Celebrity Cruises: A Ship Came In, But It Wasn’t Mine

My wife and I are looking forward to a cruise with Celebrity in a few weeks on a ship sailing to a few locations in the Caribbean. Like any good marketing machine, Celebrity is sending us frequent reminders of our upcoming vacation while providing us with add-on solicitations: beverage packages, gourmet dining, and excursions. Until recently, these emails appeared to me to be well targeted (and enticing, but I digress). However, this email for One-of-a-Kind Modern Luxury Adventures misses the mark.

Celebrity Discovery Collection

Celebrity Discovery Collection

Celebrity Discovery Collection

The email visually represents a few exclusive opportunity excursions in Europe. As much as I’d like to go to Europe, I’m not. Perhaps the email was intended as a general sales communication of their new Celebrity Discovery Collection excursions. Perhaps the targeted population was everyone in their email communications list. If so, then the reference to “HERE’S A SAMPLE OF WONDERFUL EXCURSIONS FOR YOUR NEXT VACATION” is too assumptive, because my next vacation – and that of many other customers receiving the email – won’t be to Europe. 

If this email had been targeted as intended – a broad audience – then the headline should have read “HERE’S A SAMPLE OF WONDERFUL EXCURSIONS WITH CELEBRITY” or simply “HERE’S A SAMPLE OF WONDERFUL EXCURSIONS.” This merits a minor Fail for Creative, because the messaging is not aligned with the target audience. If the email had been targeted at upcoming European cruise customers, then it merits a more substantial Fail for Targeting, because it was sent to people not planning to sail to Europe.

It appears to me that Celebrity does not fully manage their customer communications.  Some emails are properly targeted and personalized, while others seem to have a Spray & Pray approach.  Specifically, they send the same communication to every email address they have.  Such emails fail at building and maintaining customer relationships.

Consider the best use of your small data, that is, the collection of information already available that can be used simply and effectively.

In the meantime, below is an example of a well-targeted upsell email complete with personalization and relevant visuals of available excursion opportunities. No Fails here.


Verizon Wireless: Winback Email That Does Not Win Me Back

Last June, I wrote about lack of communications from Verizon Wireless after I switched my mobile service to a different carrier. A couple months later, I started to receive winback offers shown below – offering a package deal price of $40 per line for four lines with unlimited usage.
Verizon Wireless
I need 1 line -- not 4

This is a Fail for List. Verizon had 15 years of customer history and could have easily discerned that I was a single-line, low-usage customer. An unlimited plan is not useful for me, much less a plan with three devices more than I need. Verizon Wireless doesn’t need to use Big Data to properly tailor its winback offers. Making smart use of Small Data – namely, the collection of information already available that can be used simply and effectively – would be sufficient to understand former customer needs and offer a service that is relevant. 
Verizon Wireless mail that fails
Page 2 of email -- fine print & disclosures

My supposition is that Verizon’s leadership has chosen to take a product proposition and push it out. As I write this, their mass media marketing focuses on unlimited usage offers on their better network. After 20 minutes on their confusing website, I’m not sure there is even a low-usage plan available anymore. 

Granted, the population of U.S. consumers using less than 4 GB per month is decreasing, but keeping or winning back a customer is always less expensive than winning an all-new customer. (To wit: As of this writing, Verizon Wireless is offering rebates of $150 and up to new customers.)  Keep the customers you have, then you can upsell and cross-sell them later to 5G, home FIOS, and other services.

The best way to win back former customers is to offer what your data suggests they want or need.


Borgata: Cyber Monday was so yesterday

Many years from now, people will look back and ask "What was Cyber Monday?  Why buy gifts only on one particular day of the week?"  But, we're not there in 2017.  Not only do retailers leverage Cyber Monday as a sales opportunity, so do resorts.

Sent on 11/28/17 (time stamp circled), touting special offers only on 11/27/17

This email from Borgata was sent mid-day on November 28, a day after Cyber Monday.  Not only does the email tout Cyber Monday deals, but it explicitly says in the disclosure below that the offers are valid only on November 27. 

