“Sorry” is the Easiest Word to Say

minute read

Recently, Manchester United Football Club’s “UnitedUncovered” fanzine ran a feature on five of their brightest young players. Unfortunately, their creative team got slightly carried away, and the stylised rendition of the club’s “MUFC” initials ended up looking a bit like a swastika symbol. This caused significant public outrage, and the club was quick to issue an unequivocal apology.

picture_1 (1)united_uncovered_2

We pulled some data from Return Path’s Inbox Insight competitor intelligence solution to evaluate the impact on Man Utd’s subscriber engagement metrics:united_uncovered_engagement_metrics_2united_uncovered_engagement_metrics_1

The offending edition (“Future Stars”) actually out-performed their “Weekly Email” benchmark – it generated higher Read rates, and lower User-marked Spam rates. The “Apology” email did even better, and this is the beginning of a common theme. Flagging up the fact that something went wrong actually encourages subscribers to find out more about what happened. As a result, apology emails often deliver exceptional engagement metrics, and even the offending email experiences a “halo” effect as subscribers backtrack to see what went wrong.

Unfortunately for email marketers, the number of different ways to get it wrong is almost infinite. Happily, there are also many different approaches for remedying the situation. In the Manchester United example, they were taking no chances – “We got it wrong, and we’re sorry” was the clear message. Here are some other approaches that we have seen this year:

Sort it Out (PizzaExpress)

One of PizzaExpress’s well-known voucher offers was sent with the incorrect codes, meaning subscribers couldn’t redeem them. They were quick to correct this, sending out an email later that day with the subject line “Guy, now we’re feeling blue – we’ve had a problem with the codes in our emails today.”


One unavoidable consequence in this case is that the emails already sent immediately lose relevance, so Deleted rates for this promotion were higher than any others that month.

Offer a Sweetener (Hotel Chocolat)

A delay in the broadcast meant that a time-specific offer had already expired by the time some subscribers received it. Hotel Chocolat responded quickly by sending out a follow-up email to affected subscribers, with an additional offer valid for a longer period.


This approach was clearly effective. Read rates for the apology email were almost twice as high as the initial email, while other important engagement metrics such as Deleted Unread were substantially lower.


Make a Joke of it (Sony & ASOS)

Sony recently ran a promotion offering speakers for £1 when purchasing an Experia XP mobile phone. Unfortunately, they forgot to explain how subscribers could actually take up this great deal!


Here, the follow-up was distinctly tongue-in-cheek (“unfortunately, in our excitement we forgot to tell you the important bit”). Sony’s subscribers were clearly in forgiving mood, because Read rates for the apology email were up by around a quarter, with User-marked Spam rates down by half.

Something similar happened to ASOS –a broadly promoted offer for “Top 25 jeans: up to 70% off” went out on the same day as one probably more intended for the ladies with “Up to 70% off the finishing touches.”

Later that day we saw “Whups, our bad. We think you’d look better wearing this…” which was sent to a list-size similar to one of the “Top 25 jeans” segments!


We suspect the data list for one of the male segments was accidentally matched-up with the female creative. It could have been the one highlighted in red (below left) judging by the User-marked Spam rates, although Read rates suggest this offer may actually have been highly effective – albeit unintentionally!


If we are right, the apology email really did the trick, generating Read rates higher than any of the “Top 25 Jeans” segments, and the lowest Deleted Unread rates for any segment. Remarkably, User-marked Spam and ISP-marked Spam rates for the apology email were both 0% – testament to the high levels of subscriber engagement it generated.

So – what have we learnt about the imperfect science (and art) of apology emails. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Email subscribers appreciate honesty, and they are usually prepared to forgive. When you know that you’ve made a mistake, be open about it rather than hoping nobody notices!
  •  Get the apology out quickly. Addressing your mistake as soon as possible reduces the likelihood of a minor slip-up developing into a major embarrassment.
  • Know your audience, and then apply a tone to the email that is consistent with your normal tone of voice. If you are normally serious, this isn’t the right time to start cracking jokes!
  • Consider what else can be done. In the Man Utd example, they immediately swapped out the offending image so that additional openers would already see the corrected version.
  • Don’t mess up the apology – goodwill only stretches so far!

Apology emails are a great way converting a crisis into an opportunity. Hopefully, this is a subject that you only need to think about infrequently at best, but if it does happen apply these principles and make sure  “Sorry” is the easiest word to say!



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