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Marketing FAIL: Confessions, Apologies, and Questionable Motives

This post was originally posted on Savvy B2B Marketing where I hang with my Savvy Sisters and write about business-to-business marketing. I think, however, that the story I have to tell has implications for businesses of all kinds, and so I’m sharing it here as well.


Last week I did something really embarrassing.  I unwittingly became a spammer. Oh gods of marketing, social media, and E-mail forgive me. I knew not what that click would do. I should have dug deeper. I should have checked references. I should have …


But I didn’t, and with one innocent click, I indirectly sent a mass of automated emails with the subject line, “Are you taking on new clients?” Ewww.
This is the story of what happened, where I think the company in question went wildly wrong (resulting in a giant FAIL), and the super important moral to this B2B fable.


The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It all began when a LinkedIn colleague (acquaintance, really) sent me an invite to a site called Referral Key which has been touted by respectable publications like The Boston Business Journal as a “new, fast growing networking website” that helps “small businesses build powerful referral networks online.” The site was polished and professional and I had five minutes to kill, so I thought “what the hell” and created an account. Who wouldn’t like a few more referrals?


Shortly after joining, I received the following automated email with the subject line, Christopher Ott has sent you a Private Brief…” The link in the email took me to a message page on Referral Key which included a link to a 59-second video entitled “Turn your LinkedIn contacts into referral resources in 20 seconds.” It looked easy – import your contacts with a few clicks. What the video failed to disclose is that when you import your colleagues, Referral Key blasts an automated E-mail message to each of your LinkedIn contacts.


I know Referral Key sent these emails because I began to get responses from my contacts. Some of them thought it was a personal message and replied to let me know they were actually too busy to accept referrals. Some emailed to ask if the message was spam. Some simply joined (for which they were rewarded with another auto-gen E-mail which (oh, the shame!) asked them to visit my profile and rate my services). Most troubling of all were the people who didn’t respond at all. I can only hope that the auto-gen email died a quick and deserving death in their spam folders. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are some folks (people who don’t know me personally, but who were kind enough to connect with me on LinkedIn) who received the message and thought, “What a jerk.”


I’m sorry.
I would like to apologize to each and every one of my LinkedIn contacts. I am not a jerk. I’m just a person who made the mistake of assuming that I would get fair warning before a bunch of emails were sent in my name.


I am not the first to write about this. Chris Reimer of Rizzo Tees and Leslie Hughes of Punch Media have both blogged about similar experiences. In both cases, Chris Ott, Director of Social Media and Technology at Referral Key, responded to their posts either in the comments or via E-mail. While I appreciate the fact that Mr. Ott jumped into the fray, I have to say that I found his responses wanting. They gave me the impression that Referral Key felt these people – both seemingly intelligent and web savvy folks – just didn’t use the tools correctly, that their situation was a case of user error.


In the same way that the customer is always right, so is the user. If you have multiple users running into the same issue – guess what? – there’s a problem with your user experience.


I don’t doubt that Referral Key’s importation function has, as Mr. Ott pointed out in his responses, the same customization and opt-out features as “any other site.” The problem is that the actual experience leaves me feeling like that’s a half-truth. Those features may exist, but they were not a prominent part of the process I went through. The process I went through did not, as far as I saw, even alert me to the fact that an E-mail would be sent, never mind give me the option to change the text or choose which contacts to send to. Having read several other posts on this topic, it sounds like the link to these options may be located at the very bottom of the page, which – if you have a robust list of LinkedIn contacts – can require a lot of scrolling to reach.


The bottom line
With all the high-profile privacy issues surrounding sites like Facebook, I’m shocked that any company would play it so loose with their users’ most valuable asset – their network. The fact that the requisite functions and small type are all there does not make up for the fact that they exist in stealth mode. In his response to Leslie Hughes, Mr. Ott stated, “We do not get any benefit from you emailing 10 thousand people if you don’t know them. We’d rather you get 5 trusted colleagues if that’s what you prefer.” Because of the way Referral Key handled the import process, I’m having trouble buying that. They do, in fact, get a benefit from you emailing 10 thousand people – the potential for more folks like me clicking the invite link and joining their network.
The moral of the story? Contaminate the integrity of your user experience and people will doubt your motives.

No one likes to feel like they’ve been tricked.

