly comes from Amazon but clearly does not. This is either badly designed spam, or phishing or both.

We’re Experts!

white text errorThe above example is the bottom of the page on an email. Yes, that blank white area below the signup button is part of the email. At first it may look like the information required by CAN-SPAM is missing, but it’s there. The problem is that the sender decided to use a dark orange background image and set the overlaying type (the physical address and links) in white. This email looks fine as long as images are turned on, but not everyone turns the images on. When the images are off, you end up with a seemingly empty white space at the bottom of the email. This error is bad enough on its own, but this particular email came from another email marketing service provider. Out of professionally courtesy, I won’t name them, but the “Friendly From” in their sender line refers to them as an “Email Markeitng” (sic) service. As if all this isn’t enough, the mailing is filled with buttons asking readers to “Read More” or “Check It Out!” but none of these buttons are linked.

We Prefer to Call It…

sneaky unsubThis runs dangerously close to violating CAN-SPAM, which specifies that mailings must have a clear unsubscribe link. Here they’re trying to be clever. It didn’t help that clicking on the link went to an unsubscribe page that requires one to enter their email address. Guess which email went into the Spam folder?

Readability is So Last Year

GucciGucci likes to stay fashionable, but sometimes fashionable and readability collide. Pink and gold might be an interesting combination for apparel, but it makes a lousy combination in a text box.

Did You Say &⁠#38 or &⁠#48?

weird codingThis one confuses us. The HTML clearly shows that special characters labeled “&⁠#38” were inserted between each word in this headline. That’s the HTML code for an ampersand, but there’s no reason for for ampersands to appear between each word in the headline. The most likely cause is the code was copy and pasted from one program to another, leading to the insertion of this character for no good reason.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

bad buttonsIn the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor infraction, but it’s if you are going to make a table cell in your email look like a button, it’s better to put the <a> tags around the cell instead of the type. In this example, you’ll only activate the links by clicking directly on the type. Clicking within the boxes has no effect.

We’re a Real Company, Honest!

stock photosWe can’t tell whether or not the way the words “social media” run down the left side of the image is some misbegotten design idea (we think not), but the CanStock watermark on the image is unforgivable. If you plan to use an image, either pay for it, or create your own version (paying for it is usually cheaper). Sending out email like this makes a company look suspiciously like a fly-by-night affair. Marketing Knowledge Cloud isn’t such a company, but you couldn’t tell it from this email.

Even Alt Tags Can Be Wrong

bad code
This one nearly caused my brain to explode. You can see in the text I’ve highlighted in yellow that the HTML codes for the right and left curly quotes are displaying instead of the curly quotes. That might have been okay, except that below it on the right, another article on the same page is displaying curly quotes in the same content. It that weren’t enough, as soon as I choose “display images” the HTML code disappears. A closer examination of the code revealed that this text appears as part of a styled alt tag (for more on stylized alt tags see The Finer Points of Styled Alt Tags). The code for the right curly quote reads: “&amp;#8220;” which will display as “&⁠#8220;” which is the correct code for that curly quote. Either somebody really wanted this to look exactly wrong, or they got confused. The right curly quote on the headline to the Page-Turner article has a value of x201C, which works, but it is hexadecimal code instead of the more common HTML code. If I had to guess, I’d say that the two article were written and formatted by different people and then assembled in the newsletter. One of them knows more about HTML than most people, while the other needs to go back to class.

All Tests Are Not Created Equal

media query errorThis looks pretty bad doesn’t it? The code contains media queries to make sure the content adjusts its size across various devices. The problem is, it’s wrong. This screenshot was taken from an iPhone. The first table is behaving as it should, but then the rest of the email goes all cattywampus. We suspect the person that created this simply tested the responsive results by resizing the window on their browser—a kind of poor man’s test environment. If you do that, this email looks fine, proving that there’s no substitute for the real thing.

I Are An Expert!

Speaking of testing, here’s an email from a company that that specializes in providing testing environments for all the various browsers and phones. Either they missed one, or they decided that the Mail program in Microsoft’s Windows 10 wasn’t worth worrying about. Either way, this isn’t something a company whose raison d’etre is testing email should ever be guilty of (to prevent further embarrassment, we’ve removed the company’s logo).

