Marketing Lessons from American Airlines’ Lousy Email

I recently opted out of American Airlines’ email list. Here’s why I did it, followed by marketing lessons you can draw from this.

Each week, the airline sends an email loaded with what it calls “Weekly deals to go.” Each week I open the email, hoping to find deals for travel to and from my hometown, St. Louis. And each week, I’m disappointed.


The most recent email featured deals between Chicago and Kalamazoo, Miami and Raleigh, Dallas and Grand Island, and other cities and towns across the country. But there was not a single deal in the email for St. Louis.

To make matters worse, I saw a button below the listed deals that said, “View all cities & book now,” leading me to think, “Maybe the St. Louis deals will be listed on the web site.” Stupid me. No St. Louis deals there, either. I had wasted my time twice — first by opening this irrelevant email and then by clicking through to the irrelevant page on the web site.

Hey, American Airlines, you know where I live. Why would you send me an email filled with offers that have no value to me?

The answer: American Airlines seems to send everything to everybody all the time, regardless of their interests, regardless of where they live. That’s a classic email marketing mistake that leads businesses to send irrelevant emails to irritated recipients who eventually opt out.

Compare the American Airlines email to one I received the same day from Netflix. The subject line: “Tom, we just added a movie you might like.” That’s a strong subject line — personalized and intriguing. “What movie?” I wondered, as I clicked to open the email.

Under the heading “For: Tom,” the email promoted “Lee Daniel’s The Butler.” That is, in fact, a movie I would like to see, and I was glad to learn Netflix now carried it. I clicked the link in the email to add the movie to my personalized Netflix list. The email included three other “recently added” movies which all seemed relevant to me.

Netflix learns members’ tastes by tracking what they watch. They know which actors we like, genres we prefer, directors we favor and more. So when Netflix sends recommendations to its members, those recommendations are personalized and usually relevant.

Compare that to American which only needs to tap only one data point, the city where I live, but can’t even get that much right.

Why does this matter for small business marketers? Because we must avoid the same mistake American makes. Don’t send everything to everybody every time. Personalize content so you can vary messages for different audiences. Some email services can automate this so you don’t have to create multiple emails for multiple audiences.

You can segment your database according to location, interest and other meaningful data points. You don’t have to be a sophisticated data miner like Netflix to do this. You may already have recipients’ address data. You might also know about their interests based on buying habits or other information you track. You can infer interests and segment accordingly based on how recipients click on your emails.

If you send relevant emails to your subscribers, your open and click rates will be higher, your opt-out rates will be lower, and you’ll sell more. If you act like American Airlines, you’ll drive away your email subscribers and undermine your business.

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