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Last week, Shutterfly messed up big time.  They sent out a note to customers congratulating them on having a baby.  For those without children, this was understandably confusing at best and extremely hurtful at worst.  Imagine… well… you don’t have to imagine… finding out your IVF cycle was a bust and then receiving this thoughtless email in the same day.


Marketing disconnects like this one happens on a daily basis.  I receive coupons for baby products and cans of Enfamil on a semi-regular basis.  I receive PR pitches from people who want me to hawk their pregnancy or infant products. (“You write about babies, right?”  Uh… not exactly.)  There are a lot of people out there who don’t know us at all who are trying to sell something.  So they cast a wide net, hoping to snag the right people in the process.  But like dolphins caught by tuna nets (or whatever analogy works… I don’t really know much about fishing), we’re sucked into the pitch as well.  It hurts as we thrash about.

Shutterfly since apologized, though their apology points to the fact that the nets are going to get thrown over and over again.

We mistakenly sent an email that was intended only for new parents who recently made baby-related purchases at Shutterfly. We’re truly sorry if you received this email in error. We realize this is a very sensitive issue and we did not mean to upset you in any way.

But here’s the thing, if they know this is “a very sensitive issue,” then sending out an email even to people who just made “a baby-related purchase” has the potential to hurt feelings.  There are a lot of reasons why someone purchases a baby product, and not all of them mean that they just gave birth to a baby.  Marketing that is little more than groping around in the dark has the potential to hurt.

I would feel better if the company owned that and said, “listen, we need to make a living.  We’re going to send out emails to try to get you to buy stuff.  We’re really sorry if you mistakenly get scooped up in the wrong marketing campaign.  Believe me, we know it sucks.  We’re also human beings, so it happens to us as well as other companies try to market to us.  So… I’m sorry.  But this is what needs to be done.  Because there is a lot of noise out there and a lot of competition.  And we’ve found that we sell 30% more products if we do these email campaigns but only lose 5% of the old customers who get cranky with us because we hurt their feelings.  And we have to go where the money is.  So… sorry?”

I really like transparency.  If Shutterfly would say something like that, I’d nod my head and say, “godspeed, Shutterfly.  Keep the emails rolling.”


There’s another piece to this story.  Marketing happens, every single second of the day.  We have interactions with companies, every single second of the day.  Companies are run by human beings, and human beings botch things.  We are insensitive and thoughtless and always in a hurry, looking for shortcuts.  Businesses can sometimes treat the customer horribly, especially when you have a worker who has no vested interest in the company.

Back when Mr. Olson owned his little store on the prairie, if he acted like a good capitalist and hired a worker to mind the store so he could visit Nelly in the one-room schoolhouse, that worker treated that store as if it were his own.  Because his reputation was on the line.  And he knew Mr. Olson.  And he was going to have to keep living in that community.  And unless he opened his own store, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for the worker to make a living.  So workers cared because they had to care AND because they were only one degree away from the center of the business.

But nowadays?  Do you honestly think the person who sent that email knows the founder of Shutterfly?  According to Wikipedia,

The company was founded in 1999 and is currently led by Jeffrey Housenbold, who joined the company in 2005.

So the founder is not Housenbold, who came on 6 years after the company was founded by someone who isn’t even important enough to be named in the article.  Talk about being far away from the center of the company.  If the worker on the prairie was one degree from the owner, many workers today — especially if they work for big companies — may not even know the name of the person who started the business.  They have no reason beyond their need for a paycheck and human good will to do a good job.  They may need to face their boss, but they will never have to stare the owner of the company in the face and interact with her on a daily basis.  And that’s the problem with a big company.  Capitalism worked on the prairie.  It even works well in small businesses.  But enormous chain stores or international businesses?  You get what you get.

This is the trade off for enormous growth.  The trade off for convenience and low-cost.  The trade off for capitalism in general.

Like most things in life, economics isn’t a pu-pu platter.  We can’t say we like this but we don’t like that.  We just have to take the whole package.  If we want big companies that have their product all over the world, we also need to accept that those companies are not going to know their customers.  Our only recourse is to hold companies accountable for making things better when someone within the company messes up, but yes, we will need to keep dealing with direct marketing as long as there are big businesses needing to grope about for customers.


