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Home Depot, where’s your ALT tags?

Home Depot without graphics

(Click the thumbnails to see the emails in readable size.)

Home Depot graphic loaded

Aha! load the graphics, and see the special.

Home Depot sends me an enticing daily email: one special item, on sale for one day only! But I have no idea what they’re offering because my email reader (Outlook for Mac 2011) does not load graphics without permission and Home Depot does not use ALT tags.

ALT tags are text that appear in the space reserved for graphics, when for some reason the graphics don’t load. In many email readers graphics are turned off by default, and the user has to make the decision to turn them on. It was only very recently that Gmail started loading graphics by default. And many security conscious companies still refuse to allow network users to open graphics.

Hootsuite no graphics

Who is this email from?

Hootsuite no graphics

Oh, look, it’s my friends from Hootsuite!

Forgetting to put in an ALT tag (or being clueless) can lead to some peculiar effects. Like the message that I got from Hootsuite that said I needed to give them permission to keep contacting me, but I didn’t know who they were because their name was in the graphic. And the cookbook publisher which invited me to a launch event, but the date and venue were in the graphic. If I don’t recognize the sender and nothing appeals to me in the text I can see, how likely am I to investigate further? (Emails like Home Depot’s, with no text at all, are the worst offenders.)

Belcour no graphixs

I‘m invited to an event, but where and when?

Belcour with graphics on

Looks like a nice party! Sorry I missed it.

In each of these cases it would have been a trivial task to code an ALT tag which conveys the day’s special, the sender’s identity and the venue. Even if the no-graphics group is 5% or 10% of your audience, why give those folks a reason to ignore your email?

Why is eating’s lunch

I recently posted about an inane and penny-pinching customer service experience with Barnes and Noble. I also mentioned that I was switching out my iPhone for an HTC One. These two threads have now converged because of what happened when I attempted to resell my old iPhone through the “trade-in program” on

I would not recommend the Amazon trade-in program. It probably is a cautionary signal that it’s just about the only thing on Amazon you do not have the opportunity to review. It seemed simple enough with a fair trade-in price and seamless execution (print out your shipping label and put it in the mail at their expense and they’ll return it if it does not meet their criteria). But my trade-in was rejected with a message that the return was covered with deep scratches–that’s not my phone. Then they sent it back, the tracking number was bogus, it went missing, and finally an empty box showed up at my door.

I complained to Amazon and here is their reply: “I’m sorry to hear that the trade return arrived empty.

To make this right for you, I’m issuing a promotional certificate to your account for $115.60 which you can use the next time you order an item shipped and sold by”

That’s the full value I would have received if the trade had been accepted, offered to me immediately with no questions asked. To be fair, I’ve spent a lot of money with amazon over the years and they certainly know this. But I can only imagine how the prim “management” at would have reacted.

That’s why one company is taking over the world, and the other is slowly sinking into the sea like the setting sun.

Do gila monsters run customer service at Barnes and Noble

Gila monsters were legendary in the southwest where I grew up. Their poisonous bite didn’t kill you immediately, but they would clamp down on their victim’s flesh and grind their jaws till the venom eventually did you in. I was reminded of this critter the last few days when trying to get a small refund from Barnes & Noble’s online persona,

I absolutely did one thing wrong: allow a mysterious $1.69 charge (later increased to $1.99) appear on a credit statement month after month till it went on for years, in fact. I eventually took some time to investigate and discovered it was for a subscription to National Geographic for kids on a Nook device. Never mind that I never requested the subscription when I registered the device, or activated it when it showed up (if it did, as an app) or that I have not used the Nook in years…  these were valid charges and expects me to pay them.

On my first call I talked to someone, likely a new hire, who thought all the charges would be reversed but she transferred me to a supervisor who disconnected me. I was unable to get back through the phone tree so emailed, then today finally had “the talk” with customer account audit. It went up the ladder to a supervisor then from there to “management” and Barnes & Noble’s final offer was to credit me for the last six months.

That’s around $10 (as I mentioned the monthly charge recently increased) vs the $60 they would have refunded if they went back to the beginning. Enjoy the $50, Barnes & Noble. Go buy yourselves some juicy prairie dogs or kangaroo rats to chew on.