Don’t just cover the bases with the requisite legal copy and opt-out buttons. Be honest. Be straightforward. Be above board every step of the way. Eliminate hidden agendas. Avoid gray areas. Be obvious to a fault. In the long run, this kind of transparency will help you build credibility, gain trust, and inspire loyalty. If Mr. Ott and Referral Key actually believe that five trusted colleagues are more valuable than ten thousand people they don’t know, I think they would agree with me.


Image Credit: Terry Johnston


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  1. Leslie Hughes | PUNCH media

    Great post Jamie! I love your comment about our networks being our most valuable asset. I agree 100%.

    People buy from other people/businesses they like and trust. Spamming our lists, even with the the best intentions is not good.

    As marketers, it’s our job to test the waters and hopefully our connections will be patient with us as we charter new territory.

    So far, The Referral Key is missing the mark….and we all know the saying about first impressions.

    • Jamie Lee

      Hi! Thanks for stopping by. Your post helped nudge me over the line to write my post.

      I love the idea that we marketers need to be guinea pigs … that makes me feel less like a fool and more like a pioneer … or maybe a mad scientist. 😉

      Glad to have “met” you – even through such an unpleasant circumstance.

  2. Excellent post!

    As stated in my post, Referral Key is probably not some MLM ShamWow scammy site. It just sort of felt that way after I was done clearing my inbox.

    Mr Ott’s responses speak for themselves.

    • Jamie Lee

      Thanks for stopping by. :) Happy Friday to you.

      You’ve hit on something that was bugging me that I didn’t realize until just now. With MLMs or ShamWow, it’s almost okay if there are underhanded or “stealth” tactics at play because you expect that sort of behavior from those sorts of companies. You go in armed and ready because you understand the playing field. With this experience, I was caught broadside because I expected a professional user flow that respected my network and my reputation.

      The internet sure brings us a lot of gray areas.

      Thanks for sparking my epiphany!

  3. Erica

    Just curious: did anything positive happen as a result of the email?

    • Jamie Lee

      Hi, Erica.
      Although a number of people accepted the invite, nothing positive has come directly as a result of either the email or the site itself … yet.

      The positive happenings were the result of me contacting people directly to apologize for the auto-generated email or responding to their questions about the E-mail’s source. Over the course of those conversations, I established/re-established myself on colleagues’ radar as a potential resource for overflow work.

      In retrospect, I think I would have been better served to craft a personal email and send it to just those people who might actually be in a position to refer work to me.

      Lesson learned.
      Thanks for asking.

  4. Hi Jamie Lee,

    I was one of the people who received your “invitation”, probably because we’re connected on LinkedIn.

    Sometimes, it seems, it pays to drag your feet in marketing :) Having taken a look at ReferralKey’s website I thought to myself “Okay, I know she could send folks my way, but I won’t ever be able to pay her back.” (For those of you who may wonder why, Jamie Lee in the US could full well send her overflow to me as I’m an English-speaking copywriter, but I in Estonia probably wouldn’t have anything for her in the next 20 years or so.) Hence my hesitation to accept.

    Then I run into this post.

    Thanks for clarifying what’s going on. Although you wouldn’t have needed to be all that apologetic — it wasn’t your fault.

    As far as your retrospect goes, I think you actually did yourself a bigger favor by responding to the situation publicly. At least it put you firmly in the “nice people” category with me. Those things tend to stick.

    • Jamie Lee

      Hello! :)
      I’m so glad to hear from someone who got the “invite” and wondered, “what the?” 😉

      It’s a shame that, for some of my contacts – those that will never run into this post – that the damage has been done. I’m glad you appreciate my public share about this experience. I hesitated, but only for a moment. Honestly, I feel like I ought to send private emails to each of my LinkedIn contacts, but finding the time to do that is extremely unlikely.

      Glad the “nice people” thing will stick with you.
      Back atcha.
      See you on Twitter!

  5. I fell into the same trap with ReferralKey and in the exact same way (via a LinkedIn acquaintance). I even went so far as invite some of my TRUSTED colleagues to join me…many did. Oh, how I regret it! I wrote about it on my Facebook page today, in fact. Lessons learned, I suppose!

    • Jamie Lee

      Sorry you had to go through that same experience. It was an easy trap to fall into … and “trap” is a good way to describe it.
      Lessons learned, indeed. I’m sure we’ll both be more cautious and less trusting with future community invites!

      Good luck!

  6. Kimberly Paulk

    What a great post! Thanks for sharing your experience so those of us that haven’t been snared can avoid the same fate.

    • Jamie Lee

      Kimberly – Sorry for my delayed response. Thanks for coming by and may you never get “snared.”

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