January 10, 2013, 4:18 PM

Amazon jumps the gun with its football championship e-mails

The retailer sent congratulations to Alabama and Notre Dame fans before kickoff.

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College football fans rooting for Alabama or Notre Dame in their championship game this week reportedly received disconcerting e-mail greetings from Amazon.com Inc. An e-mail congratulating those fans on their team’s win and promoting related merchandise arrived in their inboxes on Monday morning—hours before the game—followed later that day by an apology for the gaffe.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But an e-mail marketing expert says the mistake was hardly tragic.

“These types of things happen all the time,” says Chad White, an independent e-mail marketing consultant who until recently wrote The Retail Email Blog for Responsys Inc., an e-mail service provider. The news generated so much Internet buzz only because it involved such a big game and the web’s biggest retailer, he says. “E-mail marketing is a fast-moving medium and humans make mistakes,” he says. “It’s inevitable.”

For example, last year Urban Outfitters Inc. sent an e-mail to its entire customer list about events happening only in select Los Angeles and San Diego stores, White says. And in 2010, The Sports Authority Inc. made a similar mistake, sending all five versions of the e-mail message it was A/B testing to every customer on its e-mail list, he says. Uploading the wrong list is a common e-mail marketing error, he says. The problem compounds when it happens to a retailer with multiple brands, he adds, because a consumer who didn’t opt in for a brand’s e-mails may be confused when she receives a marketing message.

Timing errors like Amazon’s however, are often less of a big deal because consumers can clearly tell the messages are a mistake, White says. For example, in 2007, pet supplies direct marketer Drs. Foster and Smith sent out a Thanksgiving e-mail a week early, an obvious date mix-up, he says, but didn’t bother to send an explanatory e-mail afterward.

“Apologies are kind of over-rated,” White says. “For big things, sometimes it’s not worth it.” Unless a retailer has sent something quite egregious, confusing or accidently socially embarrassing—like a sports retailer that White doesn’t name but which, he says, sent a message joking about how terrible nature was just a few days before a destructive hurricane hit—one more e-mail might simply annoy consumers and draw unnecessary attention to a marketer’s mistake. Also, every time a merchant sends an e-mail, some small percentage of consumers always unsubscribes, White says. So sending extras without a strong reason may not always help retailers enough to offset the damage, he says.

Amazon would have been better off without the apology, instead sending the correct message 24 hours later, White says. “People who would redeem that offer knew the game hadn’t happened,” he says. “Better to just move on and do it right.”

Amazon is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide; Urban Outfitters, No. 48; Sports Authority, No. 230 and Drs. Foster and Smith, No. 118.

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