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January 15, 2009

Three PR Emailers That Didn't Seem Very Human

by Josh Bernoff

I said I would call out PR emailers who didn't treat me right. That starts today.

All three of these PR emailers are guilty of the same sin: failing to give me a way to opt out. It's human to give me a way to say good bye. Otherwise I feel helpless and I resent the companies who won't let me go. That's bad PR.

But behind each of these emails is a person, not a spammer. I spoke to each one, and their stories are instructive. I wanted to get to the human side of PR emails. Interestingly, when I said "I'd like to speak to you about how you do marketing," they all assumed I wanted to highlight what they'd done well.

Marketers, as you read these stories, ask yourself, "Is this how I behave?" Then start marketing more like a human.

Matrixstream's Aaron Keogh has his hands full

Matrixstream is an IPTV platform for streaming high-definition video. Aaron Keogh, their director of business development, has been emailing me for years, because I used to be a TV analyst. I've never written about the company, and I haven't covered TV in the last two years. Here's a typical email:

Matrixstream_2That's 396KB of unsolicited PR. I have received 20 emails like this in the last two years, often with big attachments, and sometimes multiple times. I've asked to be removed from Keogh's list at least three times.

When I called Keogh, he told me he developed his email list himself over seven years and he maintains it himself. When he realized I was going to write about his email hygiene and not his streaming product, he claimed I was behaving unfairly and threatened to call the CEO of Forrester Research.

While Matrixstream's press emails don't include an unsubscribe link or instruction, Keogh says anyone can email and he'll remove them. "It's important to be responsive to people," he told me. "Generally I'll catch it after a couple of times or sometimes if they call me."

Aaron is not evil, he's just trying to represent his company, but I think he's too busy to pay proper attention to the annoyance he may be causing. I am hoping this is his wake up call, and a similar one for others who aren't up to the task of properly maintaining their own email lists.

Chris Rollyson didn't realize that he's an email marketer

Chris Rollyson is a social media expert, sort of like me. He helps companies tap into the power of Linked In. He reaches out to people by running seminars. His email is very clever, since it taps into your own desire to introduce others to the power of social media. It begins like this:

Your advice: Whom should I invite to these LinkedIn seminars?
From: Chris Rollyson
To: Bernoff, Josh

Hello Josh,

There has never been a better time to use LinkedIn to develop fruitful relationships.  People can help people meet their goals, and knowing how manage more connections will be a huge advantage.  LinkedIn is built for this.

Participants of the Executive's Guide to LinkedIn seminars learn
network strategies and dozens of features that 95% of LinkedIn members don't know. Not only that, they continue learning in the private EGLI online community afterwards.  We have new seminars in 3 cities: Chicago 19 Jan.  |  Cleveland 28 Jan.  |   Wheaton, IL 6 Feb.

I am looking for people who want to build strong networks that help them do remarkable things.  Who can you recommend who may be in situations like these?

This struck me as trying a little too hard and sure enough, while there were plenty of links to join the seminar, there wasn't one for getting off the mailing list.

When I called Rollyson he was very pleased to hear from me. It was very hard to get him to understand that I was not happy about his email practices. "I don't really see this as email marketing," he said. "Every one of the people I'm sending to, I know personally." Rollyson has a mailing list of 3000 people, all through personal contacts. He got my card at a Forrester event.

Let's be clear. If you email 3000 people, even if they are your "friends," you are doing email marketing, and you need to do it properly.

To his credit, I think Rollyson has learned that he made a mistake, agrees that I have a good point, and is likely to change his practices.

Marketwire has a bug in its system

Marketwire is a wire service that distributes email on behalf of companies. You might think that if people like Keogh and Rollyson used Marketwire, they wouldn't have problems. But Marketwire makes mistakes, too. They regularly email me on behalf of International Datacasting Corp, a company in which I have no interest. It's a very professional looking release.

Marketwire But there is no unsubscribe link. I didn't reply because who would think you could reply to "Marketwire.Release@ marketwire.com"? So how do I get off this train?

I called Marketwire's head of PR, Lisa Davis. She immediately said the lack of an unsubscribe was a mistake, since every Marketwire release is supposed to have one.

The next day, Davis called back to say that there was a glitch in their system, because this client was Canadian and had worked with the portion of Marketwire that had originally been Canadian (and therefore not subject to the US's CAN-SPAM act). But it was still supposed to have an easy unsubscribe and they've now fixed that.

