by Anna Wybieralska Oct 30, 2018

Add some wood to the fireplace, prepare yourself a treat (or a trick) and make sure you sit tight. The stories you are about to read are dead-scary and if you faint easily, you’d better go and read something else. These email horror stories can happen to anyone, so don’t think that you are safe. Brace yourself, here we go!

Story number 1:

It was a nice day - at least on the twentieth floor of the office building that I worked in. If you looked down through the window, you could see a thick fog covering the streets. Only occasionally a car light beamed through it proves that there is life down there and that the city is not deserted. But I didn’t pay much attention to the views as it was a really big day today. The big sale was coming and we had prepared a killer email campaign to start sending. We were about to send 400,000 emails that day.

“If this goes as planned, we will all get a fat bonus for this quarter - wrote Grace through our company Slack.”
“I'm pretty sure it will work just fine. Although…”
“Although what?”
“I have this weird gut feeling that something is not right, but I can’t get a grasp on it.”
“Oh, come on! Everything is perfect. Don’t tell me you want to postpone sending it again.”
“No, no, I just need to go through it and compare with my checklist. Once we send it, there is no turning back.”
“Okay then, just please don’t spend all day doing this. It should be sent half-past eleven AM. We only have 30 minutes left.”
“I will manage.”

So I went through a quick check. We had a brand new email template prepared by a very talented graphic designer and copywriter. Together with the IT team members, we had uploaded the template to the system - it was ready to be sent. Furthermore, the contact list was spotless! All of them were legit, we have been sending to them on a regular basis and the open rates were fantastic so far. We are using Elastic Email for mailing, so there could be no trouble on the technical side either.

I prepared myself some fresh coffee and took the pumpkin-flavoured doughnut from the kitchen to celebrate sending the campaign to those 400,000 people who subscribed to us. It was time. I quickly scanned through the email for the last time to check that there were no typos. Deep breath. SEND.

This moment is always exciting - I was content. In my mind, I was already buying tickets for a trip to Iceland using the bonus money. At once, the wave of notification beeps echoed in the office. Most of our team members also subscribe to newsletters. We always check if the emails get delivered properly, etc. Suddenly, the office got very quiet. Everyone stopped typing and chatting.

“Oh my gosh!” Shouted Steve, our copywriter. He looked at his phone then up at me with the saddest facial expression I have ever seen. It terrified me. I sat down in my chair so that I couldn't see him and frantically opened the email I had also received. The email seemed just fine. Actually, it looked great. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. I had no idea what was going on.

“Is this for real?!” I heard a loud scream. That was our CEO. He was holding his phone looking at his surprised coworkers with a sense of helplessness. Seeing that, I grabbed my phone and opened the same email I had just sent and felt really cold instantly. The email got completely destroyed on the mobile phone. Everything was out of place - it was unreadable. The text formatting looked like it was done by a crazy maniac. All the pictures were so big that you had to scroll through them just to see more text which also fell apart.

This was bad... So bad... this was much more than a lost bonus. It was bad PR for the entire company. We are considered to be a respectable and serious firm with years of traditions and experience and we messed up our own emails on mobile devices. Because of this, we caused troubles to over 50% of our recipients who open emails on mobile. The only thing that I forgot to check was how our email looks on smartphones and tablets.

How to avoid this horror:

In order to avoid it, remember to always check your emails on mobile devices. Especially when you are making your own templates and not using the built-in Elastic Email template editor. The numbers can’t be ignored. For over 50% of users read their emails on different kinds of mobile devices. If you are not sure how to create good looking emails on mobile, simply read this quick guide to get better results.

Story number 2:

The diary of a procrastinating business owner.

Day 1: Dear diary, today I have set up a subscription form for our website. It was much easier than I thought. I did all the configuration in the Dashboard and then just added a shortcode in the right place on our page. It works! Apart from myself, there are already 4 people who subscribed - just a few hours after adding it. Should I write something to them? Something like “Hi there, welcome to our newsletter”? Nah. it’s just 4 people anyway.