This is a classic Fail for Timing.  It should have been sent on the morning of Cyber Monday, or even late in the day on Get Home From Thanksgiving Trip Sunday.

When you have a time-specific offer, even a short-term one, allow customers adequate time to respond.

Get your customers’ attention now

This article in the Wall Street Journal reviews mistakes that retailers are making in reaching out to customers via email during the holidays.  The article mentions that emails often fail to offer products relevant to their customers’ interests or are outdated upon arrival.

What the article doesn’t mention is that retailers often fail to make their case for immediate purchase upfront.  At this time of year with the gifting holiday imminent, retailers should put their purchasing sales proposition in the Subject Line and reinforce them at the opening of the body of the emails.  Inappropriate subject lines I’ve seen include:

“Cyber Monday Deals from Project Fi” (Google)
“We're Extending Cyber Monday to TUESDAY!” (Resorts World Bimini)
“SAVINGS. GALORE.  All day!” (Hampton Inn)

Better subject lines would be:

“Free $100 Fi Credit with phone purchase – until midnight tonight”
“2-night stay + Island Transfer = only $199. Must book by 4 pm”
“10% off 2-night stay if you book tonight”

These may not be the best subject lines under normal circumstances, but on Cyber Monday they are.  Customers are at best scanning retailers' emails to find the best deals for them.  Retailers need to get past the clutter of other opt-in email communications and get their message across right away.  When you can, include a deadline upfront.

On Cyber Monday and during peak shopping seasons, use an immediate call to action.


Verizon Wireless: Why Ask Why? So It Can Try

6 weeks ago, I deactivated my Droid Turbo with Verizon Wireless and activated my Pixel XL with google’s Project Fi.  That ended what was a 15-year relationship with Verizon.  Since then, I have not received any communications from Verizon except for a bill notice that I have a credit of $0.01. 

I would have thought that after such a big break-up, my ex-wireless carrier would have tried to win me back, or at least ask “Why?” and gain some insight.  A snail mail letter might cost half a dollar to a dollar, but with the proper messaging is likely to be read.  The cost of a targeted email is virtually zero.  The incentive expense of a reasonable Winback offer could easily be less than some of the aggressive acquisitions offers made today.

Verizon Wireless reportedly continues to lose market share, yet based on this focus group of one, the carrier apparently does not invest in Winback or market research efforts regarding lost customers.   That’s a Fail for List, Offer and Timing.

Lesson: Sometimes the biggest Fail is not communicating. 


Thanks Again: St Patrick’s Day Hangover?

Thanks Again is a travel rewards program where people earn points for shopping or parking at some airports, using Uber, and dining at some restaurants.

Occasionally, they email me a reminder of their services and an opportunity to earn rewards. I received this email with a St. Patrick’s Day theme — on March 18. Since St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, the theme of the email is dated.  Fail for Timing andCreative.

Lesson:  Holiday-themed communications should be sent prior to the holiday.


Uber: Free Ride Available but So Far Away

Uber Mail That Fails List
email from Uber 4/27/16
I received this offer from Uber for a free ride from “the Fest.”

“What fest?” I asked myself, “Musikfest is not until August.” It took me several minutes to realize that the festival being referenced is in New Orleans. My guess is that Uber cannot mention the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival by name because it is not a paid sponsor.

This email merits a Fail for List  because it was sent to someone in Pennsylvania who has not been to New Orleans or used Uber south of the Mason-Dixon Line this year. However, if Miller Lite is ready to subsidize a 1,217-mile ride, I’m ready for some Paul Simon. I wonder if Uber will still be crazy after all these years.

I would think Uber has the technology to target emails by mobile location rather than spray what I presume was the entire country.

Lesson: Geographically-based offer emails should be targeted.


United Arlines: Failed Email Delayed at the Gate?