“Hope you are well” email intro makes me sick

Here’s an email typical of many I receive these days. It’s to a business account, and it begins:


I hope all is well. I’m not sure if you’re attending the Fancy Food Show in NYC on June 29th – the July 1st, but if you are I thought you would be interested in visiting the Crown Maple booth…

Why do so many marketers these days think it is appropriate, and maybe disarming, to inquire about the recipient’s health as a way to start a mass email? What’s it to them? What business is of theirs? If I’m well I’ll attend the event, unless I get run over on the way, and if I’m not I don’t need you reminding me of it.

Note the odd use of “the” above, before “July 1st”, which suggests the writer is not a native speaker. Could this have something to do with it? The French (this is for a maple syrup product, so I suspect un Habitant at work) have the equivalent phrase Comment ça va but that just means “how’s it going?” which I don’t find at all offensive.

I’m preparing a longer post on the general trend toward faux-casual business email but this stuck in my craw so I couldn’t wait to get it out. There. Now I feel better. Thanks for asking.

How to restore lost AAdvantage miles

The other day I wrote about my unfortunate discovery that both my AAdvantage mileage accounts had zeroed out due to inactivity. I also wrote to AAdvantage customer service and received an interesting response which I’ll share for web searchers who might be looking for this information.

First, I received this email:

Because qualifying activity extends the expiration date of all active
miles in the account, there may be an easy way of restoring your expired
miles. If you had an eligible mileage-earning transaction prior to May
26, 2014 (the date the miles expired from your account) and no older
than 12 months, then let’s get that transaction credited. When these
miles are credited to your account, your expired miles will
automatically be restored on the same day! For more information on how
miles are earned, please visit us at You can also
request missing mileage credit from the ‘Request Air Mileage Credit’ or
the ‘Request Non-Air Mileage Credit’ links from this page.

If you did not have any qualifying activity, we have a couple of paid
alternatives. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll be pleased to
furnish details.

Hmm. Unless there’s some coded wink-wink message, the only way I’d restore my miles is if I had done some qualifying activity, it had not been recorded, and I’d failed to report it. Highly unlikely. So I inquired about the paid options and got this:

To get you involved again, we have designed a Re-engagement Challenge – a set of activities created to introduce you to the program and to restore all or part of your expired miles, based on your participation.

First, register for the Re-engagement Challenge with AAdvantage Customer Service and pay the $30 registration charge.

Once you’re registered, you have 6 months from your registration date to complete the requirements listed below:

1.     Subscribe to the AAdvantage eSummary™ and AAdvantage Promotions email and remain opted-in to these two subscriptions for the duration of your Re-engagement Challenge
In conjunction with your registration, you are also subscribed to receive these email messages if you haven’t been receiving them already. These helpful subscriptions send you information on how you can earn more miles and provide a monthly summary of your activity and current mileage expiration date.

2.   Complete the following mileage earning activity within six months of your registration to restore the desired amount of miles: (for under 50,000 points, which is my level)

Earn 5,000 partner base miles*
Earn miles for 1 round trip flight**

In many markets, a round trip is available for a couple hundred dollars or less. So for a fairly small investment you could earn back as many as 50,000 miles, which are supposedly worth $900. Fair enough. American is also getting you back into the traces with the behavior they expect from an AAdvantage member.

In closing, you may recall I had two accounts–one which zeroed out a few days prior, and the other last October. I wrote customer service separately about each of them. The long-expired account received no response.

My favorite iPhone apps (updated)

Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post after a reader asked me to list my favorite iPhone apps. Since I’m about to make a (maybe temporary, maybe permanent) switch to Android and the HTC One (M8), seems a good idea to revisit it before I go. Surprising how I feel the same about most of these today, with a few exceptions and updates.

Here’s the list, with today’s comments in italics.

1.  ZipCar. How cool that I can reserve my car, unlock it, and find it in a lot by making its horn beep…. all from the iPhone. Smartphone as remote controller. Now I have Uber, Lyft and Sidecar for my transportation pleasure plus a PowerUp preorder so I can command my own drone.

2. Zillow. How much is that house actually worth? Ha! As long as I trust Zillow’s occasionally goofy algorithm, I can get the embarrassing answer while I’m standing right in front of it. (Zillow noticed this post and asked me to add the link. Good social marketing at work.)

3. Pandora, as long as you appreciate its limitations. “Guy Clark Radio” turns up new thoughtful songwriters. “Robert Earl Keen Radio” is set to deliver songs about going to Mexico and getting drunk… not the right algorithm.