They also called me back to ask which lists I wanted to be removed from, "Internet" or "Software." That's about as targeted as dividing the world into old people and young people. And that's part of the problem.

Lessons from three emailers

None of these emails was going to make a significant impression on me anyway. Rollyson's was a bit intriguing, but the others are way out of my space. But once you get on an emailer's list, it's hard to get off. It's spray and pray, as they say.

All three annoyed me by treating me as a target, not a human. Influencers and journalists are human, too. We get mad at this stuff. You want us to like your products, so why do you behave like this?

If you're big enough to email, either get a system that works or hire a PR firm or a wire that can do it right. Or better yet, stop with the press releases already. They include such trivial content, we've all learned to delete them pretty quickly.

PR folks -- anyone -- can you please explain to me, your "target," how this is supposed to work? I'll listen, I promise.


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Chris Rollyson

Josh, thanks for bringing up a very relevant conversation to which I'll add a couple of threads, as a social media consultant and a person ,^)

First, I'll argue that my practices do not fit the stereotype of the "email marketer," who, in the context of this post, is interested in pushing something, does *not* want to hear no and doesn't include a way to get off the list. I do offer a one-click unsubscribe (it's called "reply"). I am personally accountable for the people on my list (most are in my iPhone). I thank the few people who have opted out because I don't want to push a message to anybody. I detest spammy stuff, too.

That said, based on your post, I accept that you and some others would consider me an email marketer because the point of the message you received was to create excitement about some social media work I'm doing. In deference to you and others, I will make an unsubscribe feature more explicit in the future. Mea culpa.

Second, my case brings up a social networking question that arises when a person has thousands of contacts to whom s/he may send occasional emails. When does it become "email marketing"? I have blogs with monthly email newsletters that are fully CAN-SPAM compliant. In my head, "email marketing" is not done to people you know; you buy lists for it and try to expand your market. That's why I was genuinely surprised as we talked; however, I admit that, after reading your point of view, I might have been wrong. In this post, you owned that your definition of email marketing was yours. Mine was mine, too. They were different.

As you say, I did not understand the slant of your story at first, and, in all fairness, your email didn't suggest it very clearly:

"Hi, Chris! I’m very interested in your seminars and I’d like to write about you and how you market yourself. Could you give me a call? I’m at the number below."

Since you said you were interested in my seminars and how I marketed myself, and we both work in social media, I thought you were interested in Social Networking Registration, which is a real innovation because it incorporates crowdsourcing into event registration and group learning.

In closing, I have to admit, I find it ironic that anyone would consider me an "email marketer" because I irregularly email people I've met in business situations. But thanks for bringing this up, so I can better accommodate the occasional person who wants to unsubscribe.

All, what do you think? If you send an email to 20 friends or "connections," is it email marketing? 100 people? Does the number of people matter?


Good on you for naming names. Amazing how many 'email marketers' still lack an easy Unsubscribe...


Great post, Josh. Online PR and Content Syndication has minimized its own effectiveness through callous overuse. I also wanted to reply to Chris's comment. For context, Chris, I'm the Director of Integrated Marketing at Tanen Directed Advertising. In my opinion, if you use email for commercial purposes, whether one time or many, I consider you an email marketer. If your emails are unsolicited and for commercial purposes, they could even be considered SPAM - depending on the mindset of the recipient.(I'm not talking about legal definitions, just whether someone hits the "This is SPAM" button!) Your email is clever and well-written, but if I got it, I would feel a bit like I'd been bait and switched. I'd definitely hit "SPAM" on you. Just a little "solicited" feedback.


I'm not sure why you seem so down on people who say "you can hit reply to unsubscribe"?

I've got a batch of business cards from people. I decide to send them an email. If it is just one person, should I have an unsubscribe link? And if more than one, where do you draw the line?

You say who would reply to "Marketwire.Release@ marketwire.com"> Well, all I can say is that I've replied to similar sorts of addresses and been taken off lists or had questions answered.

Perhaps I've been lucky, and I'd agree with you that there is inconsiderate bulk emailing going on that should be criticised; I just don't think you've found a great trio of targets so far.

Josh Bernoff

@Chris -- I'm not sure about your definitions. Email marketers are people like you who want their contacts to connect with them or buy something. It's not something to be ashamed of. The ones that don't want uninterested people off their list are not email marketers, they're SPAMMERS.

@Mark I am not down on people who say "hit reply to unsubscribe." That's a perfectly normal way to invite people to get off the list. It's people who don't indicate ANY way to unsubscribe that bug me.

