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What Do Email Lists, Canned Responses, and Social Media Have In Common? Bad PR.

On November 12, 2014, I received an email confirming a payment for a group flight that I never booked or paid for. This email was from StudentUniverse, a company that provides lower cost trips, along with a variety of deals on technology, clothing, and other items for students.

You could imagine my panic when I read this email, when I hadn’t used my credit card online at all. As my anxiety levels rose, worrying that my credit card information had been stolen, I tried to think of what to do next. Do I call the company? Do I send an email back? Should I call my credit card company? I had many options, but as any millennial would do, I went straight to social media to see if anything fishy was going on.

Sure enough, I was not the only victim of this odd email. Thousands of others had received the email and felt the same rush of panic that I had. Many were furious, others were confused, and several used humor to poke fun at the situation. After settling down and realizing that I wasn’t a victim of identity fraud or some scam, I (and several) others noticed how poor of a job StudentUniverse was doing to rectify the situation.

Part 1: The Admittance

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Thankfully, StudentUniverse did admit that something was wrong and that they were working on it.

While this put my mind at a little bit of ease, something was still off.

Part 2: The Response

During my freshman year of college, I heard about StudentUniverse and signed up. I never purchased anything from their website. (My college money went to coffee and food. The necessities.) Unfortunately, many of the individuals who received the email had never heard of StudentUniverse or voluntarily gave their information to the company.

Post after post and tweet after tweet, people wanted to know how StudentUniverse could have possibly gotten their information when they had never used the company or signed up online for their deals. What does this mean? StudentUniverse most likely purchased a list from a data source, partner company, or some other organization such as a college.

When companies purchase email or information lists, it can create a bit of a tricky situation. While these emails and information may have been obtained legally, there is still a stigma about list purchasing. Many of the concerned individuals were not aware how StudentUniverse obtained their information.

Part 3: The Mistake, The Other Mistake, and the Continuing Mistakes

The most alarming aspect of this odd situation was not that the company sent a scary email to thousands of people about a fake payment. It was how they handled their mistake.

The first line of response was the Facebook post they published acknowledging the ‘human error’. Naturally, people were still concerned. This post did not answer their question about how StudentUniverse had their information. To make matters worse, StudentUniverse refused to answer questions on social media. They directed people to either call or email their help line.

After hours of waiting, an email from StudentUniverse was finally sent out in an attempt to explain and rectify their error.

The mass email apologized, and then sent those affected to a blog post, which went into detail about how every email was obtained legally through third party sources, such as another company or even a college.

Now comes the shocking part. Hold on to your seats.

Remember the whole ‘not answering questions on social media’ part? Instead of helping students and those affected, they replied to every concern with a canned response.

A canned response. The worst. I despise canned responses. Listen, I understand that it’s hard to respond to every little complaint and question online, but at least have a human attitude towards it. Your robotic canned response will not fix anything, and in turn aggravate every recipient.

student-universe-canned-response

Here’s the best part. The response directed people to make their complaint in an email. This will only prolong the process, and customers will just receive another canned response, this time in the form of an email.

The point of social media is to be social with other humans, and that includes brands!

In the end, people didn’t care that their information was obtained from some 3rd party source. They didn’t care that they were just part of some massive ‘human error’ pertaining to their credit card and personal information. They cared that the company was not informing them of what was really going on.

The way StudentUniverse handled this situation is the online equivalent of trying to have a question answered at the DMV. You’re just rerouted several times, put into different lines, and waiting aimlessly while you receive vague and uninformative answers.

What did StudentUniverse hopefully learn?

  • Don’t make a human error. Okay, we’ll let that one slide. That’s impossible.
  • Be careful with purchasing lists, you never know how the people on the list will find out!
  • Canned responses are never acceptable. Be the better brand and respond with an authentic response. Yes, it will absolutely take time and energy, but the results will be far better than a crowd of angry customers.

 In retrospect, while the situation was horrific, at least a lesson in crisis communications and social media management was learned by all.



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