Day 7: Those contacts are building up! After just a week, I now have 35 people in my contact list. I am thinking about some sort of welcome email. It would be nice if there were at least 100 people before I send it.

Day 30: I tweaked the message a little bit. Now it says that if you subscribe, you will receive the information about special discounts for subscribers. I also promoted the newsletter on social media and on my other channels. I don’t have the code yet, but I will prepare it once there are 500 subscribers, so it is worth my time. The numbers are growing quite fast. Just one month after I first set up my subscription form, I'm reaching nearly 200 contacts.

Day 90: The newsletter has reached an amazing number of 3621 contacts! This is far more than the number of followers on our Twitter and Facebook combined! It seems that I am really good at convincing people to subscribe. Right now I am preparing an email for the upcoming Halloween sale. This is going to be amazing.

Day 95: Preparing an email is going slow. I really feel intimidated when thinking about the fact that nearly 4,000 people are going to read what I am about to write down. It is a great responsibility. Maybe I should hire a copywriter to help me get it right.

Day 107: I managed to prepare the email template together with text and graphic design, but it is a little too late now. Halloween was yesterday. Maybe I should collect more emails and prepare another campaign later.

Day 148: That’s it! Today I am sending my first campaign. This is going to be great. I have hit 5,000 subscribers. This is the perfect moment to send this sale information. I will use the template I prepared for Halloween. I just need to change it up a little bit.

Day 149: Big day today! I just sent an email to all contacts. I changed a lot in that template. Subject: “SALE” - It is time to be bold about our message. When we do a sale, it truly means SALE and no more explanation is needed. Those people have really waited a while for the first email from us. They will be delighted!

Day 150: It is a catastrophe! Total disaster!!! Who said that email marketing is the most effective channel!? I received spam complaints even though I was sending to legitimate contacts only. The unsubscribe rate was far higher than the click rate. The sales are poor - I don’t understand. I thought I did everything right.

How to avoid this horror:

If you just collect emails without sustaining any communication with your subscribers, they will forget about your newsletter very quickly. They are surprised to receive anything from you after such a long time. They simply don’t remember you or your company. It is important to keep your subscribers engaged. Don’t forget about them and they won't forget about you. The newsletter might become the most important marketing tool you use.

Story number 3

I was working late. My wife and I had a small fight this morning that circled in my mind. While parking outside the office I was still feeling tense, and my wife’s words were wrapped around my head. We had fought more often lately and they were always about me being too busy and not having enough time for the family. Even when I was with them, she said, I was somewhere else. I was constantly on the phone.

It was because our business wasn’t doing very well lately. I was working so hard to get it right that it almost made me cry. We upgraded our sales team tools and provided them with data to fill the sales funnel. It was doing okay but needed some time to bring the first profits.

However, the very moment I entered the office, I could feel something was not right. It was far too quiet and everyone seemed very serious and also a bit scared. A moment later, I found out that there were two official inspectors doing a random audit in our company. They were in the sales team room at that moment. I stopped to talk to David:

“Hi David, what’s going on?”
“You are late. They are going through our data.”
“Yes, sorry about that. My wife and I had a small disagreement this morning.”
“I know what you mean. I also have a hard time at home.” His eyes were fixed on the door, through which the inspectors went. So I decided to ask:
“Are they looking for something specific?”
“Well, it's hard to say right now. They are asking plenty of questions about our emails and contacts. Is everything legit there?”
“Yes, should be no problem. We bought the email database from a company that specializes in providing them - they are professionals.”
“Did we buy contacts for our newsletters? Seriously?”
“No, just contacts for the sales team. We send some automated emails to them in order to grab leads to process.”

After a few hours, the inspectors went out and as soon as they walked through the door, the office was buzzing with gossip. “What did they want?”, “Are we in trouble?”, “Did someone send them to us?”, “What did they ask about?”. Honestly, I was simply too busy to pay attention to it. I decided to just make a short speech to clear the air and reassure people that everything was okay. I also assured everyone that this was just a routine audit. Besides, we had absolutely nothing to be afraid of. We have nothing to hide and we don’t have to prepare in any special way.

