How to survive (and learn from) email marketing mistakes

Learn how to deal with mistakes, analyze what went wrong and move forward from errors while maintaining a candid, accountable team culture.

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Back in January, I was appointed CEO of our email agency. Within a week, I made a mistake that cost our company money. It’s not much, but it’s enough to make me not want to do it again.

Unlike most email mistakes, this one happened behind the scenes. But even though my mistake didn’t end up in your inbox, it’s still a learning opportunity with takeaways that can help you spot potential errors long before they go out into the world. 

One takeaway is that we are all human and fallible. Everybody screws up, including the CEO, and it’s usually not the end of the world.

In email, a mistake can seem like the end of the world because so many people can see where we messed up. A typo in the subject line. The wrong product image. The wrong copy in a call-to-action button. The right button copy but the wrong link to the landing page.

Back in my retail email days, my mistakes would go out to millions of subscribers. Once, one of my team members accidentally included all of our unsubscribed addresses in a mailing. 

Talk about an “oops!” If that had happened today, not only could we have irritated many people, but also we could have been held liable for spamming in some countries.

3 ways to manage and prevent email mistakes

Mistakes happen, not because digital marketers are careless or incompetent but because we’re all moving fast. We’re trying to get one campaign out the door while planning for the next. But we need to stop and think.

How do we prevent mistakes from happening in email? How do we analyze, process, learn from our mistakes and then move on? It’s easy to get mired in the mistakes. We must focus more on understanding what happened, preventing it from happening again and moving on from it.

These three changes can help you keep more mistakes out of the email process and learn from the ones that sneak through.

1. Slow down

Just before I screwed up this year, I told everybody in my company to slow down so they could focus on what they were doing. And why did I make my mistake? Because I was moving too fast. I didn’t think about what I was doing or why. I just did it, and it came back to bite me. 

The problem with slowing down in email marketing is that it doesn’t come naturally. We keep telling ourselves: 

  • “I gotta get this job done because it’s on the calendar.” 
  • “The CEO wants this in his inbox before the weekend.” 
  • “I have to get this promotion out the door.” 

So we rush to get the job done. And when you rush, you’re more prone to mistakes.

So, in our marketing promotions, social media campaigns or mobile marketing, we must find ways to avoid that rush. These two comparatively small changes can make you less prone to errors:

Document your deployment process. Have you mapped all the steps in your deployment process and then written it out? You need to spell out all of your fail-safe efforts like identifying redundancies to cover gaps when key people are unavailable. 

Cover every detail, including who is in charge and what to do before your campaign goes to the next steps. Distribute the plan to everyone on your team so everyone knows what’s happening at every stage. This kind of structure is one of the best ways I know to prevent mistakes.

What you don’t want to do is to send an “oops” email. (But I’ll talk about that later.) 

Identify gaps where mistakes can sneak in. One helpful tactic here is to designate a “last mile” person, someone who can look at your email, text or social post and flag errors in everything from content to audience before you hit “send.”

When I worked in retail email, I would ask someone from the direct mail team to go over my campaign emails, test them and look for errors. Why direct mail? Because those people have an eye for detail, which is a key part of their job. With print campaigns, once a campaign goes to print, it’s locked in with no chance to change anything on the fly.

Look around your company for someone sharp enough to check your work and familiar enough with your emails to know what to look for but who also doesn’t work on your email team. They should read your emails the way your customers would but also click links, hunt for typos in inbox and message copy and flag any funky-looking coding.

Most importantly, don’t wait for mistakes to happen. Document your process and identify your last-mile steps. These will fill mistake-inviting gaps that could result in brand or team embarrassment. 

Dig deeper: 8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

2. Think before you send an ‘Oops!’ email

If you make a mistake, should you send a follow-up with the correct information? I have fielded this question countless times over the last 25 years. Every time I get it, my answer is a little different. 

About 50% of the time, I tell companies not to send an “Oops!” email because the mistake isn’t a big deal. Sure, it’s a big deal to the person who made the mistake, but seldom is it a mistake that would justify a second mailing. It could even do more harm than good.

The next time you make a mistake — and there will be a next time; see my comment above about humans and their fallibility — ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I need to correct a misunderstanding about price or terms?
  • Did my call center suddenly go up with unhappy or angry customers? 

If you can answer “Yes” to either question, you should send a correction. But you don’t have to make a big production out of it. Send the right campaign, add a note explaining what happened and move on.

A bigger question is which subscribers should get your apology email. In the old days, we would send the corrected version to anyone who opened the email. Now that opens are polluted, should you send it to anyone who clicked on the email? That answer will depend on your list dynamics, what was in the message and other factors unique to your list and customer base.

Be objective when you go through your decision-making process. Forget about the mistake and think instead about your brand and your customers. 

If you want more advice for creating useful apology emails, my email colleague Kath Pay came up with some great advice and examples: “How to create an effective apology email: 7 examples.”

And for God’s sake, stop sending fake “Oops!” emails. That little hack to trick customers into opening your emails is just inbox abuse. 

Dig deeper: How bad data can spoil good personalization

3. Share with your team

After I messed up, I wanted to crawl into a box. Thankfully, I was on a plane and I could go three hours without talking to anyone. But I felt horrible.

When I returned to work, I shared what had happened with my team. This was hard, but I wanted my team to learn two things: 

  • Not to do what I did.
  • Even the CEO can mess up.

That acknowledgment of humanity — admitting fault and taking responsibility for mistakes — is important. You aren’t giving your team permission to make mistakes. But you’re letting them know that it’s not a death sentence if they do. 

So, when you send an email with a bad link, you document what happened and how you solved the problem and share it with the team. You are accountable for your mistake. Yes, it’s embarrassing. It’s supposed to be. But after you get past the embarrassment, you can take your lessons learned and move on.

This is how we learn, how we improve our processes, do our jobs better and make fewer mistakes. When my team member accidentally emailed our unsubscribes all those years ago, we didn’t blame anybody. We sat down together and figured out how not to make that same mistake again. 

We’re all moving at 12 million miles an hour, especially during high-volume seasons. Let’s look at the process that enabled the mistake and see where we can put safeguards in. Focus on the solution, not whom to blame.

Slow down and handle errors gracefully

Let me repeat my key point: We all make mistakes. If you haven’t made a big one yet, don’t worry — it will happen to you. The mistake I made was bigger than most, and I got plenty of ribbing and kidding. That’s OK because I deserved it.

But I also heard from team members who said they appreciated my candor and that mistakes were OK. Years ago, I made a big mistake. When the boss called, I thought for sure I was going to get reamed up and down.

“That was a big deal, wasn’t it?” he said. “You’re probably beating yourself up worse than I could. Let’s just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I appreciated his acknowledgment that making a mistake was OK but that it was up to me to fix what happened and not let it happen again. We don’t make mistakes on purpose, but we don’t have to live in fear of making them.

If you can document your email processes, figure out your last-mile steps, slow down and do your work in a quiet space, you won’t be sending as many mistakes out into the world.

Dig deeper: 3 ways to avoid email automation breakdowns


Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Ryan Phelan
As the CEO of RPE Origin, Ryan Phelan's two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for global leading retail, FinTech and technology brands as well as ESP’s.

In 2023, Ryan received the industry’s top honor of Thought Leader of the Year Award and is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on email marketing.

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