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How a B2B marketing fail turned into a win

It happened in a second, quite literally, a second. With one click, I sent an email to more than 1,000 of my company's most important leads, investors, friends and clients with the giant, eyesore of a salutation, “Hi CONTACT.FIRST.NAME”. This is the story about how to fail forward in B2B marketing.

While this mistake is embarrassing for any marketer, in any company, across any industry, it’s exceptionally heart wrenching for a company like Brand Embassy. We pride ourselves on providing business software that makes customer service at scale more human - empathy over efficiency, personalization over perfect FRT. So for us, for me, this fail was exceptionally traumatic.

Here’s how the fail, and eventual moment of greatness, played out on a Wednesday afternoon. 

We recently launched a new promotional video, starring yours truly, and we were ready to communicate the launch in a personalized, friendly email to the important people listed above.

Before we sent this email, as any good marketer will do, we tested it. We ran a series of regular tests to ensure everything from margins to dynamic text were spot on. Everything was good to go and the dynamic text was rendering beautifully. 

We use HubSpot for all our inbound marketing activities. Actually, we use HubSpot for a lot of things; blogging, email, lead gen, landing pages … it’s becoming the turkey to our Thanksgiving dinner, an ever important centerpiece at our table. HubSpot’s been doing a lot of platform updates recently. Most of them good, some painfully bad. 

This was one of those painfully bad platform updates. For a reason that HubSpot still can’t explain, and despite the fact that all the test sends were fine, when we sent that email the dynamic content failed and CONTACT.FIRST.NAME replaced beautiful names like Stacy, Philip and Nancy. 

The panicked voice of our client success manager, Angela, was the first sign of the fail. A minute or so after the send I hear, “um, guys, I think we have a problem.” Advice, opinions and a lot of questions like “why didn’t you test it!?” soon flowed from every member of the team. Cautiously, my Inbound Marketing Manager and I assessed the situation. We had a few choices:

  1. do nothing

  2. blame HubSpot

  3. take ownership and say we’re sorry

Like in most multiple choice tests, the answer is always 3. Although it took us a moment to bite the bullet and admit fault, we knew coming clean and apologizing was the best way to move forward. We knew the follow up needed an extra boost of authenticity, a subtle but visible bit of overcompensation for the marketing foul. Here’s what the follow up email looked like. And yes, because HubSpot could not guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, we manually sent every single one of them.
The email was a hit. Beyond the general metrics of engagement (amazing open and CTR) we had people personally replying saying how the email made them smile, laugh and prompted them to share other stories of marketing fails. We even had a few people who thought it was a well orchestrated marketing campaign! They didn’t believe it was an honest mistake. 

This experience reinforced a few things:

  1. We’re all human. It’s not that we like to see other people fail, it’s that we like to see the veil removed. We like to know that there are humans behind brands. We like knowing it’s Gina or Devon over there making magic happen, not some anonymous email signature. Remember this, we are marketing to humans. Don’t be afraid to show yourself, faults and all.

  2. Take ownership. While a software glitch was the root of the problem, that doesn’t matter. When something goes wrong - the order from the restaurant isn’t delivered on time, the package got lost in the mail - your customers don’t care whose fault it was, they just want it to be fixed. Shying away and pointing the finger does no good.

  3. Look for moments. The picture in the follow up email is not of high quality. We snapped the pic in low light on my iPhone with the random props I like to keep on my desk for personal amusement (the green velvet deer is staring at me right now). It looked and felt genuine because it was. This type of in-the-moment exposure is what people increasingly want to experience with brands. This is one reason for the proliferation and unstoppable growth of video. It’s raw.

So, fellow marketers, the next time you fail, figure out how to fail forward. Fail gracefully and learn something from it. Because sometimes, there's a big win waiting behind an honest mistake. You just have to own it.