This email from United Airlines merits a Fail for Timing. It presented entertainment options for a flight on Sunday, April 24, departing at 6:00 am, but was sent on Sunday, April 24, at 4:01 pm, near the completion of my trip.

United Airlines Timing Mail That Fails
Email sent 4/24/16 @ 4:01 pm

I have flown United enough to believe this is not their standard procedure. I typically receive an email about inflight entertainment options 24 to 36 hours before my flight. I’m not sure why United delayed this one for so long, but it would have been better for the airline to not have sent it at all than to send it so late.

Lesson: Be sure your time-sensitive email is sent on a timely basis.

United Airlines mail That Fails
Flight UA 548 departed @ 6:00 am;
UA 2942 arrived @ 4:40 pm


Wright Veterinary: Typo Leads to Very Early Reminders

I received this postcard on January 15 from the veterinarian for my dog, Buddy. The vet sends these courtesy postcards if I have missed my dog’s immunization dates, reminding me to keep my dog vaccinated.

Although one would like to believe that the neighborhood vet who cares about each four-legged and two-legged friend individually is a from a mom-and-pop shop, it is nonetheless a business complete with business processes, a database, and a lettershop. The reminder postcard I received for my vet in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had been mailed from such a lettershop in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 

The postcard reminded me about treatments due in December 2016 -- 11 months from now. This merits a Fail for List. As I understand from a phone call to the WrightVeterinary Medical Center, one of the employees had incorrectly entered the month and year of due vaccinations for the mailing list. This typo had resulted in many reminder postcards being sent in error -- and many pet owners calling in to verify they had received the postcard in error.

Wright Veterinary Reminder CardThe message is attempting to be a bit cute -- referring to the pet and suggesting the owner bring the pet in for immunizations, but the message was a bit confusing. However, I wouldn’t call the message a Fail for Creative. Still, there are some typos as well as multiple instances of confusion between singular and plural nouns, so the copy could be cleaned up a bit. Here is an attempt to streamline the content while maintaining the same message.

We missed seeing your pet for at least one important vaccination.

Maintaining your pet’s immunity to diseases is a vital part of its total health care program. So, we wanted to remind you of the vaccinations and dates due for each pet. They are listed on this postcard.

Please be sure to order preventative medications and make an appointment for preventative treatments now, because further delay could be harmful to your pet. Call us at Wright Veterinary Medical Center today at 610-865-2611, because a healthy pet is a happy pet.

I would also suggest writing a cleaner call to action. Just ask the pet owner to call in to discuss how to ensure the pet can get its required vaccinations. By having one call to action and maintaining a consultative tone, a pet owner can call with adequate peace of mind.

If I am going to write about my dog, I can’t help myself but include a picture of Buddy. He is such a cute, friendly dog!

  1. What goes out on your mailing list is based on what you put in as your list criteria, so be sure your mailing list accurately reflects your intentions.
  2. Keep your call to action clean and simple whenever possible.


Quicken: Thinking of My Money Before Christmas

My favorite direct marketing guru Bob Stone said, “Once JCPenney has its first Christmas sale, little else matters.” He was referring to selling low-interest products via direct marketing during the holiday season. The conventional wisdom is that December is the time to sell things you can gift or donate – whether a sweater or money to the March of Dimes. This makes it seem odd that I received a CD-ROM from Quicken in the mail on the Friday before Christmas. 

I don’t use Quicken 2015 – nor have I used Quicken 2014, 2013, 2012, etc. Thus, I presume this is a new-customer prospect solicitation. Visually, it reminds me of those AOL CD-ROMs sent by the millions in the 1990s. I suppose that, somewhere, some people are thinking, “Yes, this is the solution I need for knowing where all my money is!” during a time when most people are focusing on where their money is going and how to get those Christmas LEDs to stop blinking.