A few days later the letter came which said that during the audit, the officials found that our sales teams database did not comply with GDPR requirements. Turns out, we were collecting large amounts of information without getting permission from those people. We also didn’t state anywhere that we were actually doing it. As a result, we are facing an unbelievably high fine of 20 million Euros or 4% of our annual global turnover, whichever is higher. We need to find a really good lawyer, otherwise we can just pack our stuff up and go as our company is nowhere near well of enough to pay even a fraction of this fine.

How to avoid this horror:

Even if you are not located in Europe or North America, if send emails there, you are still required to comply with GDPR. This is not a laughing matter as the penalties are huge and can crush your business with one strike. There is no room for mistakes. If you are not sure what to do, check out Elastic Email's GDPR guide for more information.

Story number 4

I was driving to town for a trade fair. It was one of the most important events in our industry. This was a great opportunity to see what our competitors are doing as well. I had my phone attached to a holder and the GPS turned on. Google Maps are my best friend on these occasions. Suddenly, my husband called and I answered through the car's hands-free system:

“Hi there Monica. I didn’t hear you leave. How are you doing?”
“I had to go early. I still have over an hour's drive ahead of me. Is Tom alright?”
“Apart from the fact that he doesn’t know what food is for, yeah, he is just fine. He has plenty of fun throwing cereal everywhere except into his mouth. You are going to have a long day today, aren't you?”
“Yes. But I really like this event! It is always interesting. So don’t wait for me with for supper - I will eat something on my way home.”
“Sure, just drive safely honey. See ya!”
“Give Tom a kiss from me, bye!”

As soon as we disconnected, I noticed that I had a new email and it was a weird one. The notification said: “The email account that you tried to reach does not exist …”. What email account? I wasn’t trying to reach anybody. I decided to ignore it and continued driving. A few minutes later, a second message arrived. It was exactly the same as the other one. This was intriguing - two similar messages that made very little sense to me. I didn’t have much time to think about it, as suddenly more messages showed up, one after the other.

My phone was going crazy! The notification beep rang about 40 times before it finally stopped. Luckily, I was arriving in the parking lot. The moment I killed the engine I went through all the messages from the very beginning. “The email account that you tried to reach does not exist”, “quota limit exceeded”, “Invalid address”, “email rejected by the server”. After going through most of them I noticed that the email addresses in them were completely strange to me. None of them was from my contacts or subscription list. The last message on the list was from the Elastic Email “Your account was suspended due to suspicious activity. Please contact us at for more details”.

Puzzled, terrified, surprised… it's hard to find the right words to describe how I felt at that moment, sitting in my car in a parking lot, scrolling through a countless stream of messages that I didn’t understand. A moment later everything was clear. Someone from Elastic Email explained to me that a hacker logged into my Elastic Email account, took all the data from it and started sending emails to their own contact lists. They managed to suspend the account before more harm was done. What is worse is that I lost my customer's data and I am going to have to tell them what happened. The reputation of my domain name got hurt and it might be tricky to get it back on track.

I found out that the hacker knew my password somehow as he logged in on a first try. It was, in fact, a very simple password. But I never dreamed that it might be so important or valuable for someone to try to hack it. All those messages I received were the auto-replies from the spam sent by the hacker through my account. He uploaded over a million addresses and some of them don’t even exist anymore. This was a terrible experience. I am lucky that the account was placed under review and paused as it could have been even worse.

How to avoid this horror:

The data on your Elastic Email account is much more precious than you think. For example, someone who gains access to it could steal all the contacts you have been collecting for a long time. They could also send spam from your domain name and IP addresses. We don't need to explain to show how bad these things can be for your business. The first thing you should do is to keep your password hard to break and secure. In order to do that, Elastic Email offers two-factor authentication which is always a good idea. Your account has an API key - never share this or make it public - don’t store it in plain text anywhere. However, if you have a suspicion that your API Key has been leaked out, generate a new one from the menu on your Dashboard. The old one will stop working.

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Anna Wybieralska

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