The so-so Vancouver Marathon marketing customer experience

Since I’m a little cranky about email marketing and spam, I thought it might just be me. However, when I saw a couple tweets yesterday echoing my feelings, I knew I probably wasn’t overreacting. On New Year’s Eve, I registered for the BMO Vancouver Marathon half. Within a couple days I got an email from them encouraging me to register. My immediate thought was, “WTF?”

bmo-email-spamThis kind of misstep is more noticeable when the registration and the email follow in such rapid succession, but nonetheless, it demonstrates very poor attention to detail with regard to email marketing and, by extension, creates a poor customer experience. Just prior to this, I’d been pretty impressed when I noticed they’d implemented a responsive design on their main web site. Doing so indicates that they at least recognize that their customers access their site on several different devices with different viewports, and that they’re trying to create a good customer experience. As such, the poorly timed marketing email kind of killed the good will the responsive web site had instilled in me.

As well, since I understand that the world of email marketing tells its practitioners to send out big, visual messages, I won’t get into critiquing the design of their 600×2100 pixel template (click image to the left to enlarge – still only to half size). With the exception, that is, that a design fixed to these behemoth dimensions while actually only containing two paragraphs and a bullet list of copy, is the exact opposite of either a good customer experience or responsive design. Reading this thing on your phone would chew up data to download the images and force the user to scroll all over the place.

In the grand scheme of things, getting this email isn’t a big deal. However, it is extremely easy to not only fix to turn into a good experience, but to further customize it and make it a stellar customer experience. The marathon folks are really missing an opportunity connect with their customers in ways that are meaningful to them.

Timing is everything

It’s not like the marathon organization sends out a ton of email marketing, but one can probably assume their New Year’s blast was timed to capitalize on resolutions and pudgy midriffs. The screenshot above really only encourages registration in its big, graphically intense way. I’ve been subscribed to their newsletters for quite some time and, if memory serves, this is now the beginning of what will be increasingly frequent calls to action for me to register.

Don’t just ask why; let me change my mind.
However, since I had just registered prior to getting this, I viewed it akin to spam and, being the email curmudgeon I am, I unsubscribed. It really made me wonder just how on the ball the marathon marketing folks are. After all, don’t they track email addresses of registrants versus prospects and treat them differently? Apparently not. I found the links in the email footer to either unsubscribe from emails or update my profile. There’s apparently only one mailing list, because it gave me no choices AND didn’t even ask me to confirm. Clicking unsubscribe meant I was immediately unsubscribed, though it did allow me to provide feedback as to why. Updating my profile allowed me to change personal information, with the additional option of unsubscribing, but again, no email preferences nor different mailing list interests.

Interestingly, as of this writing, I’ve sent them direct feedback by email, tweeted and re-tweeted feedback to them and provided reasons for unsubscribing and I’ve heard nothing back yet. I wonder if/when I will.

The basic fixes

Any well designed experience takes a little effort, but there are some really simple things the marathon folks can do to fix and improve this for their customers:

  1. Proof-read ALL your content ruthlessly

    One thing I forgot to mention is that there had also been some contradictions in their published dates for the early bird discount expiration. The main website indicated that the prices would be going up by $30 and $40 for the half and full, respectively, on January 1st, whereas the registration site said they’d be going up two days later.

    As it turned out, January 3rd was the actual date, so from the marathon’s marketing perspective, the timing of this email was a last-minute marketing push for registration. For those of us who thought the early bird fee had expired, the email was no longer a push, rather just a poorly timed spammy annoyance.

    Fix #1Ensure messaging consistency to avoid customer confusion and frustration.

  2. Get your timing right

    In addition to the botched messaging, there are a couple glaring problems with their email approach. First, while it’s understandable to send out a call to action like this at New Year’s, doing so when many of your customers have just registered because your falsely advertised early bird fee has just expired is very poor execution.

    Fix #2Give enough lead time between marketing pushes and milestones such as fee deadlines, that contradictory messaging/glitches don’t come back to bite you.

  3. Manage email addresses, based on customer profile

    Second, and perhaps my most important point, run your registrant email addresses against your mailing list email addresses and eliminate the duplicates. Particularly in light of the fact that they only apparently have one mailing list and know nothing about targeted email marketing, they should NEVER send calls to register to those who already have. However, given what data is available via the profile management link, they’re not showing me much on which they could customize my messaging.

    Fix #3Don’t spam customers who’ve already given you their money for the very thing you’re advertising.

  4. Confirm your customer’s choices before making them final

    It may seem like a small thing, but if you’ll recall when I unsubscribed from the email, I indicated that clicking the link in the footer automatically unsubscribed me, the only option being to provide them feedback as to why. At least if there was an option to retain my subscription, I never saw it. This is a big mistake. What if I clicked it by mistake or wanted to keep my subscription after all? The only option I have is to go re-subscribe manually and that’s a hassle. This effectively ensures they’ve lost a marketing conduit whether I really wanted to unsubscribe or not.

    Fix #4No matter what you’re doing with customers online, when you ask them to make a decision, provide them a confirmation message and allow them to change their mind.

Beyond basic fixes to better customer experiences

My final point is not really a fix so much as a suggestion. It is simple conceptually, but takes a little more work. However, I expect it would deliver them better results and less customer frustration. While it’s certainly better to remove paying customer email addresses completely from what ends up being spam lists (subscribed to or not), better still would be to tailor how you’re talking to these customers, broaden your relationship with them and give them more convenient control. This would also have the added benefit of making the customer feel like you’re paying attention to them. Frankly, even if they merged my previous race registration data with what I’ve provided in my mailing list subscription, they’d begin building really useful profiles.

What if, instead of asking me to register when I’ve already just done so, I received an email thanking me for the registration, offering me tips to make the most of my race experience (which could still be soft upsell opportunities), and linking to sponsor products, training programs and marathon clinics? It could even ask me if I was still interested in receiving these registrant-specific messages. After the marathon passed, the registered and non-registered customer lists could be merged back into one leading up to next year’s race. Or, at the very least have registered and non-registered customer templates, then they could automatically change which one they send me by setting a purchase flag in their list. This way they tailor the message and they don’t even need to manage two lists.

Further, the footer link to unsubcribe and the other link to update my profile should just be merged into just one link to a subscription preferences panel. Clearly word the link and only send me to one place; one that allows me to choose from a number of custom mailing lists and to edit my contact information. This way I could choose which of the targeted mailing lists I wanted to receive. I’m just using two examples above, but there are probably more tailored mailing lists the marathon could develop; basic marketing, sponsor offers, the causes you’re asked to donate to when you register, etc. If you add the data from previous races and allow me to tell you what I want you to keep, you really begin to respect me as a customer.

At the end of the day, email marketing should respect the customer, the money they give you, and provide them fine-grained control about how you communicate with them and what kind of data you keep about them.