I recently received an email from HubSpot, the giant of inbound marketing software, and there were two problems with it. The small problem was that it delivered bad news. The larger problem was that it delivered bad news to over 300 people who were all listed in the TO field, rather than the BCC field.
If this has ever happened to you — and it probably has — you’ll know that what came next was a funny and frustrating mix of conversation, weather updates, sales pitches, and a few people screaming for it to all stop.
But as I followed the email chain, I kept thinking: there must be a way to respond to these situations more effectively and more gracefully. After all, as marketers, everything we say is “content creation,” and reflects either positively or negatively on our company and our brand. Surely we’re smart enough to respond more thoughtfully!
So follow along with me for a few minutes as I highlight five lessons learned from an email marketing mess, and how we can make better human connections in a messy digital world.
The Story So Far
HubSpot recently decided to end the Referral Tier of their Sales Partner Program, which ONE Department was a part of.
This meant that everyone in the Referral Tier would no longer be a partner, unless they moved up to the Solutions Tier (which requires a higher level of sales and dollar commitment, but that’s another story). This post isn’t about the end of the Referral Tier, but about the lessons to be learned from an email chain that got out of hand.
Lesson 1: Don’t Be the One to Open Pandora’s Box
The Referral Tier Partners were informed of the change with a well-worded email from the Director of HubSpot’s Global Sales Partner Program. It arrived in my inbox at 2:51 pm on January 17th, and within an hour we had our first “Reply All,” from a user in the U.K. with a valid question about the higher tiers of the program.
Either this person didn’t realize that “Reply All” would go out to the entire list, or they thought that this was a community conversation and that their question might add value to the group.
Even when it’s well intentioned, it’s rarely worthwhile to reply to everyone in an accidental email thread. Go ahead and hit “Reply,” rather than “Reply All,” and the original sender can inform the masses about your question if they choose to.
Lesson 2: Take Ownership of Your Mistakes, Quickly . . .
After a few more “Reply All” emails, the original sender realized what was happening. He sent another email to everyone, apologizing for his mistake. It was a sincere apology, and he took ownership.
In my opinion, the only thing that should have been left out was explanation that he sent the email from his own email account instead of the HubSpot one. To me, that just sounds like an excuse.
Lesson 3: . . . But Not So Fast That You Cause More Problems.
Unfortunately, in his haste, the original owner compounded the problem by still including everyone’s email in the wrong field! Moving all the email addresses to the BCC field would have meant that no one could perpetuate the thread by replying to this particular message. Instead, he made the same mistake again – or, at least, failed to correct the mistake – so that everyone could continue to hit Reply All to chime in with their thoughts and opinions. And they did!
When you take action to correct a mistake, don’t move so quickly that you make the problem worse. Take a deep breath, evaluate the situation, and discuss it with others. There are a number of things the sender could have done better, and he might have thought of them if he’d taken his time with his reponse:
- Moved all email addresses to the BCC field, so that further “Reply All” clicks wouldn’t work.
- Respectfully asked for what he wanted: for people to stop replying to the entire thread. It’s implied, but he never actually asks for the conversation to stop, which caused more problems down the road. Be clear on the action you want people to take.
- Offered alternative methods of communication.
- Offered useful information, like how to opt out of an email thread in different email programs. (More on this later.)
LESSON 4: Make the Best of What You’re Given
The next part is comical, and I rather enjoyed it. Most partners within the program did not slam HubSpot for the error, and most didn’t comment on the ending of the Referral Tier. Instead, an organic and even lighthearted conversation sprung up, in the same way that a group of strangers stuck on an elevator together might begin to chat.
Given the raging winter storms that week, the topic of weather came up between readers in Minnesota (-10 °F) and California (78 °F).
Another person wrote, “It’s nice to meet everyone, even if it was by accident.”
And naturally, a few people took the opportunity to promote themselves to their newfound group of friends.
Honestly, I found this entertaining, light-hearted, and even therapeutic. We were an community, albeit an accidentally-formed one, going through the shared experience of being stuck on an email thread together. As we were all HubSpot partners, we knew we had at least something in common.
We humans are social beings and we thrive on connection and communication!
LESSON 5: The Internet Doesn’t Listen to “Authority.”
Anyone who’s been in this situation before knows what happened next. The following day, we got our first reply from someone attempting to stop the email thread.
Unfortunately, the internet does not work that way, as the next reply demonstrates:
I did feel his pain, as I am sure others did, because my inbox was also filling up with a constant barrage of “Reply All” emails good-naturedly letting me know the current temperatures all around the world.
But issuing commands in an angry tone just isn’t effective on the internet. After all, you’re not my mom! And this only creates badwill for you and your organization. You can bet that I glanced at the writer’s title and organization and thought to myself, “Why is it always the CEOs who act so entitled on the internet?”
You can’t stop people behaving in a certain way just by sending out an email demanding that they stop. And it makes you look bad. But there is a better way!
LESSON 6: Be Helpful, Not Reactive
More comments continued on the third day, from people who had either missed the “stop emailing me” chorus, or didn’t care.
Then HubSpot came back a second time, with the following:
HubSpot’s references to “legal teams” and “legal action” comes off as a not-so-veiled threat. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I don’t like it. As a corporation, you don’t threaten legal action unless you really, really mean it. Like the annoyed CEO above, it creates badwill.
I don’t mean to criticize anyone here — well, OK, maybe just a little — but there are so many better ways to respond in this situation! As marketers, we can take a more thoughtful approach.
A helpful response might look like:
“Hey everyone, we’re currently dealing with something your clients may have dealt with too! If you want to remove yourself from this accidental thread, there are a couple of simple technical solutions. Gmail users have the option to MUTE any thread, and Outlook users can use the MOVE feature to keep it out of your inbox. Here’s how…”
Or alternatively, you could use humor rather than threats to diffuse the situation:
“Hi guys, thanks for all your weather updates! It is currently 70 degrees here and I’m glad to not be in the northeast.
In the interests of me keeping my job after this blunder, I would ask that we all take it easy on the Reply All button out of respect for the people who don’t want to be involved.”
In our digital age, we cannot always control every digital interaction that will take place. However, we can learn, adapt, behave politely, and teach others how to respond better. Let’s do so, because the alternative — rudeness, shouting, and threats — just doesn’t reflect well on us. It’s not so endearing to our colleagues, fellow partners, potential clients, and so on.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts!