Segmentation Screwups: How Do You Recover?

Email segmentation gets more of the right message to the right people at the right time, and it amplifies your response. Used poorly or mistakenly, however, it can amplify the wrong kind of response.

Email segmentation is a funny thing.

Used well, it’s one of those little extras that separates professional email marketing campaigns from disparate sequences of “spray and pray” messages. It gets more of the right message to the right people at the right time, and it amplifies your response.

Used poorly or mistakenly, however, it can amplify the wrong kind of response.

A pair of emails I received the other day demonstrate this and give us a chance to see how we can respond to our own segmentation mistakes.

Let’s have a look…

Borders “Store Closing” Email

Below is an email I received from Borders advertising 40% off due to a store closing:

segmentation mistakes
(Click image to see full email)

This is a nice way to tell Sacramento area customers about a chance to pick up some books on the cheap. As a sender, you could reasonably expect an amplified response rate to this email, since you’re targeting people near that store who have likely shopped there before.

Thing is, I don’t live in Sacramento. Or California. Or West of the Mississippi. Borders sent the email to all subscribers.

From a technical standpoint, this email is just a segmentation “whoops.” Borders meant to send it only to subscribers in the Sacramento area. It’s embarrassing and they probably lost some subscribers (in this case, the mis-segmentation likely amplified their unsubscribes and complaint rate).

Next Up: The “Correction” Email

A couple hours later, this email shows up:

(Click image to see full email)

This “correction” email makes sure I know that I can’t take 40% off any products unless I go to the Sacramento store.

From a technical standpoint, Borders “corrected” their mistake. Might have lost a few more subscribers who didn’t see the first email, but so it goes. There was nothing else they could have done, right?


The “Technical Whoops” From the Subscriber’s View

Like any other “whoops” you might make, a poor segmentation can negatively affect customers’ perception of your business. It can dissolve the relationship you’ve worked to build with them.

Mistakes – or rather, your response to them – can also strengthen that relationship. And this is the real lesson from Borders’ example.

Borders saw their mistake and immediately went into “damage control” mode. Evidently they feared customers were going to show up to all Borders stores and demand 40% off, which confused store employees were unlikely to honor.

In doing that, they missed a HUGE marketing opportunity.

See, as a subscriber, the “whoops” email pointed out that someone else was getting a better deal than me.

And all the correction email did was re-emphasize that comparatively, I was getting a raw deal (Borders even included the body of the original email in the correction – really driving the point home).

While leaving well enough alone may not have been the best option, I’m fairly certain it was a better one than inciting subscriber jealousy. (After all, aren’t subscribers likely to take a cue from man’s best friend and resent the unfairness?)

Would it really have been so hard to give all subscribers a coupon for 40% off of one item?

It’s not like they haven’t done it before – here’s an email they sent me about a week before the store closing one:

segmentation apologies
(Click image to see full email)

Talk about a great opportunity to present an offer with legitimate urgency: “We screwed up, here’s a coupon for just as much off as the Sacramento folks got – but it’s only good until the Sacramento store closes on January 3rd!”

Lessons: What To Do When Segmentation Goes Wrong

1. Decide Whether To Do Anything.

Yes, mis-segmentation is bad. But does sending a “correction” email make it better? If not, does any email make it better?

If not, you may be better off not sending one at all, and just moving on.

2. Fess Up.

If subscribers are aware that something’s amiss (even if they’re not quite sure what), own up to what happened.

Remember, you’re trying to build a relationship with subscribers. You need their trust. Honesty goes a long way toward getting it.

3. Make Lemonade.

Look for opportunities to turn your mistake into everyone’s gain.


  1. Jamie Grove

    12/30/2008 11:09 am

    I completely agree with the conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with saying sorry when you’ve made an error.

    When we’ve made mistakes, we’ve always extended offers to those affected. The open rates are higher and the conversions are also up.

  2. Pat

    12/30/2008 1:01 pm

    Funny – I got those Borders emails this weekend too. I totally agree that Borders blew it with their response. When I got the second one, I couldn’t believe they didn’t extend the offer to all of their subscribers, or at the very least instruct their managers to accept the coupon if presented.

  3. Sundeep

    12/30/2008 2:03 pm


    Thanks for summarizing this. As I stated earlier, I was the ‘fortunate’ recipient of this fiasco as well. We did go to the local store with all three emails and the store manager gave us the 40% discount. Sadly, he was very aware of this email stream as we were not the only people who came by.

    It could have been worse if he marched us out.

  4. Justin Premick

    12/30/2008 3:52 pm

    Jamie and Pat, I completely agree – you should extend the offer to negatively affected subscribers.

    Sundeep, I’m pleasantly surprised that you were able to get the 40% (unfortunately it sounds like that poor manager was in for a rough day).

