DO NOT REPLY

Imagine the following imaginary scenario:

You walk into your local Sprint store to pay your monthly invoice. You walk up to the counter and hand the Sprint employee a check that covers the full amount due. The Sprint employee takes your check and says, “Please do not reply to me. Replies to me are routed to an unmonitored device.”

Huh?

Silly, right? It’s a scenario that is almost unfathomable. In fact, it’s quite laughable. Who would ever say that to a customer, especially after that customer just paid their bill?

However, this type of DO NOT REPLY response is one that some email marketers default to in their automated, transactional replies.

“Please do not reply to this email. Replies to this message are routed to an unmonitored mailbox.”

Those were the first seventeen words I read when I opened a payment confirmation email from Sprint.

Check out the entire email below (personal information redacted):

DO NOT REPLY. 

(Coincidentally, as I was writing the sentence above, an email from United Airlines landed in my inbox. It that started off with this: “*** This is an automated response confirming the receipt of your email. Please do not reply ***).

It’s one of those things that just irks me. It’s not a new pet peeve of mine – far from it. I actually blogged about this very topic many moons ago (November 2008). Yet it still happens. From small to large companies, lesser to well-known brands, many marketers are still including DO NOT REPLY language in their email communications.

Sometimes it’s in the form of a From Address (noreply@), while other times it’s the actual text within the email. In the case of the Sprint email above, it’s both!

But does it really matter? Does the average consumer really care about a noreply@ from name or the “cold” nature of  an email that directly tells subscribers to not bother replying?

Also, what if someone replies to one of these emails asking to be unsubscribed? Are there any legal (CAN-SPAM) implications?

Finally, what potential opportunities are marketers missing by not allowing customers to reply to their emails?

Who Cares?

My hunch (no real data to support) tells me that most people get this type of email and either delete or archive it without much thought. Maybe my colleagues and I who eat, breath, sleep and sometimes dream email marketing make a bigger deal out of this then the average consumer does. I proposed that very question to my friends at Only Influencers. Here is what - John Caldwell, of Red Pill Email said:

I don’t think that anybody really cares about “noreply@” sender addresses for the most part. Of course having a real and monitored address is more “friendly” and may give the impression that the sender actually [cares] about the recipient – there may even be some immeasurable incremental revenue by extending the recipient lifetime value, but who is going to change insurance companies because of “donotreply” in an email?

I have to agree with John that most folks don’t care about the “noreply@” from name. I’d take it a step further and suggest that most people don’t even notice the from address. Instead, they are more focused on the From Name and Subject Line.

However, would you care if the messaging in an email very clearly told you to not reply? Would that bother you or are my colleagues and I just overly sensitive to this stuff because it’s the industry we work in? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please indicate in the comments what your role is at your organization (I want to see if you are an industry type of “other.” Ha).

What About CAN-SPAM?

One potential downside to sending an email that has an “unmonitored mailbox” is that some subscribers hit reply in order to opt-out. What happens if someone replies to your DO NOT REPLY email asking to be unsubscribed? According to John Caldwell of Red Pill Email:

CAN-SPAM says that promotional messages must have a working opt-out mechanism that’s active for 30 days from the time the message is sent. While it identifies a reply message as an option, it doesn’t state that the recipient gets to pick the option or that the sender support all options (emphasis mine). If the instructions state that in order to opt-out the recipient must click a link and the recipient decides they’d rather do something else the expectation should be that if the recipient didn’t follow the opt-out instructions that there is no reasonable expectation that they have opted out.

While I’m not an attorney, it sounds like what John says is quite reasonable. I’d still check with legal counsel first, if it were me.

So if most consumers don’t really care about DO NOT REPLY – either in the From Address or in the body of the email – and it’s not an issue as far as CAN-SPAM is concerned, why are we even having this conversation?

Simple. By not providing an easy, simple, clear way for your email subscribers to contact you – via an email reply – you are missing out on possible opportunities to engage with a customer.

