Holiday Marketing Fails 2016

Digital Marketing 101 Mistakes in 2016

Know Your Customer. Know Your Customer Journey. Understand their Messaging Needs. Do this… Before you send messages!

It’s funny we’re still here in terms of minor league mistakes for major brands. I’m not here today to pick on Macy’s in particular. I like Macy’s. Decent store and brand. They’re a generous corporate citizen with a great Thanksgiving Day parade and they put on great NYC fireworks. My wife and I get stuff there sometimes. I think my mom used to take me there when I was a kid. And then there’s this email my wife got Christmas Day I’ll show you below. So even though I like Macy’s just fine, it’s important to point out errors like this so that maybe digital marketers or more junior digital professionals can learn from the mistakes of others.

While the graphic capture below is trimmed in the center for spacing, and not all is easy to see, note that the Subject line is: Happy Hanukkah–extra 20% off ends tonight!

Then you’ll notice that the graphic bubbles with messaging and offers are basically Christmas Tree ornaments and the couple on the bike is all about Christmas. Which is not Hanukkah. For those who might not be familiar, Hanukkah, (also spelled Chaunaka), is a Jewish holiday. It’s not a deeply religious holiday, but it’s pretty clearly not a Christmas thing, even though it happens to fall on the same day as Christmas in 2016.

Take a quick look at the email…


Is this Going to Sell Stuff?

Well, maybe. If the offer is good enough maybe recipients won’t care. But if this was targeted to Jewish folks, then you did up to three things…

  • Indicated a complete lack of awareness or thought.
  • Damaged your brand’s relationship with that customer base.
  • Maybe offended some folks if they’re more sensitive to such issues.

Now is this really a big deal? Personally, I don’t think so. That is, I don’t think there’s any intent to offend any body. Of course not. Someone in marketing was just trying to sell into a particular market with a customized message. Makes perfect sense. Except the junior digital product manager running email, (at least I hope this was a junior staffer), failed to understand their customer in a very basic way.

Let’s Go Over Potential Errors

  1. “Happy Hanukkah” – Was this wise? Possibly. There’s an assumption here that the email is targeted to a Jewish recipient. There’s a lot of ways a marketer might know that. And still more ways an ad management platform tied to a Data Management Platform (DMP) might assume so. So if you’re reasonably sure you can get this right, then yeah, this is a good way to do some personalized marketing. The risk – of course – is if you get this wrong you could upset some customers. Especially when dealing with personal issues such as religion. But also, if you get into creepy personal areas, such as certain health issues, children, etc. Remember how Target innocently outed a pregnant teen?) Not their fault really. Just programmatic marketing at work.
  2. The Messaging – There’s nothing about the UI / UX of this email that indicates anything at all Hanukkah like. It’s pretty obviously all Christmas. For those who celebrate Christmas, this is a great email if the subject line said, Merry Christmas–extra 20% off ends tonight! 

The Lessons?

It’s hard to say for sure what the lessons are because I don’t personally know what technology Macy’s is using for their email and promotional marketing programs.

Marketing Automation: If this kind of thing happened due to automation, then the lesson is, (yet again), that programmatic is still not quite perfect. Automated systems and their heuristic engines use statistics and matching algorithms for assumptions. Which are just that; assumptions. And they’ll sometimes be wrong. We’re going to have to live through this because no one’s going back. So the answer here might just to make sure you’re ready to make apologies or offer corrective messaging when you come to learn of screw ups, because they will happen. They’re perhaps especially likely to happen these days with so many networks and systems of systems trafficking marketing content to target customers with little regard to context. That is, you may have found the right customer via cookies and cross device tracking, but do you really want your message on a porn site or automobile ad showing up while the user is looking at news of a car crash, etc. Make sure to take advantage of – or only use – platforms that offer negative opt out options for campaigns.

Update: 12/26/16, one day later… Here’s an interesting and unfortunate automated marketing fail. At least, I’m assuming this was automated and most would consider it a failure. Though I suppose it’s an arguable point as business is just business. Still, here’s the thing… Apparently there’s some white supremacist reaction to aState Farm insurance ad that had a bi-racial theme. Those offended have tweeted things like, “I’m switching insurance, etc.” One of them says in part, (as you can see below), “Switching to Geico.” Then there’s a response fro GEICO that says, “Hi, you can receive a free quote online…”


Now does Geico really want to be associated with the folks trying to pick up business from racists? Probably not. So it’s not that amusing that the author talking about the issue in this article says “The worst part of all is that virulent lizard at Geico is inviting racists to come to their company.” Leaving aside the irony of this position on a site full of other racist rants, the author is perhaps unaware that this is most likely a simple automated message based on a Twitter scan that happened to find the text “Switching to Geico.” This really isn’t fair to Geico, but there it is. Through – almost – no fault of their own Geico is now potentially part of a very negative conversation about racial issues. Does the public relations department really need to be dealing with this crap? It was just an automated response, not some kind of endorsement of racist attitudes. So all of a sudden Geico needs to respond to such things. (See this Quartz Article.) Can something be done about this? Probably. The algorithm that’s doing the responding can have some stop words or better linguistic analysis built in.  It still probably won’t be perfect. And will likely get some false positives. But in these cases, the worst thing that happens is a few minor missed opportunities for messaging. Which is probably better than being associating with benefitting from racist positions. This might take awhile. The providers of such software are busy kicking our their Minimal Viable Products and they don’t always include such sophisticated options. It’ll take a few Sprints before these things get worked out more fully.


Manual Foolishness: We’re all scrambling to manage our digital businesses, get promos and emails out, etc. etc. We’re optimizing when we send what to whom and tracking every variable we can. So it’s understandable someone is going to screw up sometimes. Still… if you really have an idea of who your customers are, this kind of thing shouldn’t happen. Whether it’s User Persona tools, User Journey Maps, or just taking a moment to think about whom your promotion is targeting, this kind of thing can be avoided.

Holiday & Event Marketing

Years ago, I was running product at a decent size company and there was some scrambling to get some things into production for a holiday promo. We got it done, but I was more than a little annoyed – mostly with myself – as this had happened before.  During a meeting to discuss, my thoughts and comments were pretty simple.

“The holidays fall pretty much the same time every year, right? So why does it seem that they’re always a big surprise? OK, maybe they’re not the same day. Some fall on the fourth Thursday of  a month, or when the moon passes through Mercury, or whatever. But they’re on the calendar a year in advance, right?”

In our case, we brainstormed a bit as a team as to how we might best manage this; editorial calendar using an actual calendar, user stories prebuilt in a kind of evergreen backlog we would give a special name, other options, etc. In the end, we went with a Wiki with our chosen holidays / events on a calendar and set reminders with custom events so any work items would become tasks.

So whether you use a Calendar, a Wiki, an Agile tool of some sort, whatever… there’s no reason these things can’t be in the can sooner. Or at least the basic structure, schedule and messaging goals. Brick and Mortar Retailers are effectively done with the holidays by over the Summer. Why? Because unlike digital, they actually have to do real things to make the holidays happen. If they don’t have physical product already on ships coming from China, or ornaments ordered, or placements purchased, then they lose.

If you’re in this business and you’ve read this story, then take it to heart. Get a process in place in your shop to manage the known holidays and events. Have clear definitions for your marketing targets to make sure your messaging matches your customers. There’s enough that comes up as a surprise that we have to deal with. For the basic table stakes items, we should be able to do better.

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