Avoid Unforced Marketing Errors

Don’t send email promotions that appear to encourage breaking the law

Today, marketers know more than ever about each of their customers. Unfortunately, all too often they fail to use that information and instead use one-size-fits-all marketing. In some cases, that merely reduces the effectiveness of the campaign. In other cases, though, it creates a negative customer experience by making the brand seem clueless or insensitive.

For example, a member of the FlyerTalk frequent traveler community posted copies of email promotions from a major hotel brand. The emails encouraged their rewards members to stay in a London hotel for a “change of scenery” and to get discounted rates at hotels across the UK. These sound normal enough, until the member points out that such travel would be literally illegal due to Covid restrictions.

The original post generated dozens of replies from others who had received similar emails that also seemed to encourage violating travel bans. One member quipped, “Lawbreaker special: double elite nights if you want to risk a fine.” Others termed the emails “tone-deaf marketing” and “rubbing salt into the wounds.”


In the direct mail business, sending promotions to the wrong audience is a good way to go out of business. Any piece more complicated that a postcard can easily run more than $1 per recipient, which puts a premium on marketing to the right people.

Email, by comparison, is nearly free. This is why most of us get thousands of spam messages with offers we aren’t remotely interested in. It’s cheaper for spammers to mail to everyone than try and identify the most likely targets. There’s no downside for them to send as many emails as they possibly can.

Brands that want to create a great customer experience, though, can’t treat email as an almost free marketing tool. There’s a cost, if not in dollar terms, then in the effect on customer experience.

Previously, I identified three deadly email marketing sins and said the worst was too many sales emails. When a single transaction leads to daily, generic sales emails, an “unsubscribe” will soon follow.

But enticing customers with a special offer that they can’t legally take advantage of has an even greater cost. It shows a lack of respect and undermines a brand’s effort to connect with customers on a personal basis.

This hotel chain example is egregious but far from the only example.

I continue to get “free delivery” specials from a fast casual restaurant chain that won’t deliver to my address. Similar delivery promotions come from a major pizza chain that won’t deliver to me. I’m a member of both brands’ loyalty programs, so they should know better. I’ve actually clicked through several times thinking that delivery areas may have been expanded, only to receive the annoying and frustrating “delivery not available” message.

A major telecom company has promoted their high-speed fiber internet service to me. They know my home address, and I called to see if the service was now available. I would have signed up in an instant, but once again got the “not available” message from their phone representative.

Off-target email offers are annoying but usually are easily deleted. In these cases, though, the misleading offer led me to visit a website or make a phone call, only to be frustrated by the outcome. This doesn’t build brand trust.

A brand can’t be expected to know about highly individual situations, such as being unable to travel due to illness. With an entire country on lockdown, though, offering discounts on “Stay-cations” to members in that country is an unforced error.

Years ago, Seth Godin popularized the idea of “permission marketing.” Just because email is an incredibly cheap form of marketing doesn’t mean your customers have granted you permission to fill their inbox with off-target promotions.

Brands that treat each customer inbox as a valuable and scarce resource will outperform those that overuse email to gain ever smaller increments in sales.

I write about science-based business strategies. One thing customer experience and corporate culture have in common is that they both involve humans. My books Friction