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Ask Dr. E-Mail:
E-Mail Accidents How to Prevent Them

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
May 2003 Issue
  By V.A. Shiva

Recently, CNN Headline News reported a major story concerning an e-mail that was sent from a major Ivy League University to nearly 3,000 college applicants. In that e-mail, 3,000 applicants were notified that they were accepted to the University for the school term starting in the fall of 2003. The problem was that only 1,000 of these applicants should have received the e-mail acceptance letter; however, due to a "data error," nearly 2,000 were misnotified.

A few days later, the University had to contact the nearly 2,000 misnotified students and families via phone, snail mail and e-mail to let them know that they had really not been accepted. What a mess! The waning of trust and tarnishing of the University's image were the result as this story was broadcast on CNN News during prime time.

E-mail is immediate. For marketers and those who want to use e-mail as a servicing mechanism for notifications, as in this University example, e-mail is perhaps too immediate and in some cases irreversible if good processes and best practices are not followed. The immediate nature of the e-mail medium, unlike the print medium, demands a higher level of commitment to good processes. Integrity of data and creating a culture and environment where e-mail is seen as a critical application has become even more penultimate to ensure that mistakes such as this do not ever take place.

There are a number fundamental processes or best practices that could have been put in place to prevent such an error. These best practices can be applied to lower the risks of e-mail transmissions for all e-mail marketing and notification campaigns. Following are five key steps to mitigating the risk of such erroneous transmissions.

  1. Review data capture and data input procedures. This process involves a detailed review of how your data is input, particularly to ensure field validation and data confirmation is taking place at the point of data capture. This review will enable one to find potential areas of improvement for data validity. For example, on a Web form, adding a validation code will inhibit erroneous data directly at the source of input.
  2. Separation of querying from transmission. I call this the separation of church and state - meaning the person who is doing the querying of the data to build segments should not be the same person doing the transmission of the e-mail. Even if the data is valid and perfect, in cases where errors have occurred, typically the same person who was building the segment or list was also the same person who executed the deployment of the e-mail campaign. Assigning these tasks to different individuals can ensure that the person who is doing the transmission can independently audit the mailing list and perform tests to ensure that the segment or list is truly what was originally intended.
  3. Random sampling and test cells. Before sending out the total volume, it is valuable to do a random sampling to create a smaller test list comprising no more than five percent of the original list. A mini-campaign should be executed on this test list. This testing process will serve not only to unearth any potential errors, but also to limit the exposure of an error to a finite set. By mandating such a test procedure, others will take e-mail transmissions more seriously, though more than likely with initial recalcitrance because e-mail is viewed as being so easy.
  4. Content and editorial review. Recall from my earlier columns that e-mail represents your brand. Therefore, it is important to enforce stringent content and editorial review guidelines as you would for an important letter to be sent to your customers or shareholders. Prior to any transmission, there should be at least two formal internal approvals of the e-mail content. Obviously, such review includes basic spelling, grammar and fact checking.
  5. Responding to feedback. Many times when there is an error, your customers or the recipients of the e- mail will be the first ones to let you know either via e-mail or phone. Once such feedback is received, a strong response management process is necessary to ensure the transmission is stopped. If the transmission was completed, an effective statement should be crafted and released discussing the error and the steps that will be taken to correct the error. Such responsiveness will increase the probability that your customers and recipients will forgive you. Particularly, relative to e-mail feedback, it will be important that the "from" address on such transmissions is a valid address so you can, in fact, receive those messages.

These five steps can help prevent erroneous transmissions. Major retailers and financial services institutions are sending upward of 50 to 100 million e-mails per month. Errors in such high-volume transmissions or even in the example of the University are all significant. They can and should be avoided.

There is a recipient on the other end of that e-mail. Because e-mail is a personal medium, errors will result in an erosion of trust. Trust, as we all know, is key to building and sustaining a relationship. Trusted relationships, in turn, serve to build, grow and retain your customers and revenue. These steps, therefore, will not only serve to reduce and eliminate errors in e-mail transmissions, but also - more importantly - create a culture where e-mail communication is seen as a key element of building and growing your trusted relationships with you customers and prospects.


Check out DMReview.com's resource portals for additional related content, white papers, books and other resources.

V.A. Shiva, also known as Dr. E-Mail, is the chairman and CEO of EchoMail, Inc. Shiva created one of the world's first e-mail systems for which he was recognized with the prestigious Westinghouse Science Award. Shiva founded EchoMail in 1994 to provide advanced business intelligence technologies for e-mail management. Shiva may be reached at Dr.E-Mail@EchoMail.com.

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