I wonder if this mailer is Fail for Timing, or if Intuit has done enough research to truly believe that the week leading up to Christmas is a time to help people take control of their finances. My best guess is that, when they mailed it Standard Rate, they expected it to arrive later in the month, but the Postal Service delivered it faster than expected.

Happy new year!  


Just Energy: Limited Offer for Unlimited Electricity with Failed Mail Limitations

Just Energy Unlimited electricity offer envelope
Outer Envelope with 'Limited Time' mention in the teaser
Sometimes brilliant ideas fail on execution. That might be the case with this solo letter package from Just Energy. Their offer of unlimited electricity is innovative and potentially compelling. For one price, you can get all you can eat, er, consume.  

Just Energy Unlimited PA landing page
404 error message on landing page /UnlimitedPA
But this direct mail marketing campaign merits some Fails for Creative. The largest Fail is for a non-functional landing page. As I write this, the website listed at the bottom of the letter has a 404 error message. A customer cannot sign up.

On the letter itself:
  • Just Energy overuses branding. The company name is mentioned several times, filling up the page when critical space could be used to message benefits and reinforce the call to action, which is hard to find at the bottom of the page.
  • Variable content is misaligned. The price, the green checkmarks, and the promo code all appear to be a bit higher on the page than they should be. This gives the appearance of a shoddy form letter, which makes the company seem less trustworthy. 
  • Much of the focus is on features but there is little focus on benefits.  
  • The box in the middle of the page mentions “JustGreen,” but there is no payoff of the term. I presume that JustGreen is a trade name or product name for renewable energy sourcing; however, this is not explained to the reader.
Just Energy Unlimited Electricity Offer Letter
Offer Letter Front
  • Some of the language is a bit heavy on industry jargon. For example, residential consumers understand energy “usage” but might not understand what “consumption” means.
  • Another product name, “Unlimited Plan,” is capitalized inconsistently. In the Johnson Box (and later in the letter) the term is proper-capped; however, in the second paragraph, only the word “Unlimited” is capitalized. 
  • The signatory is generic. Rather than closing with “Your Just Energy Team,” why not close with a signature from the CEO or Vice President of Customer Service? That would make the letter appear to be more sincere.
  • It is missing a respond-by date. The outer envelope headline asserts that this is a limited-time offer, but there is no mention of time-based limitations in the letter. From a direct marketing perspective, a respond-by date gives urgency to a marketing communication and therefore supports immediate consumer action. In the electricity supply industry, it also protects the seller. What if the cost of electricity shoots up and the monthly price of $129.99 cannot be supported? Someone responding to this mailer a month after receipt would be upset when told that the price is now $159.99 per month. 

Below the summary of lessons is how I would rewrite the letter, encompassing the given product with a focus on benefit statements while leveraging proven direct mail marketing elements. This copy would be reformatted and integrated with corporate branding elements for a smooth but not overwhelming balance of color.

  1. Ensure that all back-end processes are in place supporting your campaign, especially your phone number and landing page.
  2. Make your offer letter look presentable.
  3. Use consumer-facing language.
  4. Focus on benefits.
  5. Include a respond-by date.
  6. Proofread.

Offer Letter Rewrite

Enjoy unlimited electricity supply with a simple price
Sign up by xx/xx/xx to lock in your monthly bill for this winter
  • Unlimited Electricity Supply
  • 100% environmentally responsible
  • All for only $129.99 / month
  • Easy sign-up at JustEnergy.com/UnlimitedPA
Dear xx, 

Most people don’t know how big their electricity bill is going to be until they receive it.  That’s because energy costs and electricity usage change each month.  But you can stop worrying about that.

At Just Energy, we believe in being clear and straightforward. That’s why we created the Unlimited Plan. No matter how much electricity you use, your monthly supply price remains the same so you can have peace of mind knowing how much you pay each and every month.

With the Unlimited Plan from Just Energy you’ll enjoy:
 No Cost Surprises – Pay the same amount for your electricity supply each month.
 Comfort without Compromise – Turn up the electric heat because your wallet is protected from changes in temperature.
 Environmental Responsibility – We purchase renewable energy credits to offset 100% of your electricity usage.