  5. Peter Netz Lassen

    12/30/2008 10:08 pm

    Hi Justin,

    Very helpfull info/story here…

    Sometimes I myself are a bit "trigger-happy" and do some "damange-control"…. like the story…. ๐Ÿ™

    Now a better solution (limonade)

    Happy new year

  6. Mike Rowan

    12/31/2008 5:55 pm


    That is hilarious!!! But very useful, as I received the 40% off coupon as well, but was very concerned that one of my hangouts was shutting down.

    This is a major corporate mistake that I think that should be rectified by giving us all another 40% off.

    Now the poor sap who made this mistake has probably been fired though

  7. Jeff Kershner

    1/1/2009 1:40 pm

    Nice post and summary of what not to do.

    Even if 40% was too much to send out across the board they could have at least offered a 20% discount for their mistake. I’m sure they still had some damage control even after the correction email.

    Consumers LOVE a good deal and they love a "mistaken" deal even better. Borders could have really played this into a nice spike in sales across all their stores. Might have even stumbled across a "little campaign marketing trick" to play in the future.

  8. Scott Million

    1/2/2009 11:10 pm

    Great post. I just might rewrite it and send it out to my subscribers ๐Ÿ™‚

    This is the kind of ‘gold’ my list loves.


  9. Grant Waldman

    1/6/2009 10:58 am

    To me this is one of the biggest challenges with email marketing: how fast it is and how easy it is to make these kinds of errors if we don’t slow down and really assess the creative, etc.

  10. Karla

    1/6/2009 11:18 am

    I had a major boo-boo just after Thanksgiving when the personalization feature in my e-mail didn’t work. We lost some subscribers in the process, many of whom were long-time customers who were enraged that we didn’t know their first names.

    I wanted to send off an apology e-mail, but higher powers prevailed and discouraged me from doing so. So we all just pretended that it didn’t happen. Lesson learned. Now I make sure I send an actual e-mail a day before the launch. A couple of extra credits won’t hurt as long as I’m sure I don’t make another boo-boo that will finally cost me my neck. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Harjit Irani

    1/6/2009 12:49 pm

    When an error is made just stick with it. Unless it is bankrupting the organization. In that case apologies are welcome.

  12. Email Marketing: Segmentation Screw-ups | Marketing Career Zone

    1/9/2009 6:17 am

    […] recent post on the Aweber blog (Segmentation Screwups: How do you recover?) shows what can happen when an email intended for a select group of customers gets broadcast to the […]

  13. Mark Del Degan

    1/9/2009 2:05 pm

    This posting was fantastic! It gave me a ton of ideas that I can implement in case I need to; as well as change my whole thinking about mistakes on orders and emails.


  14. Tim Southernwood

    1/12/2009 11:07 pm

    When I think of all the email marketing mistakes I’ve made, and you still manage to come up with one I didn’t think of (and personally test ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Well.. not exactly anyway ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Personally I wouldn’t have tried the correction without giving those sent mail in error the same discount as the others.
    Sometimes you just have to accept that you messed up and move on…

    What I’ve also learned is it’s better to delay the mail making sure it’s as near perfect as possible than to send anything in haste.

    As stated, a mailing list is ALL about the trust you’ve developed with the readers, and you will learn one way or another that you can wipe out a list almost as quick as you can build one!

  15. Len Molden

    1/13/2009 10:40 am

    This is an excellent article as I myself did something similar when I first started doing email marketing.

    Now before I send out emails, I send it to my test email addresses many times and read and re-read. I also get other people to read it to see if there is something amiss in terms of how they’re perceiving my intent in the message.

  16. Will

    1/29/2009 11:33 am

    Thanks for sharing this.

    You would find it difficult to beleive if it was not true.

    More please!

  17. Judy Kovacevich

    2/4/2009 9:42 am

    Great post. Regardless if it’s a large company or small, customer service is always high priority.
    As for the follow up email – I can’t believe they didn’t embrace the "oops we messed up tactic." I know others have used it even when they didn’t make a mistake.

  18. Alan Petersen

    2/4/2009 10:01 am

    Borders is in a free fall (its shares down 95 percent since last year). You would think they would ensure their marketing campaigns were run efficiently. In these economic conditions you need to be on the ball more than ever. Not surprising their CIO was let go:

  19. Travis Millward

    2/4/2009 5:15 pm

    That’s a really good lesson Justin. Thanks for pointing out the different options when addressing an email mistake.

  20. gregg dourgarian

    2/4/2009 11:18 pm

    Didn’t embrace the "oops we messed up tactic"? Or couldn’t?

    Often companies have no corporate wide capability for implementing such a discount either for technology reasons or simply because each store is run autonomously (franchise, etc).

    Great case study though, thanks!

  21. Steven Wand

    2/5/2009 10:57 am

    Then there those of us who would receive an email like the one you are discussing and hit delete, jealousy or any other negative emotion not even entering our consciousness.

  22. Charles

    11/19/2010 2:43 pm

    How about you don’t screw up in the first place. It’s so annoying when you get an e-mail and you have no idea where it came from in the first place.