How to write a meaningful apology email

First, determine whether a mea culpa is truly necessary, and then set about crafting it in a concise yet sincere way to your designated recipients.

So, you’ve made a mistake.

Maybe your website went down or you sent an email with an error. Maybe a PR situation has arisen. It happens to the best of us.

Now you want to make amends, and you’re thinking of sending an apology email. Before you do:

  • Use metrics to evaluate whether an apology is truly necessary. Those metrics could include chatter on social media, the number of complaints issued to your call center or other feedback mechanisms.

    For example, in January 2013, Amazon accidentally sent an email promoting championship gear to Notre Dame and Alabama football fans before the game was even played. It was obviously an error, but Amazon’s apology email only fanned the flames, drawing more attention to the mistake and causing it to become overblown.

    In contrast, in May 2014, Shutterfly accidentally sent an email congratulating new moms to a large group of customers who didn’t recently have children. Unfortunately, the email hit a nerve with recipients who had experienced miscarriages or difficulties conceiving. In response, they made their feelings known on social media. The negative buzz snowballed and eventually went viral. Even major news sites picked up the story. In this case, there was a clear need for damage control. Shutterfly wisely tweeted an apology and responded to media inquiries in a timely manner.

If you decide that an apology email is, indeed, warranted:

  • Determine whether an apology should be issued to everyone or just selected subscribers. If a mistake arose purely within the email channel, you might be able to address it in a targeted fashion and avoid drawing unnecessary attention to the faux pas.

    For instance, in 2014, Lands’ End sent a free magazine to customers who spent more than $100 between July 9 and July 16. However, some customers didn’t appreciate the racy cover photo on their free editions of GQ Magazine. In response, Lands’ End sent an apology email to only those who had received the magazines.

Having decided that an apology email is needed and who that email should go to, now ask yourself these four questions when crafting the apology email:

  • Is it clearly branded? When sending apologies, some companies use the name of their chief executive officer or chief marketing officer as the sender (as opposed to their brand name). They’re hoping to make their apologies seem more genuine and human, but they only make it more difficult to determine who actually sent the email. In addition to general confusion, it invites spam complaints by subscribers who don’t recognize the name and don’t bother to open the email.
  • Is the message simple, clear, and sincere? Brevity rules supreme in email. Keep your apology focused and succinct.

    If it’s a correction email in which the apology precedes the updated copy of a previous email, limit your explanation to a sentence or two.

    If it’s a standalone apology email, keep the main copy all text. Nothing indicates sincerity like plain text. Consider dropping any navigation bars that you might typically include in your emails, and avoid adding stock images or headshots of executives. However, don’t hesitate to include an executive’s signature (don’t use executives as senders, though) at the end of the email. It demonstrates that a specific person is taking responsibility.

  • Are you giving subscribers a reason to forgive you? Saying “sorry” generally isn’t enough. You have to demonstrate that you’re sorry by making things right. Lands’ End, for example, promised to send another magazine instead.

    In a less effective instance, West Elm sent some of its subscribers a 20 percent “win back” offer that had already expired. Then, it followed up with an apology and offered a fresh 15 percent offer. The reduced discount offer left some subscribers feeling cheated—obviously not how you want customers to feel after an apology.

  • Is your apology email error-free? Do not follow a mistake with another mistake. Triple-check the copy, which should be easy if you’ve kept it simple. Also, make sure your apology email will display appropriately in every inbox by using email preview software.

In an ideal world, you would never have to send an apology, but mistakes are inevitable, and it’s crucial to be prepared for them. Determine which gaffes require an apology, give your subscribers a reason to forgive you, and make sure you’re concise and contrite. You never know—a good apology might make your customers respect you even more.

Chad White is the research director at Litmus, an email creation, testing and analytics platform. He has authorde “Email Marketing Rules” and thousands of posts and articles about email marketing.

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Topics: PR

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