The Email Marketing Horror Story: When It Happens To You

Every time I see an email marketing subject line typo or a Dear {First Name} salutation or a segmentation snafu, I think, “There but by the grace of God go I.”  It’s a big responsibility to hit the “send” button and mistakes are highly visible.

We had the worst of all possible mistakes this weekend, when DMA accidentally emailed a promotional message for the DMA Career Center to the entire DMA marketing database on Saturday, October 26th 2013.  Included on the list were more than 100 people in the Spamhaus anti-spam organization, including its founder, which of course immediately triggered a Spamhaus listing and block (as it should).  Our suppression  files were utilized, but the mailing went to a large number of people who are not on any active mailable DMA files.

This was  user error on the part of the DMA marketing staff.  We take full responsibility for it.   We sincerely apologize to our membership and the industry, and everyone on the file mailed.

We are horrified by this mistake.  We have taken immediate action to re-train our staff, and are taking actions to ensure that our team knowledge, business practices and technical resources are improved to correct the mistake and prevent any future errors.  Our full set of actions is below, and we welcome any comments on this from members and readers.

We thank the Spamhaus team for calling this to our attention so quickly over the weekend, and we are grateful to members of the anti-spam community who have given us some good advice about how to go forward.  As an industry watchdog ourselves, it’s great that the email ecosystem responds quickly to block senders who do things like this – even though in this case it was a mistake and not a regular practice at DMA.

Now and always, if you want to be on the DMA “NEVER EMAIL”  file, please click “unsubscribe” in the footer of any message we send, or contact our Member Services team and we will ensure your address is added to our suppression files.  

We are taking immediate action:

  • We have paused all our promotional messaging.   (This is a standard action in any Spamhaus listing)
  • We have done an internal training for our staff on how this mistake occurred and why, and how to prevent in future.
  • Our email broadcast vendor has committed to do an internal audit of our sending and list management practices.    We are also looking into an external audit.
    • NOTE:  DMA  Email Marketing Practices have always included not emailing to any outside lists from our database.  This mistake picked up legacy lists that should never have been accessible for current mailings. We are recommitting to ensure that this error cannot occur again, technically or otherwise.   We are also committed to a complete and honest review of our practices, and to listening to all recommendations.
  • We are immediately adding business rules to the deployment application to prevent any such egregious errors in future, including NEVER MAIL flags on any outside data.
  • We are removing any outside legacy data from our database.
  • Our email broadcast vendor team is working with Spamhaus to resolve and remove the listing.
  • We are taking a very hard look at our marketing practices and bringing in outside support from our membership to guide us going forward.  This will include an ongoing assessment.

I know that every marketer doing email messaging can feel our pain. This is an unacceptable mistake and we are taking real action to prevent any re-occurrence.


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October 30, 2013 – UPDATE:  I know that many of our members, especially those in email marketing, are interested in more of the story.  We worked very hard and quickly to document what happened and communicate everything honestly (however painful) to Spamhaus.  We explained that this was not intentional or purposeful or malicious.

It was  a manual targeting error that picked up old files from our database which should not have been accessible to us at all.  We removed that data, updated our business rules to ensure we couldn’t do this again, and re-committed to our existing practice of never using third party data.  

After four days, they lifted the block.  We appreciate their good advice along the way to help us resolve this situation. 

We are going to invite Spamhaus and others to do a session with us at our Email Evolution Conference in January to discuss what happened and hopefully help others to learn from our experience.

  1. Steve

    October 29, 2013

    Isn’t this exactly the same things that were said after the DMA did exactly the same thing, and got Yesmail SBLed in exactly the same way, in November 2011 or therabouts?

    • Stephanie Miller

      October 30, 2013

      Steve, I wasn’t here back in the day, but believe that was a different situation. This one was a manual targeting error that pulled old lists that frankly, should not have been there. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Kelly Chien

    October 30, 2013

    The question remains how these email addresses ever got into your database without permission in the first place. Obviously the DMA practices opt-out policies, and this is what got you in trouble. If you used true confirmed opt-in to begin with, this could never have happened to you at all.

    Put another way, if you just happened to have my email address in your database and you emailed me without my explicit request and permission, you are spamming even if i don’t use your “Never Email” function, and i shouldn’t have to use that function to avoid being emailed by you.

    Opt-out practices always lead to spamming.

    • Stephanie Miller

      October 30, 2013

      Thanks for the comment – this is exactly the question we asked on Sunday and dug deep to find out the source – especially of pristine addresses! As I noted in the update to the original post, we did remove this old data completely.

      We do have a permission-based list, and follow our own guidelines for email marketing.

  3. Alan

    October 30, 2013

    Your mistake is your continued belief that email marketing can be made to work like your paper mail campaigns.

    No one wants to sign up for a DO NOT EMAIL me list. If they didn’t specifically request to be on your list, you don’t send them email. Ever.

    Your mailing went to purchased lists. There is never a valid reason to buy a mailing lists. You cannot buy someone else’s consent to send them email

    Email recipients are not helpless victims. They will continue to punish you for treating them like a marketable commodity. You cannot buy the Intern
    et Post Office off to force them to deliver your opt-out nonsense like you do in the physical world.

    • Stephanie Miller

      October 30, 2013

      I agree – it is dumb to send messages to people who do not want them. Also, as you seem to be saying, email marketing has a penalty that direct mail does not – the Report Spam button. Marketers who do not respect their subscribers’ preferences run the risk of being blocked. DMA has very high inbox deliverability (above 96% inbox).
      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Jim

    October 30, 2013

    Yes. And why do they keep “legacy lists” that are essentially unusable? Because that’s what the spammer mentality does. Never give up a contact no matter what. As long as unusable lists remain in the archives, some marketing droid will come along and use them. The DMA needs just delete those lists.

    • Stephanie Miller

      October 30, 2013

      You are right – this was not a good practice. We’ve removed all those legacy lists and now have new business rules that will “expire” lists as we build them. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Jessica Best

    December 4, 2013

    I really appreciate the complete transparency and humility of this post and of your plan to rectify, SAM (and team). As someone constantly afraid of being accidentally in the same boat with ANY client, I know the gut dropping feeling that must have come from this!

    I appreciate you all admitting fault and sharing the action list of exactly how you’ll make sure it doesn’t happen. Data management isn’t easy, not even for the DMA and we all make mistakes. Thanks for owning up to yours.



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