I Heard You the First Time

Amazon errorAmazon likes to send out notifications about newly available movies and TV shows. We’re not sure what happened here, but suspect that the API call that was suppose to register that the email had been sent wasn’t receiving the proper information and decided to keep sending until it was told to stop.

There’s Always One More Typo

misspelled glassTypos are the bane of every writer’s existence. So what’s worse than a typo in your content? How about a typo on the actual product you’re selling. This glass, offered by Bourbon & Boots, has what should have been a clever quote by Mark Twain, but we’re sure Mr. Clemens knew the difference between “then” and “than.” This error has gone uncorrected for over a year now.

Hey Everybody! We Value Your Privacy!

GDPR goofWhen the GDPR came into effect, lots of businesses scrambled to make sure they were compliant. Sometimes, these efforts were counterproductive to say the least. One of the worst came from Ghostery, who sent out an email explaining the steps they’d taken to ensure GDPR compliance. Too bad the included everyone’s email addresses in the “To” field.

Did I Say Mail Merge Errors Were Gone?

mail merge errorPerhaps I spoke too soon. Just when I thought I’d see a year without mail merge errors, this one landed in my inbox. It’s such an easy error to avoid with the careful use of dynamic content.

Our Next Speaker: Wyatt Earp

dead speakerOne of the more amusing apologies came from b8ta—a tech gadget store than sponsors meet-ups with inventors and start-up founders. We’re not sure how you’d confuse Ben Holt with Ben Einstein, but we guess it could be worse: They could have announced that Albert Einstein was going to appear at the b8ta store instead.

Don’t Do This. Not Ever.

fake oopsApology emails have a higher open rate than other emails, so one can see why a marketer might want to use this to their advantage. But apologies are a serous thing and pretending to apologize for the sake of sales puts you just one step away from being labeled a spammer. Don’t do it.

Okay, that’s it for this year. We hope you enjoyed that. In the end, the lesson to be learned is always the same: Test, test, test.

It’s Holiday Season again, and in keeping with past Holiday Seasons, here’s this year’s email game. This one is based on the classic “Shut the Box” but with an email delivery theme. We’ve modified the rules slightly to reflect aspects of email marketing and we’ve added a rule that simulates the difficulty of getting email delivered during the holiday season. It’s a very easy game to play and lots of fun. Enjoy!
Email Game

Rules

Players: Can be played by any number of players but will require additional printouts for more than two players. It may also be played as a solitaire game in which the player tries to beat their own score.

Requirements: Two dice.

Object: To get the most emails delivered. The winner is the person with the fewest remaining undelivered emails at the end of a round.

Before you begin: Print out the game, then cut out the player cards and the individual “Delivered” tags. Each player should have one player card and ten “Delivered” tags.

Start: Players choose who goes first by rolling one die. The player with the highest die roll goes first.
The first player rolls both dice and covers the numbered envelopes with the Delivered tags so that the total number on the covered emails matches the number on their dice roll. They may cover any number of envelopes as long as the total matches their roll. For example, if a player rolls a three and a six, they may cover the #9 envelope or cover smaller numbers to total nine (e.g., 5 + 4, 2+3+4, etc.).
It is then the next player’s turn to roll.

A player’s game ends when they cannot make any more moves. For example: If the player rolls a two and a four, but none of the remaining envelopes can be marked delivered to make a total of six (e.g., 2,5,7,8,9) that signals the end of their game. If the other player(s) can still roll and deliver emails, they continue until they have no moves left.

Scoring: At the end of their rounds, when no player can deliver any more emails, the players total the number of the envelope that has not been delivered. The player with the lowest score wins that round.

NOTE: In some versions of the game, the total number of points left are added to determine the score, but the goal here is to get the most email delivered, so the points don’t matter as much. A player who only had the #10 email left undelivered (total = 1) has a better score than the player who has the #1 and #2 emails left undelivered (total = 2).