Stop guessing about how much you’ll pay and breathe easy this winter.  Take advantage of this offer by xx/xx/xx.  Sign up at JustEnergy.com/UnlimitedPA.  Be sure to use promo code xxxx to benefit from this low fixed price! We look forward to having you as a customer.

Deborah Merril
Chief Executive Officer, Just Energy

P.S. Still unsure?  Call one of our friendly energy specialists at xxx-xxx-xxxx and mention promo code xxxx. They will be happy to answer your questions and help you sign up.


PayPal: Still Shoddy After All These Years

Four years ago, I received a shoddy-looking letter from PayPal informing me that I had been preapproved for a PayPal credit account. I wrote about it in a previous blog post, expressing concerns about overall effectiveness and dilution of PayPal’s brand equity.

PayPal crap
Still Hard to scan + Still Hard to read
+ Still Hard to understand = Still Hard to believe
Last month, I received a similar mailing with a similar style -- blind outer envelope, full-justified copy, black-and-white printing that appears to have been printed on a faded mimeograph, and nearly the exact same copy. Even the first mention of the word “on-line” is hyphenated while the second mention of “on line” in the same paragraph is two words.

The only significant differences appear to be the brand name change from Bill Me Later to PayPal Credit and that PayPal VP Carolyn Groobey no longer associates herself with this solicitation. The signatory is an impersonal “PayPal Credit.”

I find it interesting that PayPal Credit has continually optimized their online tools -- including engaging responsive design and making many of their tools mobile friendly -- yet they continue to use the same shoddy, cheap direct mail solicitation. The quant in me would like to presume that PayPal has run extensive A/B tests and learned that this approach is the most effective. But the right side of my brain is yelling, “How can this cheap creative that looks like a bureaucratic form letter with typos and everything be effective? And how can PayPal allow its brand to be cheapened for so many years! How?!? Why?” 

Is there a lesson here? Perhaps this letter isn’t a Fail for Creative. Maybe the appearance of a poorly created form letter is optimally effective for reaching a credit-worthy (but credit-needy) target market. If so, this is my lesson learned. Or perhaps this is a low-end marketing program that falls under the radar at PayPal headquarters and the lesson is to review your creative content, keep it relevant, don’t let it look lousy, and test it from time to time.

Perhaps the lesson is that, even in the mobile age and at the most tech-forward of companies, there remains a use for direct mail marketing.


GSN Games: Where Do I Put My Quarter?

This letter was sent by “Lindsey” – a manager at GSN Cash Games – to someone who played their games for a while. GSN offers versions of “Wheel of Fortune,” “The Price is Right,” and “Bejeweled Blitz” where players pay an entry fee to compete against other people and win cash prizes. The letter’s recipient played some games, but stopped over a year ago. 

GSN Cash Games sent the recipient periodic emails offering promotional bonuses for playing games again. He opened and read a few, but – after a while – he ignored the emails and condemned them to his Spam folder. With that in mind, a sincere “we missed you” letter of this type sent via snail mail makes sense. 

The letter from Lindsey is an attempt to win back a customer. It offers the reader an opportunity to reengage with their site and play some games. There is an offer of game credits, email addresses to write to with feedback, and even an easy way to restore a forgotten password. So, from a marketing standpoint, the List,Offer, and Timing make sense. 

While the creative tone appears to be appropriate to the target audience, this is still a Fail for Creative because the letter is missing a clear call to action. The reader is asked to “come back and play some games,” but the letter does not identify the Web site. The recipient had not visited the site in over a year and may not remember the URL. It could have been included in a few places in the letter while maintaining a sincere tone. Some examples:

“… it’s been a while since you visited www.xxxx.com and played a game with us.”

“Please come back to www.xxxx.com and play some games with us.”

“Log in at www.xxxx.com by midnight ET on …”

Lesson: Be sure your call to action is communicated clearly.


