Faux 'website outage' emails flood Black Friday inboxes
Listen to this article:
Do brands lie?
Of course they do!
But you may be surprised how many brands used a deceptive and false email marketing tactic this past Black Friday weekend—and customers started to catch on.
We’re not talking about emails with “Surprise, we extended our sale!” messaging. Consumers expect these after years of seeing that exact subject line 100 times in their inboxes, but they don’t expect companies to lie as a tactic to promote an ongoing sale so blatantly.
What many consumers received were emails with something like the following?
“Due to high demand (and steep Black Friday discounts), our site crashed momentarily. It’s back up, though, and you can shop up to 60% off everything!”
“If we all thought the fake ‘re:’ and ‘fwd:’ was bad, 2022 BFCM introduced us to the fake ‘website was down!’, misleading subject lines,” shared Val Geisler, customer advocacy lead at Klaviyo. “All of these practices erode trust between you and your customers. For your loyal customers, they start to consider their options while your potential first-time customers don’t appreciate the hat tricks and decide against buying from you.”
What’s sad is it wasn’t just a couple of brands that did this—it was multiple. Consumers and eCommerce experts alike started to uncover the truth on Twitter.
It all started with a tweet
On Friday evening, Phillip Jackson, co-founder of Future Commerce, shared a tweet saying, “Is this a new tactic?” followed by two email screenshots from Fabletics and Away explaining their website outages.
Suddenly, folks started sharing their screenshots, including examples from brands like Lomi, Brightology, Broya, and more.
Sure, this tactic may work for building FOMO and driving consumers to your site, but what is the long-term impact on your credibility?
Consumers are already skeptical of brands. According to a Consumer Market Research Study, 65% of consumers believe brands lie sometimes, and 54% said they think the brands they purchase from are only sometimes honest.
Yet, 73% of respondents said brand transparency is valuable, and they’re more likely to pay extra for products from transparent companies.
To say the least, these messages aren’t a good look for your business.
“There’s a fine line between using smart marketing strategies and manipulating your audience with lies. This tactic is crossing the line in my books. I don’t believe brand owners who authentically care about and respect their audience would approve of this messaging, " said Lisa Oberst, director of email marketing at Fuel Made, the Klaviyo email marketing agency.
Why is faking a website outage a bad strategy?
According to Alex Greifeld, eCommerce growth consultant, if you actually did have an outage and your email was genuine, then there’s no problem apologizing to customers.
But that’s hardly the case for most of these brands.
“If these emails were genuine, then I have no issue with them. But I have seen more brands use subject lines like ‘Sorry!’ and ‘We're Back!’ when nothing went wrong on the website. Yes, these emails cut through the noise and often drive a lift in open rates. But they're using a form of social engineering to accomplish that, which doesn't sit right with me,” she said.
This got us wondering, what should brands do instead? Well, for one, they should abandon these tactics and focus on ways to provide value.
“If marketers want to escape tactical hell, they should develop a brand positioning and content strategy that compels the audience to seek them out proactively. I know that's a big ask, and everyone wants a few tactics in their back pocket for a slow sales day,” Greifeld continued.
Even if you have a slower sales day than expected, there are many other genuine and valuable ways to reach out to customers and remind them about your sale.
“Even if the data shows a win for this email, you’re risking the entire customer relationship for a single win. Consider the long-term impact of being honest and acting with integrity. Don’t fake stock issues or the intern accidentally sent out a massive discount. Put your customer’s experience of your brand first and leave the scare tactics back at Halloween where they belong.”
- Val Geisler
7 email ideas that won’t hurt your reputation
Instead of sending a bogus email that’s masking a deeper intention to push your sale, try these ideas:
- Use puns to play into the holiday
There’s no doubt your customers are getting hundreds of emails over the Black Friday weekend. So why not lean into the fact that you’re one of many? Olipop did this with a fun subject line.
“Olipop stood out in my jam-packed inbox with this subject line,” shared Geisler.
Here’s another example from Braxley Bands, which made a play on a common religious line, “Let there be light.”
The email used similar language, talking about their sale being “An eCommerce miracle.”