Optional Holiday rule: From Thanksgiving until Christmas, getting your email delivered is notoriously more difficult. Mail that got through in October suddenly is landing in the bulk folder as the Holiday Season nears. To simulate this effect, we’ve created the Holiday rule. If you play the game using this rule, after you’ve finished your move the player on your right (or opposite player if two are playing) has the option of removing the delivered tag from one of your delivered emails. Using this rule does increase the strategic potential of the game.

GDPR and Email: Part 3, Data Portability

data portability
NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles addressing the GDPR and its effects on email marketing. For an overview of the subject, see our previous article: GDPR and Email: Part 1, an Overview.

Last time on this blog, we looked at the issues of forgetting and unsubscribing, and how the General Protection Data Regulation (GDPR) affects email marketers. That particular portion of the GDPR has received a lot of press, but there’s a far thornier issue lying in wait a few paragraphs further down in the regulation. I’m referring to the “right to data portability,” which gives the subscriber the right to receive all the data a company has collected on them.1 Compared to the other features of the GDPR, the right to data portability seems haphazardly drawn up, or, at least, drawn up without ever considering the difficulties and problems that its simple request could generate.

Acceptable Formats

Briefly put, the right to data portability says a subscriber has the right to receive any data about them in a “structured, commonly used and machine-readable format.” They don’t specify what this format is. “Commonly used” would suggest a comma separated values (CSV) file, XML, or something similar. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the data can be formatted in a useful manner. Every customer relationship management system (CRM) and email-marketing service provider (ESP) has its own structure, order of operations, and, to a certain extent, terminology, so porting the data from one site to another isn’t as easy as transferring the file. Try opening a Microsoft Word file in a text editor and you’ll see what we mean. Even when the two system can read each other’s data, it doesn’t mean than one system will have a place for all the data from the other. There is no standard for formatting things like click-throughs or deletes without opening. In Recital 68 (separate clarifications to the GDPR), the regulation states that “data controllers should be encouraged to develop interoperable formats that enable data portability,”2 but they make no suggestions as to how this would be accomplished. It is the bureaucratic equivalent to a mom’s admonition for kids to “learn to get along.”

Privacy issues

CSV and XML certainly qualify as commonly used formats, but they are also as easy for humans to read as they are for machines, which raises other privacy issues. If the “Right to Erasure,” presents the danger of someone other than the subscriber making the request, the Right to Data Portability is even more of a threat. With erasure, you’re simply asking to have your data removed from a system. Most people wouldn’t cry if to learn that their data has been accidentally erased by their ESP, but would hit the ceiling if they learned that their data was sent to someone else. Anything sent out in an email has a risk of being seen by others. Even if the format is not easily read by humans, the “commonly used” qualifier means anyone looking to steal someone’s data probably has a program that will have no trouble deciphering the information. But there are other dangers waiting in the wings.

Identity Issues

There are plenty of examples of people pulled aside by the TSA at the airport because their names matched people on suspicious person lists. This isn’t a big concern in the email marketing field, because every subscriber already has a unique identifier: their email address. Even if someone enters the wrong email address, the email will go to the person who has the account and they can choose to ignore the message. There is some danger that if an email account is hacked, the identity thief can now request all that person’s data from the ESP, and the ESP will, by law, be required to provide all the personal data for that hacked account. Depending on the data that is kept, this could provide the thief with a wealth of information about that person. Security on an email account is even more critical than ever.

Here Come the Lawyers

It’s ironic that a regulation designed to help protect an individual’s private data might be the very thing responsible for the theft of that same data. This speaks to the rather haphazard nature of this particular clause. This is why the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names (ICANN) has filed a suit against EPAG, its German affiliate, in an attempt to get better clarification of the GDPR’s restrictions. EPAG recently informed ICANN that when it sells new domain name registrations it would no longer collect administrative and technical contact information, as it believes collection of that data would violate the GDPR rules. For ICANN, this presented an untenable problem since maintaining this data is central to ICANN’s purpose. It’s a thorny issue, for sure. Right now, no one is sure where the balance between private data and public records lies. The courts have their work cut out for them.

While ICANN’s lawsuit is aimed at clarifying the regulations, other lawsuits are aimed at companies that are seen as already violating the GDPR. As of this writing, the only major lawsuits filed against companies under the GDPR are ones against Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and LinkedIn. These were filed shortly after the law went into effect and are intended as test cases. The outcome of these cases will determine what happens next.