Missed Opportunities

I strongly believe that every single communication you have with an email subscriber, prospect, customer, fan, and so on is valuable. Email replies are no exception. If someone is replying to your email with a complaint, it’s a great opportunity to apologize and possibly turn the situation around. Scott Stratten gives this great example from an exchange he had with Delta recently. While this example is from Twitter, the same idea holds true.

Chris Marriott, an Outside Consultant at Vivastream agrees:

Every customer interaction should provide an opportunity for further engagement, which this type of automated email fails to do. To me it is little different than getting a pre-recorded phone call which directs you to call a different number to respond. Those really irk me too! The easier you are to do business with, the more business people will do with you. Pointing to another email address or a phone number is not as easy as replying to the original email.

Joshua Baer, CEO at OtherInbox, a division of Return Path, thinks that the do-not-reply is “the dumbest thing in the world.” Baer continues,

How could you pass up on a chance to hear from your customers? A very common reply is to unsubscribe, and if you don’t catch it, it’s likely to become a spam complaint instead (emphasis mine). Do-not-reply is a legacy of the days before we had good spam filters or mail rules or help desk software. We should put the nail in its coffin.

Mia Papanicolaou, Head of Operations at Striata, told me they have customers that monitor replies and those that don’t.

The manned process gets many unsubscribe requests, but it also gets so many compliments for the campaigns, as well as legitimate questions/complaints that are dealt with immediately. Customer satisfaction increases the same way it would on a social medium where customers air their views / complain and get satisfactory responses. To shut down this fantastic avenue for customers to communicate with a company is madness in my view.

John Ken, Email Marketing Manager at Edmunds Inc. told me that they don’t use a “do-not-reply” email address. In fact, they see “a good amount of transactional email replies that are meaningful.” John’s team puts them into a CRM bucket where his CSR’s respond, if necessary. “For us specifically,” said John, “we are consumer advocates, and absolutely care about this stuff.” BINGO!

Those In Favor of Do Not Reply

While personally I think anything resembling DO NOT REPLY is essentially ignoring your customers (as Tim Watson, Founder at Zettasphere, wrote about in this blog post), there is always two sides to a story, right?

Someone who asked to remain anonymous shared this justification with me:

Some of our clients use the “Do Not Reply” not because they don’t have the staff to reply, but instead due to security risks (especially financial services companies). We’ve heard of clients receiving reply emails that look to be legit, but carry dangerous viruses because that mailbox was compromised/hacked (not just in an attachment but sometimes in the content itself) and they don’t want to risk their data or corporate networks because a customer service person unknowingly downloads the virus. Most clients that allow for replies use an inbound filtering system that strips out attachments and known virus-related content.

I had never thought about it from a security-risk standpoint. Seems reasonable, right?

Andy Goldman, Principal, Digital and Brand Strategy at B+M+T Consulting, suggested it had more to do with the specific brand’s dependency on email for sales or other key customer engagements. “Your Sprint service provider is one such brand,” Goldman told me.

While they may have significant opportunities to deepen their relationship with your household via email, all in all Sprint (and other telecomms) rarely use them. By contrast, some larger service providers, like ComCast and Time Warner, offer a number of services and products that can be sold, previewed, rated, sampled, and otherwise showcased via digital relationship marketing. A True Blood t-shirt here, a Justified season-one DvD offer there, free high-speed tests (what’s YOUR download?) and the like. These offers and options are perfect for transactional dialogue.

That being said, Goldman also believes that, “any brand that ‘impersonalizes’ and ignores customer engagement opportunities today is failing.”

I could not agree more.

What do you think? Feel free to reply with your thoughts in the comments below. (See what I did there? Ha!)

Cheers
DJ Waldow

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Did you know? Jason Falls and I just wrote a new book about breaking the rules of email marketing! In the book, we talk about ways to grow your email list AND break some rules along the way. We discuss from names and subject lines too! In The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing: Grow Your List, Break the Rules, and Win, we share with you all sorts of email marketing “best practices” individuals and companies are breaking each and every day … and still finding success.

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