We’re also part of the story.  It is disheartening to see how quickly people run to Twitter and publicly trash a company before trying to deal with the company on a quiet, personal level.  People weren’t just expressing disappointment in Shutterfly (understandable and if Shutterfly is going to send things into people’s inboxes, they better be prepared for people to talk back).  Within the amusing snark were people asking others to stop patronizing Shutterfly.  They were calling for a boycott.  Over one email.  A thoughtless email, but still, one email.

One click?  Or in the case of other examples: one bonehead thing uttered by a CEO, one missing suitcase, one pizza delivered that wasn’t up to snuff.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on a company.  If we treated our friends like that, lashing out at them due to one thoughtless or sub-par interaction, we would have no friends.  And while companies are not people, they are comprised of people.  They deserve to be held to standards.  They deserve to hear constructive criticism.  But they also deserve to make mistakes and have room for recovery.  Especially when irreparable damage hasn’t been inflicted on the public or individuals.

I’m not excusing Shutterfly, but I’m owning that as someone participating in the economy of the western world, we created this mess.  We depersonalized our business interactions, and as a result, we are treated impersonally.  The people at Shutterfly don’t actually know you, so they need to guess things about you by data mining and purchasing lists.  Sometimes they guess right.  A lot of times, they guess wrong.

I remedy this as best I can by purchasing my books from an independent bookstore, purchasing my produce straight from the same family farm year after year, and every chance I get, choosing the small business over the impersonal big business.  It’s not that local vendors and restauranteurs don’t make grave errors in their marketing.  But at least they need to keep facing me after they’ve done so.  Their kids need to keep playing baseball with my kids.  We need to keep passing each other in town.  And it holds employees to a different standard, being only one degree removed from the center.

I disagree with anyone who stated that people who got upset with Shutterfly’s email are just way too sensitive.  What a weak argument.  Your feelings are going to be hurt from impersonal interactions.  The salve is to get back into your community and return to making things personal.  To shopping at small vendors like Etsy.  To going to the farmer’s market or joining a CSA.  And yes, visiting that local stationary store in town (if you still have one) and using their services.


1 Katie Lamparyk { 05.18.14 at 9:27 am }

My mother lost her last child and I remember, still as a kid myself, receiving mailings and “freebies” for baby and then child related products for YEARS in the corresponding age to what might have been. I think of this every time I get put on a mailing list for maternity/baby stores and shudder.

2 Marianne { 05.18.14 at 11:05 am }

I received the email the week after my unfulfilled due date from our last IVF cycle that ended in miscarriage. I can report that the email made my heart leap and gave me a stomachache for a good maybe 15 minutes. It does hurt, absolutely. I did appreciate the swift apology though.

3 tigger62077 { 05.18.14 at 11:35 am }

I have suddenly started receiving Similac samples and coupons in the mail. They congratulate me on having my baby and give me tips on how to parent a newborn. Um, my child is 3 years old. Not exactly a newborn and not on formula. I’m getting emails from them too. And? There’s no way to contact them and tell them to stop, no twitter, no nothing. It’s quite ridiculous and infuriating. Three years after the fact and NOW they send stuff? What if I’d lost that child?

4 Kasey { 05.18.14 at 12:59 pm }

Because marketing campaigns do rely on data mining and purchasing there is a lot of room for error but I think on a daily basis we deal with it. They can’t know if the baby items purchased were for me or a gift. They can’t know that someone was searching for items during a cycle that ultimately failed. I fell like the marketers don’t know me so I don’t take the emails I get personally. I do understand how painful it could be but it wasn’t done maliciously so I agree that there has to be room for recovery. Incidentally I do have a new baby and did recently purchase birth announcements so the email was appropriate. So I laughed a little when I also got the apology. Had it happened on one of my twitter /blog free days I likely would have been very confused by the apology.

5 Turia { 05.18.14 at 1:39 pm }

I hadn’t seen the Shutterfly e-mail- glad I didn’t.

