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For Marketing's Sake, OfficeMax Screw Up Must be Explained

1/28/14

By Ken Magill

If ever there was a time to lift the veil on certain database marketing practices, it’s now. And if ever there was a company whose responsibility it is to lift that veil, it’s either OfficeMax or whoever supplied it a seriously flawed mailing record.

Mike Seay and his wife lost their 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, in a car accident a year ago.

Last week, they reportedly received a direct-mail piece from OfficeMax which was addressed: “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.”

“Why do they have that?” Seay reportedly said. “What do they need that for?”

Good questions. And there may be perfectly plausible answers. So far no one has offered them.

OfficeMax said in a statement the mailing was “a result of a mailing list rented through a third-party provider” and offered its apologies to Seay.

I cannot imagine a worse direct-marketing mistake than the one OfficeMax’s third-party list provider apparently made. It is a universe beyond sending credit-card offers to someone’s dead mother.

But there is most certainly a non-malicious human-error explanation behind the blunder. And someone needs to offer it in language everyone, especially the consumer public, can understand.

Database screw ups happen all the time.

In this case we can surmise someone was told to instruct some marketing platform to pull certain fields from a database and include them on a prospecting list.

Maybe the fields were “first name,” “last name” and “profile attribute” or some such thing.

Somehow “Daughter Killed in Car Crash” ended up in one of the fields OfficeMax’s list provider apparently included with the name and address.

Or maybe, the fields were “first name” and “last name” and Mike Seay’s first and last name were mistakenly entered into the first field and “Daughter Killed in Car Crash” was mistakenly entered into the “last name” field.

Then there’s the question of why in the world such information was anywhere in Seay’s address record.

Well, maybe someone made the note for purposes of compassion.

Don’t send the Seay household offers aimed at teenage girls, for example.

That there aren’t reports of others receiving such weirdly addressed OfficeMax mailers indicates the Seay mailer may have been a one-off data-entry error.

What should have been entered into some sort of comment field was entered into the wrong place.

If the public doesn’t get a clear and understandable explanation of what happened, every data-driven marketer will suffer.

Every time a story is written about the privacy horrors of marketing, the writer will invoke the Seay mailer.

Every time Congress holds a privacy hearing, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and his ilk will use the Seay mailer as a bludgeon to beat marketing into the ground.

Even after an explanation, anti-marketing forces may invoke the Seay mailer as damning evidence for years to come.

But an explanation from the proper source may at least mitigate some of the damage that otherwise surely will result.

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