4. Yelp. Just plain essential if you ever go anywhere and get hungry.

5. NPR news. To this I’ll add aggregators like Stitcher and the Public Radio app.

6. Amazon. The other day I went to Walmart to buy a Smokey Joe mini charcoal grill, found they no longer carry it, ordered from Amazon while I was standing in the aisle. I also like that I can take a picture of something and they will try to find it for me (not always successfully).

7. Tiger Woods Golf. I know, I know. But I have learned a lot of golf by stroking my screen with the tip of my finger. I have weaned myself of this, thank you. Too bad there’s Words with Friends.

8. My bank’s mobile deposit feature. A problem that my bank is not in town. A solution that I can take a picture by aligning the check with the screen and deposit that way.

9. Email. This is actually the killer app for me. I don’t read much email in detail, but I do know when somebody is trying to get in touch so I don’t have to interrupt what I am doing and find a wireless connection for my laptop. This is still true for me.

10. Caterday on YouTube. I said most used apps, not most used by me. For 8 year olds, a few Caterday episodes make a long car ride pass quickly. Then the battery runs out of juice, and that is even better. Obsolete, but the now 12 year old finds plenty of things on youTube to run down the battery.

And now the rant: why is it that location based apps (including several of the above) must find your location before they will load any of the program information such as your search box? It makes for a frustrating experience, often means that by the time you get to use the app you have passed whatever you were interesting in, and it just doesn’t seem necessary. WTF? Mostly obsolete. Location based services are one of the biggest benefits of using a smartphone today.

I’ll update again in a few months, with a report from the other (Android) side.

Thanks, AAdvantage, now goodbye!

AAdvantage unsubscribe screen

AAdvantage finally asks me for my email prefs… as I’m about to unsubscribe.

I just unsubscribed from both my AAdvantage email accounts, mine and my teenager’s. I was getting several emails a week and it was pointless to read them since AA does not serve my local airport. But, they’re about to as a result of the USAir merger so I’ve made a point of making an occasional qualifying purchase to keep our combined 50,000+ miles intact.

Or, so I thought. I actually read one of these emails this morning, and discovered the miles in both accounts had zeroed out. (AAdvantage does not bother with real-time reporting, so it showed 24,372 miles in my kid’s account while a couple lines below showing an expiration date a few days ago.) D’oh!

Why in the world, if American wants me as a customer, would they not send me a special announcement that the miles were about to expire and some information on how to preserve them?

AAdvantage Customer Service screen

Thanks, AAdvantage, now goodbye.

And why in the world would they continue to flood my inbox with emails when I hardly ever open any of them? A best practice followed by many marketers today is to warn customers they’ll stop receiving emails unless they take some action. But AAdvantage is the original mileage reward program and their policies have likely been around as long as people have been receiving emails. Which is probably also why I get so many emails from them; I can’t remember them ever asking me if I would like to specify preferences, until I unsubscribed today.

So, AAdvantage has done its job, which is to pry loose some miles fair and square. But American Airlines has lost a couple of potential customers who fly frequently and could have been on its ALB routes very soon. I fail to see how that’s a good thing.

P.S. Don’t know if they are still doing this as I am no longer an active member, but United’s Mileage Plus had a promotion they would send to people with expiring miles, asking if they wanted to convert the miles to various subscription offers. I’m sure they earned some nice revenue from this partnership at the same time they kept members up to date on their accounts. Another example why AAdvantage’s assumption of primogeniture–I’m right because I was here first–is actually obsolete and clueless.

Does your direct marketing need a Letter Doctor?

I started my direct marketing career in the 1980s, a quaint bygone era when there was no internet. One of my favorite resources was a perfect bound magazine called Direct Marketing and one of my favorite contributors to said magazine was Luther Brock, “The Letter Doctor”.

Brock would take a sort of self-help approach to copy critique. He would pick a common marketing problem, present a few paragraphs from a letter (possibly not a real one) that was not solving the problem so well, then make suggestions for improvement. It was a diagnostic approach: you know things are supposed to be a certain way, but they’re not; what’s wrong, and why? Of course he was promoting his own services as a freelance copywriter, but there was lots of good information to a fledging.

I expect Luther Brock is no longer among us. A 1958 graduate of a Denton, TX high school is listed on the internets as the owner of a business called The Letter Doctor, so this is probably Luther’s son. Another person, I assume unrelated, owns the domain and markets from that website. The original Letter Doctor probably never saw any reason to claim the domain name; what was an internet domain anyway and who cared? (In the very early days of the World Wide Web, we looked up numerical domain identifiers, not names.)