None of these three emails indicated a way to unsubscribe, and my replies to Matrixstream went unheeded.

Chris Rollyson

All, thanks for your thoughts. @Ken, to me, this discussion brings home the point that "email marketing" or "spam" definitions are highly individualized. If we had met, the chance that you would react that way would probably be less, esp. since I don't email to everyone I meet (I screen them). @Josh, it might be fun to take a survey and ask people to share the subject lines of the last 20 spam messages they junked; could be interesting, not to mention funny. @Mark the definitions are very personal.. but my definition isn't relevant; I'm subject to the definition of very person I mail to. I've probably sent 3 of the emails Josh got over the last 4 months to over 3,000 people and about 10 have "unsubscribed." That tells me I'm not out of line with most of them. I'll hazard that it's whether the recipient remembers you and is interested in what you're doing that counts.


@Josh @Chris Thanks for your comments back.

I think the post and comments highlight how variable different people's standards and attitudes are - and hence both senders and receivers of emails should give the other a bit of latitude at first if we think what they've done is a bit off.

Thom Brodeur

Hello Josh –

Thanks so much for your post. As head of global strategy and development for Marketwire, one of the companies mentioned, I really appreciate your pointing out something we, indeed, did miss. While all of our outbound US-directed communications do adhere to CAN-SPAM laws, this particular email that originated from Canada (where the laws differ) and that we distributed on behalf of one of our Canadian clients to you, did include the opt-out email, but not the additional opt-out language. Again, thanks, as you've noted, we have addressed this.

A few quick corrections, however, on your post. You note that you “didn't reply because who would think you could reply to "Marketwire.Release@ marketwire.com"?” I’m sure you forgot, given the number of emails you receive, but in actuality, Josh, you did reply to that email address at just before 5:30 pm that evening, and, as is our standard practice, you were contacted the very next morning by a "human" we have in place to manage that opt-out process (among other things) and to service requests like yours. Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to perfect our process there as well. Also, we fully appreciate that the email you received from our client may not have suited your editorial needs or interests. Please know that Marketwire’s online media database Mediahub has a team of researchers around the world who update all data on a quarterly basis. To that end, we show that upon contacting your company, Forrester, our lists were, indeed, confirmed in terms of personnel and areas of interest. I understand that you followed up with one of our researchers and further tweaked your profile so as to tailor more specifically any news you receive from us. Again, thank you. We wish everyone was as proactive as you in letting us know how best we can serve you.

Finally, and this is a minor point, but given we’re talking about titles and roles, Lisa Davis is not the “head of PR for Marketwire.” She is a Sr. Marketing Manager covering our Canadian and European markets, and I think you’ll agree, one of the many friendly and most accommodating people with whom we have the great fortune to work here at Marketwire.

Anyway, again, thanks for helping us address a glitch in our system and process. We’d love to tap into you more, so we hope you’re open to further discussions, particularly given our work in social media, SEO and so forth.


Thom Brodeur (Btw, not sure if my name rings any bells, but we actually worked together on Internet Retailer Scott Blum’s Internet TV startup, Instant Media (I‘M) when I was at one of Omnicom’s agencies (Brodeur (same last name, no relation). Nice to have the opportunity to connect with you again in this forum; hope our paths cross again soon.)

Josh Bernoff

Thanks for the thoughtful note, Thom.

Lisa was indeed extremely accommodating and great to work with.

I only replied to your email address after I had spoken with her, which was the first time I learned that replies to this very non-human looking address actually ended up being looked at. The service after I did reply was excellent.

It's clear to me that you really do want to do things right, and I was pleased that Lisa used this event to fix the bug in your system.

Laurel Delaney

Hi, Josh,

I agree with Chris Rollyson. Hit the reply button and ask to be removed. No one is so self-important that they cant' take the time to do this.


Josh Bernoff

Thanks for all the comments people.

I'm going to turn this into a broader study of how people use press releases. My inbox is now a laboratory.


"Actimedia" is guilty of not having an option to delete your own listing entry nor do they seem to have a "contact us" link. They are a PR and journalist listing site and should really know better.


I cannot agree more, actually I wrote a similar post weeks ago


Frontier Blog

Mark Frisk

Oh, come on. If you are sending an identical email, the purpose of which is to advance your business, to 3000 people, then you are engaged in email marketing. It matters not how you compiled the addresses, whether by hand at a trade show or via a purchased list.

