Automation Horror Stories (And How To Avoid Them)


As a consultancy that operates SaaS companies, we have seen a lot of ups and downs in the world of automation. Especially as more and more organizations are diving into conversational marketing, and personalization has become mandatory at every level of communication, it’s helpful to have a firm grasp on what works, what doesn’t, and how to learn from the successes and failures we see along the way.

It’s with this in mind that we have asked some industry friends to tell us their not-so-great experiences with marketing/social automation. These are their stories. [Cue Law & Order theme song.]

*Names omitted to protect the innocent (and guilty). 

Sweat the Small Stuff

We start off innocently enough, with some of the most frequently seen mistakes in the world of automation. The folks we spoke to while doing research for this article all (naturally) had stories to tell about instances in which a seemingly tiny oversight had a not-so-tiny impact.

In a time when Customer Experience Is King, even something that feels insignificant can do its fair share of damage to the way buyers and customers see your brand. Pretty much everyone, at some point, has received an email from a brand where their first name has been incorrectly merged into the greeting, or where someone forgot to replace the placeholder in the subject line.

The truth about stuff like this is that, unfortunately, it jumps out to the recipient and takes away from the actual content of your message. You can mitigate the risk of this happening by making sure you get at least one pair of fresh eyes on your campaign before it goes out. When you’ve been staring at something for a long time, it’s easy for your proofing instincts to dull a bit as your brain fills in gaps on its own.

Tactical Tips:

  • Always check your links to make sure they’re working and directing to the correct place.
  • Send test emails to yourself and one other person to see what your recipients will see.
  • Pay attention to formatting and image size/placement.

When the Honor System Fails

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, someone filled in a form using someone else’s email address and a profane first name.

So as it turns out, some horror stories are born from good old fashioned online mischief. While we completely understand some people’s inclination to shun online forms, we also know that putting in a real person’s email address along with an insulting name may very well have painful results when it comes to marketing automation.

In this particular story, the company field merged the name they were given into a nurture email, and unknowingly sent it along to whoever’s email had been fraudulently supplied in their form. We shudder to think how they were ultimately alerted to the issue, though we’d imagine it wasn’t very pleasant. It’s possible the person who received the email had a sense of humor, but if not, this incident was likely off-putting, as far as nurture campaigns go.

Even though this wasn’t the company’s fault, it was something they knew they had to prevent in the future. Their solution was to create a filter within their marketing automation platform (Eloqua, in this case) to catch anything unsavory (read: every bad word their team could think of) that makes its way into their online forms.

Tactical Tips:

  • Take preventative measures to account for the fact that sometimes, the honor system fails
  • If possible, do a visual audit of your contact database every so often
  • If something unfortunate does happen, take accountability

Experience First, Always. 

You can write all the clever emails, chatbot flows and social posts you want, but none of it matters if the experience isn’t there for the people on the receiving end. Yes, this means paying attention to the small details that we discussed above, but it’s also about personalizing your communication.

Prior to the rise of ABM and conversational marketing, personalization could mean as little as a field merge. However, when was the last time you saw a marketing email with your first name merged in and felt like that email was written specifically for you? Never? Yeah, us too.

With companies like Drift, you can tailor the messaging on each of your landing pages to specific visitors based on things like the company they work for, or the exact piece of content that led them to that page. One company that has leveraged this most impressively is Snowflake. They use their chatbot to do everything from offering basic browsing help, to promoting their upcoming events, depending on where you go on their site.

In this context, personalization isn’t about first names, but about relevance of information and convenience for your visitors, prospects, and customers.

Tactical Tips:

  • Commit to your conversational marketing—if you’re going to use a chatbot, really spend the time to personalize the messaging and make it work for your customers
  • Treat all communication like a handoff, and make it seamless. Don’t ask the same questions over and over again in emails or via your chatbots.
  • Always make sure there’s a way for people to opt-out of your communications. Nothing is more annoying than feeling like you’re being forced into hearing from a brand.

Are You Sorry? You Should Be – People Love It

One person we spoke to for this piece shared an anecdote that we particularly loved for its demonstration of the fact that people respect a good apology.

In this story, a mistake with a blind form submit in an automated email caused people’s spam filters to activate an endless loop, which sadly resulted in the temporary destruction of some virtual mailboxes. Yikes.

Naturally, the company who sent the email-turned-digital-baseball-bat fixed the issue and promptly sent out a well-crafted apology to those affected.

That apology email? It had their highest open rate ever leading up to that point.

Ideally, of course, we would never have the need to issue those kinds of emails; however, things happen. Anyone who has ever worked in any service-related job knows that a huge part of keeping customers happy is to always make them feel heard and take accountability for anything you’ve done to create friction or pain for them.

Tactical Tips:

  • If there’s a technical issue that needs fixing, do it as quickly as possible. Needless to say, you want to minimize the negative impact to your customers in any way you can.
  • Hear people out. If there’s blowback about something you sent out, the best thing to do is acknowledge it earnestly and empathetically.
  • Take accountability. An authentic, well-written apology goes a pretty long way.

Impact > Intent

We don’t want to say that this one often gets overlooked, but sometimes words can have an unintended impact. Being respectful and sensitive about things like race and gender identity is (hopefully) a given, but it’s important to go the extra mile to make sure your automated content is respectful and inclusive.

In one story shared with us, a company’s honest attempt at including multiple languages in a piece of content ended up coming off as a bit culturally insensitive when wires inadvertently got crossed. While this was in no way intended, impact matters more than intent.

Tactical Tips:

  • Avoid gendered language when possible.
  • If you’re referencing a cultural or religious holiday, do so in a way that is factual and doesn’t use that culture or religion simply to prop up your brand
  • Sometimes current events collide in an unfortunate way with content that’s been pre-scheduled. It can’t hurt to do a quick check of scheduled posts and emails to make sure they still hit the right notes.

Inevitably, there will be times when we all fall victim to the dark side of automation. The moral of these stories, however, is to mitigate your risk of doing so by always keeping your audience top of mind when creating content.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Drift Partner Go Nimbly. Interested in contributing content to the Drift blog? Email Molly Sloan at

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