Stay Frosty

We will keep watching the events involving GDPR as they unfold and keep you posted if anything changes. In the meantime, as long as you’ve followed the rules of the GDPR that we laid out in part one of our GDPR and Email Overview, you should be alright.

(This concludes our three-part series on the GDPR.)


1. Chapter 3, Article 20: Right to data portability

2. Recital 68: Right to data portability

GDPR and Email: Part 1, an Overview

GDPR vs. Email
They started working on it in 2012, and for the next four years, the countries of the European Union argued over, cajoled each other, and hammered out the details of a ruling known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It was a long hard slog, but when the dust had cleared, the feeling was that the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament had a regulation that would satisfy the privacy issues inherent with any new or future technology, without hampering individual needs.

Or did they?

Ratified on May 24, 2016, the GDPR took effect on May 25th, 2018, and offers the strictest set of regulations to date as to what you can and cannot do with someone’s data. Everything from Facebook to your digital camera has to comply with the regulation, and that includes email subscriptions.

It Affects the Whole World

Although intended to protect the citizens on the European Union, it also applies to overseas companies with EU subscribers—and here’s where the GDPR starts getting fuzzy. In a recent webinar, listeners were told that they don’t have to worry about the GDPR as long as they can prove that did not actively seek European subscribers. On another site, readers were told that if you have any European subscribers, you’re obliged to follow the GDPR restrictions. So who’s right? The webinar is correct, in fact. If you can prove that you intended for your site to be used exclusively outside of the EU and had no mechanism in place to entice European subscribers, you are not liable, but that also means you might have to prove it at some point, and if, for reasons beyond your control, a large number of your subscribers are from the European Union, you’ll probably lose that fight.

That Depends on What The Meaning of “Is” is

At first glance, the GDPR looks pretty thorough. It even has a section that defines the terms it uses, such as “personal data” and “natural person.”1 But look more closely and you’ll see that every definition, in turn, raises new questions. “Personal data,” for instance, is defined as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’),” and goes on to explain that “an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly” (italics mine). Although the ruling is broad enough to include it, you won’t find a discussion of email anywhere in the regulation. In fact, the word “email” is used only once—as an example of one of the things that can be used to identify a person.

After reading and re-reading the current crop of articles about the regulation, what strikes us is how few of these address the questionable areas of GDPR, especially as it relates to email marketing. Whether you run email marketing using your own equipment or take advantage of a hosted solution, here are some questions and discussion about GDPR challenges for email senders.

Tell Me You Like Me

If you’re a European citizen and you’ve signed up to receive email from a company, that company must “demonstrate” that you actually did sign up. So how do you demonstrate that someone provided their information on a web form? The GDPR goes on to talk about written declarations, but that is unlikely to apply for email marketing.

You can be audited to ensure that you are complying with the GDPR, so you should be able to prove this.2 If you say that the recipient confirmed with a double-opt-in, what physical evidence can you present to backup this statement? Is the word of your software that says the recipient clicked the link enough? Do we need to record additional information to show this action really happened, like recording the IP address and browser information used when the confirmation link was clicked? But wait! Isn’t that Personal Identifying Information (PII) that you shouldn’t be keeping on recipients? Which takes precedence? Proving the recipient “demonstrated” their consent, or minimizing the PII for that recipient?

A double-opt-in confirmation step would seem to “demonstrate” the person’s interest in receiving your email. But as many email marketers know, getting people to confirm is challenging. A double-opt-in can reduce the list size; forcing them to do it again is guaranteed to reduce list sizes even further.

Unsubscribing is not Forgetting

You won’t find the word “unsubscribe” anywhere in the regulation or its recitals.3 When you unsubscribe, your information is still in the database, being applied to past metrics and ensuring that you aren’t accidentally left on any mailing list segments. Unsubscribing should be easy. Just click the unsubscribe link on any email and as long as it is an honest and legitimate company you should stop receiving mailings from that company in short order. But the GDPR even complicates this.