And for heaven's sake, there's nothing wrong with being an email marketer. The problems ensue when you add people to your list who haven't opted in. Receiving a business card from someone at a trade show does not constitute permission to add that person to your list.

To Mark, who asked above:

"I've got a batch of business cards from people. I decide to send them an email. If it is just one person, should I have an unsubscribe link?"

Here's one answer to this scenario:

You're sending an email to one person, right? So be personal. Tell him or her you enjoyed connecting. Mention something relevant that was discussed.

If you've got an email list and think it would be of interest to this person, say that you'd like to add him or her to your list. Explain that it will always be easy to opt out.

It goes without saying that the relevance rule really applies here. If your email newsletter is about the construction industry, you wouldn't add to it someone who writes about nanotechnology, right? Even if you did get their card at a business function.

In the end, while you are still adding people without their explicit permission, at least you're laying some positive groundwork and trying to make a personal connection.

Just make sure that emails to your list do indeed feature an opt-out/unsubscribe link, which will take care of the vast majority of problems.

Incidentally, not having an opt-out link is a violation of the CAN-SPAM act.

Louise R Mooney

This is a very interesting thread, with most of the attention on the gentlemen who feels he knows all 3,000 of the people he emailed. Others have addressed this point so well, i will resist the temptation to respond with my traditional smarmy humor.

The question you start with Josh, seems to be around the fact that you are a) receiving too press releases b) you are not confident the reply works.

To the first point, you are a recognized national analyst, old friend, are you kidding? You have touched multiple verticals, this is the price of fame. That said, most pr professionals know NOT to send attachments except to family members and its a valid point that pr types and their firms, mine included, should be reviewing their lists more frequently.

But it leads me to a more perplexing problem. Not everyone has a personal relationship with you. So what is a new pr person or company to do to grab your attention, assuming they touch something that is germane to your current focus?

You want to be treated in a more personal fashion but its tough to get through all the barriers and filters.

So thank you for the post, we always thought reply worked but we will add an unsubscribe note to the bottom of our releases starting at tomorrow's staff meeting.

Can't wait to read the next blog.

Des Walsh

It's not ideal but for a few intransigents I've created a rule and a folder I empty regularly so I never have to look at individual messages.

Agree with @frontierblog. This idea that my handing someone a business card at a function entitles them to send me unsolicited email might work legally but it does not work socially. Not for me anyway. I am continually amazed that people assume that just because we've swapped business cards (sometimes that's simply what my mother would have called being polite) I have implicitly invited that person to spam me with their newsletter on how to write blogs is quite hilarious or offensive depending on one's point of view and general outlook on life: I choose hilarious or I would get too angry.

Thanks for the post. Power to your arm!

Bill Tamminga

Spam is clearly a problem. I would never say otherwise. My question is: what's the solution?

Josh just ripped three companies, and maybe it was justified. But will it make a difference?

Will Josh's post lead to less spam in the future? If bloggers united and started a huge movement against spammers, would it make a dent in my inbox?

Call me crazy, but I don't think so.


Hi Josh -

Your frustrations ring so true to me. There was recently a great set of posts by expert Rohit Gharbava addressing both sides of this debacle, and they'd be relevant for you on this topic (in my opinion, "journalists" refer to anyone chronicling and/or thinking critically about the world around them and then writing about it-including analysts:):


I came to PR from a journalism (more specifically, NPR) background. So I don't understand why someone would reach out to a journalist or analyst for any other reason than to HELP that person with RELEVANT information in their area and/or beat.

I hope your experience gets better and, indeed, there are duds in every profession!

Kara Dowdall

Josh's last comment on his post was this:

"PR folks -- anyone -- can you please explain to me, your "target," how this is supposed to work? I'll listen, I promise."

No one is really addressing his question about targeting.

The shotgun approach of email marketing just does not work anymore.

Emails must be highly targeted, relevant and personalized and must speak to the customer/prospect using more than just demographic data.

How about an email that says (or something to this affect):

"So you read our newsletter we sent to you. It appears that you were highly interested in XYZ."

Everytime the customer record is touched (by the customer him/herself through "actions") or by the marketing/sales team, the customer record gets smarter and smarter..enabling very personalized messages to just the handful of people that actually want to read what you are sending (whether online or offline).

Learn how we do it.



Good lord, these stories are horrifying. I've not been happy with my PR firm at all and feel like my retainer money has been going down the tubes. I was thinking of switching to one of those pay-per-article-placed firms (like PublicityGuaranteed.com et al) to hopefully avoid paying for any garbage tactics like you described.

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