Pinterest Email SNAFU Shows Dangers of Over Reliance on Automation

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

pinBy its nature, anything done over the internet produces a lot of data and this allows marketers to understand their audiences better than ever before. To illustrate, in print newspapers and magazines, a consumer buys the entire periodical, but there’s no way to know which articles got read, what articles people shared with friends, which ads were seen, or which ads were the most effective. By contrast, internet marketers normally have all of this information readily available from click activity. This is why the internet is so useful for targeted marketing, it’s very easy to zero in on a target audience with the right content at the right time. However, a recent mistake by Pinterest shows that there are limits to using automation to target audiences and why marketers should wary of making too many assumptions.

Though a recent study gave Pinterest the highest customer satisfaction scores among social networks, the company isn’t perfect. Last week, Pinterest caused a stir when it sent emails to some of its female users with subject lines like “Hundreds of wedding invitations (P.S. You might find the one).” The email itself reads: “You’re getting married! And because we love wedding planning — especially all the lovely stationery — we invite you to browse our best boards curated by graphic designers, photographers and fellow brides-to-be, all Pinners with a keen eye and marriage on the mind.”

The problem was that many of these women weren’t married. They had shown an interest in wedding planning and supplies, so Pinterest’s automated system assumed they were getting married and thus sent them an email targeted to brides to be. According to NPR, ‘one woman who received the email called it that awkward moment when I pinned so much wedding stuff that Pinterest thinks I’m getting married’.

The situation led to a lot of hilarious tweets from single women who joked about the situation to a few who were less than pleased by the perceived slight and intrusion. The story was first noticed by New York Magazine, who published an article with the tweets related to the issue. Pinterest sent the magazine the following statement:

“Every week, we email collections of category-specific pins and boards to pinners we hope will be interested in them. Unfortunately, one of these recent emails suggested that pinners were actually getting married, rather than just potentially interested in wedding-related content. We’re sorry we came off like an overbearing mother who is always asking when you’ll find a nice boy or girl.”

All of this goes to show the dangers of over reliance on automation and on making too many assumptions about what click behavior says about audiences. Automated marketing is the direct descendent of big data, where the data is used to locate likely members of a target audience. Automation is at the heart of PPC and social media advertising. The more marketers understand their audience and their motives, they will be more able to set up targeting parameters that reach the consumers. Pinterest forgot to take into account that non-engaged people like to look at wedding stuff, and this made their targeting go awry.

This also shows the benefit of opt-in mailing lists. The women who received the Pinterest email weren’t on an email list for wedding stuff. Had Pinterest relied on an opt-in system for deciding which of their consumers got wedding related updates, there wouldn’t have been the potential for the automation mix up.

In the end, it’s best to think of automation in marketing like buckshot instead of as a laser. If you shoot a round of buckshot at a target, most of the pellets will end up around the targeted area, but some of the pellets will stray off. Because Pinterest didn’t properly target their automated emails for weddings, a large portion of their messages didn’t hit the target. Automation is only as good as the initial targeting.  So before marketers cast their nets, they need to make sure that they only catch the target audience and not wasting the ad budget on marketing that’s going to the wrong place.

Read this article about a recent study that shows how fine tuning keyword selection could lead to higher returns on PPC ads.

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