Wanted to say to tigger62077 that the EXACT same thing happened to me. I ended up on a Similac mailing list (I think a maternity store sold my information). They went quiet for years. A few months before my son turned three I suddenly started getting formula coupons and samples for newborns. My guess is that they’ve crunched their numbers and decided that this is when most people have another baby, so it makes sense to do a mass mailing. In my case, the samples started turning up within days of my learning I was pregnant (which really freaked me out) and continued after I had lost the baby (which was heartbreaking).

Marketing really sucks sometimes.

6 Mali { 05.18.14 at 5:08 pm }

I got the email still in hospital after my hysterectomy. It hurt. I promptly unsubscribed, so maybe that explains why I didn’t get the apology email.

7 chickenpog { 05.18.14 at 7:12 pm }

I got this Shutterfly email and I was already really pissed at them. I have all of my pictures stored in a Kodak account, and I can’t access them. The mass emailing was hurtful, but it isn’t nearly as crappy as promising someone that you will safeguard their precious photos for all time and then not allow them access. It seems to me that they have a few employees screwing the pooch over there.

8 a { 05.18.14 at 9:18 pm }

I actually responded to the email, but it unfortunately didn’t get through. Guess I wasn’t the only one who did so.

9 Arwen { 05.19.14 at 3:39 am }

A girl I know, who also has to go through gestational surrogacy like me, received a mass Mother’s day email just like the Shutterfly one from her FERTILITY clinic! They sent out a mass apology saying that email was meant for graduated patients but it was mistakenly sent to the ongoing patients. How awful is that!! They certainly should know better.

10 fifi { 05.19.14 at 7:57 am }

I rolled my eyes over that first sentence: “There’s nothing more amazing than bringing a new life into the world”. I know it’s just a stupid marketing slogan but it still pisses me off. Really, nothing more amazing? Overcoming cancer, celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary, making a scientific breakthrough, writing a bestselling novel, preventing someone from committing suicide, being a live kidney donor…. none of these things are even comparable in amazingness?

11 deathstar { 05.19.14 at 12:44 pm }

I get a lot of emails in the junk category – usually from stores I’ve bought from so sometimes I look at them and sometimes I just delete them automatically. I have used Shutterfly quite a bit, so I get their emails constantly. I did get the apology email and I thought it was rather cool that that even apologized. I had an inward cringe of course for all the people who read their previous email cause I know that would have caused pain to a lot of people. It wasn’t that long ago when I would change the channel whenever that Christmas Pampers commercial would come on with the shots of adorable babies.

12 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.19.14 at 4:01 pm }

I love your considered and measured thoughts on this. How incisive is this: “We depersonalized our business interactions, and as a result, we are treated impersonally.”

13 Morgan { 05.21.14 at 11:50 am }

I was not on the receiving end of this email, but I certainly heard much about it from a few of the blogs I follow and friends who had received it. I agree 100% with your thoughts. Having seen this taboo subject right after my 3rd miscarraige I was actually not hurt by it at all. I can’t fault Facebook for posting baby adds and pregnancy app suggestions on my news feed because that’s what their data tells them I am interested in. I don’t get all up in arms when BabyCenter decides to send me a deal via email. That’s all they know about me and marketing and advertising and business has become so impersonal that it would be completely unfair to start a boycott when I am the one who had interest in the first place. Unless I called or emailed to tell them right away that my pregnancy wasn’t viable, or was unsuccessful and unsubscribe there is NO possible way any such social media marketing or email blasts could know me and my present day circumstances. It’s a bummer they made a mistake but its also quite cool of them to attempt an apology. Great words girl! Love this!

14 loribeth { 05.22.14 at 8:16 pm }

Good point, Mel. I had something similar happen to me a couple of years ago. I got an email from Today’s Parent magazine (a Canadian parenting publication) with “Your Pregnancy: Week 5: Taking Care of You.” in the subject line and an opening line that read, “Still trying to process the fact that you’re pregnant?” (!!!) I showed dh & he said, “Is there something you’re not telling me??” Yeah, right. Apparently it was an email glitch of some kind (I obviously dont’ subscribe but I do to other magazines from the same publisher) & I wasn’t the only one. I blogged about it here:


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