Oops… It Happened Again: How to Send an Apology Email

Jim Davidson, Head of Research

Author Bio

As an expert in email, mobile and social strategies, Jim brings over 15 years of experience in online marketing, managing email and cross-channel programs for top retail clients. From strategic vision to implementation, Jim has led clients to successfully meet aggressive revenue and performance goals. As Bronto's Head of Research, he regularly publishes industry-focused white papers, research reports and contributes to the Bronto blog. His articles can be found in publications such as DMNews, ClickZ, Total Retail and Multichannel Merchant. He has also spoken at numerous industry events, including IRCE, eTail East, eTail Canada, MarketLive Summit and Magento Imagine, and has been featured in Forbes, USAToday and NPR’s Marketplace.
Oops ButtonFor marketers, holidays mean email volume is ramping up, last minute decisions are being made, and your web servers are at capacity, all this during peak revenue periods. This is true for holidays throughout the year but especially during the winter holidays. Let’s review a few best practices and examples showing how to send an apology email.

A Little QA Goes a Long Way

Over the past 6 months, I have received 19 emails apologizing to customers for various issues.

Site Issues:

  • Slow site
  • Issues during checkout
  • Coupon code not working
  • Out of Stock items
  • Accessing a specific offer

Email Issues

  • Typo
  • Wrong subject line in original email
  • Wrong link in original email
  • Missing coupon code
  • Sent to wrong segment
  • Missing in-store barcode

I know we are all rushed during the holidays, but it is important to reiterate that you have a comprehensive QA process that performed for every email that is deployed. I will be honest. This is one of the most tedious and boring tasks, but most of the mistakes outlined above could have been avoided if the email was fully reviewed before clicking send. Make a pre-deployment checklist and have multiple people on your team complete it before your send.

Subject Line Approach

If you find that you have to send an apology email to your subscribers, you should never just resend your original email with the same subject line. Your subscribers are going to receive more email from you than they expect, and it’s kind of your fault. This awkward predicament can be softened by incorporating a more emotional, apologetic, and personal tone to your subject. Have some fun while you are at it!

Out of the 19 I received in the past 6 months, 14 began their subject line with “Oops!” Newport News sent an apology email in September where the subject line was simply “Oops!” This is clearly the most common approach and for good reason.  The word is short so you will have plenty of room to convey the reason for the remail or to reiterate the promotion you are featuring. This word also creates an emotional reaction. It’s simple, straightforward, and recommended.

The secondary component of the subject line varies. Some companies were very upfront and disclosed the issue. dELiA*s experienced site issues on Cyber Monday and sent a follow-up on Tuesday with the subject line: “Oops! Sorry Our Site Was Slow. FREE Shipping on Everything & Site-Wide Sale Extended Today!” Here are a few other examples that combined the apology and a personal tone:

  • 11/10 Land’s End: “Oops… It’ll work now, promise! 25% off everything + free shipping.”
  • 10/27 Orvis: “Oops! We fixed it: See the best ways to protect a fine gun.”
  • 08/19 Lord & Taylor: “OOPS! Here’s the cashmere barcode we forgot!”

Email Creative

I’ve been there before. Your email is deploying, and within minutes, you realize you made a mistake. Panic sets in and you know you must do something fast. When it comes to email creative, you really have 2 options. If you have creative resources available, you can design an email that extends the apology beyond the subject line and offers more information about what went wrong and what has been corrected. But these resources are often a luxury. If you have them, please go over to their desk and thank them for being there! Having a fresh email design also means that you can be strategically more vague in your subject line, which can encourage opens and allow the email itself to provide all of the details. This concept is illustrated in this Newport News example:

Newport News Oops Email

Most of us will not have creative resources or the time to build out a new email creative. This is when your subject line and preheader text will need to do all of the heavy lifting. Factor in the approach that you took to your subject line and determine what information is missing. Put yourself in your subscribers’ shoes, and see if the subject line and preheader text combo is really explaining the issue and the remedy. When Maidenform experienced site issues on 10/18, they re-sent their original creative adding “Oops” before the original subject line and then included a more detailed explanation in the preheader text and in a paragraph above the main image of the email. All of these are text adjustments that you should be able to make with very little time.

Maidenform Oops Email

Another option is to always have a simple text template ready to go. This allows you to send a branded message without creating a new email design. Something like this eBags example from 10/31 would be easy for you to quickly turn around.

eBag Oops Email


So, you have sent your apology email… what should you expect? Apology emails typically perform very well, but you may experience a slight increase in unsubscribes as a result of the increased cadence. However, you will most likely also see a very strong open rate. People are curious. They want to know what broke down. Ever been stuck in rubbernecking traffic on the interstate? Clicks and conversions may also increase, but usually opens will see the biggest gain.

That’s great news! Strong opens! Decent clicks and conversions! You may be saying, “I should apologize all the time!” Well, some marketers have started to purposefully include mistakes and apology emails in their communication plan. This is a bit of a dirty trick. And know that if you send too many apology emails, your subscribers will begin to lose trust in your brand and the shopping experience on your site. If you play the apology chip intentionally and then find yourself in a situation where something isn’t working, you will see your metrics decline and unsubscribes increase as a result of repeated apology messaging.

Have you sent an apology email recently?  Share your approach with me!