TurboTax: Tax Time Starts Very, Very Early

I received a solo letter package from TurboTax on September 30 – a time when Halloween candy is on the shelves at the supermarket. This appears to me to be very early. I have yet to think about what I’m getting my wife for the holidays much less filing my 2015 taxes, but I’m only a focus group of one. On an overall marketing basis, is this a Fail for Timing or is this a smart way for Intuit to get ahead of the volume of holiday catalogs in the mail to reach out to and insulate customers for repeat purchase history?  

Envelope Front
Envelope Back
Creatively, the solo mail package is clean. On the front envelope teaser, there is a clear call to action. The rear teaser has a reinforcement message with an implied savings offer. The inside letter communicates the TurboTax value proposition using several direct mail best practices: Johnson Box, bulleted clear call-outs of features and benefits, and a reinforced call to action. The accompanying brochure breaks down the products – differentiating them in a clear manner while reinforcing the overall and individual product propositions.

Em dashes are used in a few places in headline and body copy. These are often interruptive and can be a good replacement for a comma. But utilizing a triple-dash style with no space often gives the reader the feel of there being two sentences rather than a single broken sentence. Take this line adapted from the outer envelope rear teaser:
Get your biggest refund – guaranteed! 
The use of the shorter en dash with spaces before and after creates a better visual flow compared to:
Get your biggest refund—guaranteed! 
The latter may be closer to grammatical correctness, but this isn’t a college essay – it is a marketing communication. 

Letter front
It is odd that the first solicitation for the next tax year would be via snail mail, where there is a hard cost of printing and postage. Why not at least start with an email? Intuit has my email address, and it costs nearly nothing to send me a customized email noting my product choice from last year and offering an opportunity to get the same product this year.

The offer is nothing special. There is a vague “SAVE $10*” message in several places. The disclosure on the back of the brochure reads “* Savings and price comparison based on anticipated price increase 3/18/16.” That is not quite a compelling reason to make a purchase now, especially considering the fact that the money-back guarantee applies only within 60 days of purchase. If I make a purchase now, I will still be eating leftover Thanksgiving turkey when the guarantee expires. Not even Ned Flanders gets started on his taxes before the end of the yearThe lack of a bona fide customer value for immediate action merits this a Fail for Offer

Perhaps Intuit was trying to standardize the mailer and purchase process, but, in doing so, may have missed personalization opportunities. For example, I have used the Premier version of TurboTax every year for at least a decade. That would suggest that I have no interest in the Deluxe version this year, so about a quarter of the brochure’s content is irrelevant to me. Rather than explain a likely irrelevant lower tier product, perhaps the focus could have been on resale and upsale.
Back of letter

If you are going through the effort and expense to send a personalized solo mail package, consider having a personalized offer with personalized tracking such as a unique offer code or personalized URL, product recommendations based on prior purchases, and an offer that expires soon. This could allow the customer to not have to complete a long form when repurchasing your product online. Not only will this address the customer based on his/her purchase history and information, you have the opportunity to fully track customer interactions.


  1. Consider the Timing of your marketing communication relative to seasonal level of consumer interest as well as macro-marketing conditions.
  2. Direct mail may not be the best method to reach out to your existing customer base when there are lower-cost methods available.
  3. Consider how you use dashes in every sentence.
  4. Have an offer that compels immediate action.
  5. Use your database to personalize your marketing communications and customer interactions.
Brochure Cover

Brochure Back

Brochure interior
Brochure interior


CenturyLink sends great offer to ineligible cusotmer

This recent post on Consumerist about CenturyLink mailing an offer to an ineligible customer with prior issues is a reminder that all companies should have and maintain a Do Not Solicit list.  The list should include who request opt-out as well as unusual situations like Seth’s.  Use it for both email and snail mail. 

Lesson: Save yourself some embarrassment -- have a marketing opt-out list.  Maintain it and update it frequently.