These are just two examples of how you can use humor to stand out in customers’ inboxes during the holiday.
- Share real updates on your success—instead of creating fake hype
Instead of making up fake reasons to reach out to customers, you can share genuine updates.
Oberst shares one idea: “Focus on helping shoppers find what they need. Instead of creating fake hype, they can share real updates on how the sale is going. And if they’re going to open up about challenges faced by their team, it should be truthful so their audience can support them without feeling used.”
Loyal customers will be excited to hear about your success, so don’t be afraid to reach out and let them know how your business is doing and how thankful you are for their support.
- Tell your story to get shoppers excited about your mission
One email example we saw this holiday season that we love is from SAMARA Bags. Going with a plain-text style, it feels like a genuine update from the founders to shoppers.
Instead of just pushing the sale, they shared their story on how SAMARA started five years ago in Salima’s apartment (Co-Founder).
And if the tone wasn't already friendly enough, 75% of the email tells customers how much they have appreciated their support over the years.
Anyone supporting this brand would appreciate an update like this—especially since it’s a nice break from all the “Sale extended!” emails.
- Create limited-quantity deals to highlight
Geisler pointed out an email from Maison Miru that stood out to her during the Black Friday weekend. “I’ll always love a Maison Miru text-based email from Trisha. Written like we’re BFFs, clear and to the point. A win when my inbox is on overdrive.”
She’s right—this email is simple, easy to read, and the subject line is catchy.
However, the brand also built FOMO by announcing a limited-quantity deal where they created three earring bundles to choose from. Sharing an addition to your ongoing sale is always a good reason to email customers.
- Make an offer that’s exclusive to email subscribers
Another example from Braxley Bands is this plain-text email with the subject line “Open for a time-sensitive bonus.”
Intriguing language like this works when the actual email content has a real bonus (AKA, don't announce a time-sensitive bonus if you're promoting your basic sale). Instead of re-promoting its sale, Braxley announces a campaign where the first 20 subscribers get a gift card with their purchases.
If you want to send another email to customers, try some variation of what Braxley did to build FOMO.
“There are ways to use disruptive or pattern-breaking subject lines to cut through the noise without tricking the audience. Use classic copywriting principles to create intrigue. Send an email directly from your brand's founder. Or, if you want to be really aggressive, throw in a typo or do something else to make the subject line look like a mistake.”
- Alex Greifeld
- Highlight your mission or charity
If you can make customers feel good about their purchases by showing how they’re contributing to something good in the world, they’ll be more likely to purchase.
Plus, these contributions give you another reason to email your customers about something actually interesting to them.
SAMARA did this by sharing the inspiration behind the brand (which is to support the founder’s charity that makes bags with a built-in solar light for children in Kenya). In the email, the founder explains how each SAMARA purchase helps fund the charity so that they can create more backpacks for children.
Similarly, Braxley writes about how they’ll plant three trees when shoppers purchase two Apple watch bands. Then they share more information about the organization they work with to plant these trees and why they do it.
- Simply send anything valuable
Finally, you don’t need a special reason to email your customers during Black Friday.
Obviously, you want to avoid spamming people with the same email content over and over, but you can share information about your sale with a good design, fun content, a good CTA, and FOMO language.
“I just like this one from Outway. It’s the colors, it’s the clear CTA, and it’s the little bit of FOMO in that subject line. Let’s be honest, it’s an incredible deal on a pricey sock,” said Geisler.
Avoid the “ick”—lead with value
Take it from us, don’t be disingenuous with your customers. This isn’t the way to build long-term loyalty, and like we just shared above, there are several other emails you can send to customers instead of a blatant lie.
Thankfully, this tactic (like many bad ones from the past) will likely die out over time. We can only hope these emails will be a thing of the past by next year.
“This tactic will pass through the usual stages of the marketing tactic lifecycle, from new and disruptive to overused and ignored. And as a result, consumers will become more suspicious of any email they receive, which will make email a less effective channel overall. It's hard to ask marketers to forgo a short-term win, but our actions determine the health and longevity of our marketing channels. This is literally a ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ situation–maybe some marketers need to read that story again…”
- Alexandra Greifeld