“Personal data shall be: adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed…” the regulation states, but then goes on to say: “In a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which the personal data are processed.” To further muddy the waters it continues by adding that “personal data may be stored for longer periods insofar as the personal data will be processed solely for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes…in order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the data subject.”4

The first statement seems to indicate that data about a recipient can be retained only while it is needed for processing. For a regular newsletter subscriber, it seems likely that retaining their information would be acceptable to be able to provide the newsletter service. But what if the person unsubscribes? Or the email address is no longer valid (goes on-hold). Should any personal data for the recipient be removed at this point?

The structure of the GDPR seems to suggest that the answer to this is no unless the person has requested to be “forgotten,” which opens up a whole new can of worms.

I Forgot to Remember to Forget

One of the most controversial and discussed topics about the GDPR is its “Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’)” clause, which states that the “data subject” has the right to request the erasure of personal data.5 Of course, nothing is ever that simple. The regulation goes on to list the cases where a person may request erasure. Since these include for direct “data marketing purposes,”6 we can assume that it applies to most email situations, but is it possible to request that a company erase all your personal information, even though you wish to remain a customer? And what about past metrics? If 25 subscribers clicked on links last year, then asked to be forgotten this year, what happens to that data? Data from previous could be construed as “historical research,” which the GDPR says is okay to keep.7

If “forgotten” means you’re no longer anywhere in the system, and not simply, “we’re not going to send you any more email,” how would you know this? Surely you need to keep a record verifying that a person requested to be forgotten, but if you do, then they’re not completely forgotten. It reminds us of comedian Mitch Hedberg’s joke: “A man in an infomercial told me to forget everything I knew about comforters, so I did. Then he tried to sell me a comforter, but I didn’t know what it was.” If you don’t keep track of who asked to be forgotten, then how can you prevent them being re-entered into your system? It’s ludicrous. The GDPR seems to suggest that a marketer has the right to retain the email address since it’s required for compliance with the legal obligations of the states and is required by the email marketer for the defense of claims that the recipient might make.

Data Extraction

In Article 20, the GDPR is very clear that a person has the right to “receive the personal data concerning him or her, which he or she has provided to a controller, in a structured, commonly used and machine-readable format.”8 This is the “data extraction” clause, and the way it is worded suggests that every email marketer intending to be compliant with the GDPR should have a mechanism that allows recipients to see the data that’s been collected on them. It just doesn’t say what this data might be. Data in demographic fields or associated one-to-many tables would seem like reasonable choices, but how about open and clickthrough data?

For both the data extraction request and the request to be forgotten, there are privacy and security issues left unaddressed by GDPR. You could, for instance, create a web form that lets an email address be “forgotten” when it’s entered, but then a malicious person could erase data just for kicks. Similarly, providing all the collected personal data on request should require some validation to ensure the recipient is actually requesting this data.

Many ESPs have added a request to be forgotten feature to their privacy policies requiring you to send an email to request this. While this wouldn’t appear to be automated, at least it’s a step towards ensuring the recipient is the one making the request. As for the request for data requirement, so far, only Goolara offers to extract the recipient’s personal data in electronic form. Since it is a requirement of the GDPR, we expect others will eventually comply.

Final Thoughts

While the goals of the GDPR are fairly clear and even laudable, it can be difficult to implement when the rubber hits the road. How do we both remove personal data and keep some for the purpose of honoring the unsubscribe? Do we really need to remove all demographics when someone unsubscribes? How do we implement features like data extraction and make it available for portability? We’d like to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.

In Part Two, we’ll get a little deeper into the nitty-gritty of the GDPR, and look at the right to be forgotten in more detail.


1. Chapter 1, Article 4: Definitions

2. Chapter 2, Article 7: Conditions for consent

3. Recitals are brief descriptions added to the GDPR to help clarify certain terms and aspects of the regulation. At this time, there are 173 recitals!

4. Chapter 2, Article 5: Principles relating to the processing of personal data

5. Chapter 3, Article 17: Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’)

6. Chapter 3, Article 21: Right to object

7. Chapter 9, Article 89: Safeguards and derogations relating to processing for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes

8. Chapter 3, Article 20: Right to data portability