Jan 21


OfficeMax, a photo by RetailByRyan95 on Flickr.
OfficeMax, a photo by RetailByRyan95 on Flickr.

Collecting tons of detailed information about potential customers in order to target your marketing to them seems like a good idea at the time . . . . And, it well may be. But, OfficeMax has a cautionary tale for all of us about the risks of cutting the human element out of marketing.

As reported by numerous news outlets, including  the Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post, OfficeMax used information gleaned from a third-party provider of customer mailing lists to address an envelope to a father who had tragically lost his child with the designation “daughter killed in car crash” on the line of the address block following the father’s name. Can you imagine receiving such a letter after the heartache of losing a child?

There may be very good reason to automate tasks associated with mass marketing. But, this story demonstrates why there needs to remain a human element in your efforts.  At the very least, a human needs to review whatever algorithms or other magical formulae are used by your marketing software to avoid Mailing during WWIIhaving your company’s name associated with a significant gaffe. OfficeMax will undoubtedly be able to move past this (no doubt quicker than the grieving father), but your small company could suffer more significantly if you do not have either yourself or someone very trustworthy – with demonstrated attention to detail – intimately involved in your marketing efforts.

While there are possible legal causes of action associated with such a distasteful gaffe, my point isn’t so much about legal liability as it is about reputational risk. (It may be possible to prove intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, but sustaining such a cause of action would require just the right/wrong set of facts.)  Regardless, BAD publicity is the last thing you want from your marketing efforts.

Let OfficeMax’s well-publicized snafu convince you not to completely automate customer communications, especially if your database saves sensitive information along with general contact information. Instead, make sure a real live human being has close oversight over your marketing, to ensure appropriate personalization of the efforts and avoid costly mistakes fostered by automation.

fine printCovering my bases: There is no legal advice contained in this post. Legal advice entails applying the law to specific facts. I don’t know what your facts are and any resemblance to them here is purely coincidental. Instead, this post is meant to provide general information, which may or may not be complete and accurate. If you need legal guidance, please feel free to contact me using the contact information on my firm’s web site – www.westbendlaw.com.