I found myself invoking the spirit of the Letter Doctor today when a client asked me to take a look at some not-successful lead generation direct mail. There were some bullet points of features and benefits: did they really know those were the most powerful message to their audience? There was an informational offer: was it really the best appeal to the target reader, and was it stated appropriately? In short, this robust and experienced company needed a checkup, same as any of us.

Do you have a letter doctor–someone who’s willing to poke and probe and make recommendations based on how your marketing differs from expectations? If not, it might be worthwhile to seek one out.

When you want LESS response to your marketing, do this

The Freakonomics authors present an interesting theory in their new book, Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. Why is it that, in spite of all the publicity and ridicule visited on “Nigerian scam” emails in which someone you don’t know will visit you with huge sums in return for sharing your bank account routing information, those emails are still sent from alleged Nigerians? Wouldn’t they get a better response with a new scam sent from, maybe, Crimea?

The answer, according to Levitt and Dubner, is that the scammers WANT a lower response. Sending out mass emails is free, but manipulating the mark who responds is not. Therefore the scammers want to limit their responders to only the truly most gullible who believe that, regardless of past disappointments, there may still be a pony under that pile of poop.

This has application for your own marketing if you have a sales organization that must process the leads you generate through email, direct mail or search advertising. Offer a free tcotchke or entry into a drawing for an iPad and you’ll boost the response, but many of those alleged prospects are responding just for the freebie. Not only are they worthless as leads,  they cost you money because they get in the way of opportunities to follow up other, better qualified responses.

There are several ways to get fewer but better qualified responses:

  • Offer a premium that is only of interest to someone who meets your definition of a qualified buyer. Everyone wants an iPad; only a few want a poster with functional diagrams of vector network analysis yet that offer was highly effective for one of my clients.
  • Make them do something to get the freebie. Ask them to provide complete and accurate contact information and answer a few questions about buying authority and plans. (If you’re giving away something, they will be motivated to fill in correct information to be sure you can reach them.) Make them fill out a survey. In effect, they’re working for the reward so it’s no longer “free”.
  • Or, don’t offer anything, other than a “complimentary consultation” which is a thinly disguised sales pitch. This is what your sales reps want you to do, because it will only produce very well qualified leads. You normally won’t do it because there will be a disappointing number of leads and your cost per lead will be extremely high. But sometimes this is the right way to go.

With an improving economy, lead quality becomes increasingly important. Try a few of these tactics in your next campaign.


What are you on, Diet Coke?

Diet Coke Kiosk

Diet Coke’s fiendishly ironic (or not) kiosk at Fisherman’s Wharf; click the picture for a closer look.

The riskiest kind of advertising is that in which you are so much inside the head of your audience that you can actually poke gentle fun at them and they will be appreciative rather than insulted. My favorite successful example is an etrade billboard that towered above San Francisco in the height of the dot-com craziness: “Sure, it’s scary. But so is falling in love.” Sly reinforcement of the trepidation the internet bubble investor was feeling, and implication you should do business with etrade because they understand. Of course, this love affair didn’t end very well, but that’s not the copywriter’s fault.

A less good example is the badvertising kiosk I photographed at the Hyde Street turnaround, one of the most touristy areas of San Francisco. “You moved to San Francisco with a crowd-funded website. A dad-funded hatchback. And a no-funded bank account. You’re on. Diet Coke.” Please tell me how the target of this ad could be anything but insulted.

To parse it, you’re a loser who can’t afford to buy a car and you have no money in your bank account, and you’ve moved to San Francisco like thousands of other idealistic young people who are about to get a harsh lesson in reality. The “crowd-funded website” is what does the greatest damage here, though. I don’t think the copywriter (who I have the feeling is some old cackling dude in New York, with arthritis-gnarled fingers, who last visited San Francisco when Carol Doda was performing on Broadway) has any idea what a “crowd funded website” is—that’s actually quite a complex thing to pull off, hardly in the wheelhouse of somebody who can’t balance a checkbook. No, they’re just trying to paint a picture using some phraseology they grabbed out of Wired magazine and the general idea is that’s what young people move to SF for these days, instead of serving coffee at Vesuvio.

Actually, it isn’t, necessarily. There’s quite a battle among young people these days for the city’s soul as evidenced by protestors vomiting on the massive buses with the black tinted windows that whip the techies back and forth. Being an internet billionaire is not on a par, karma-wise, with being discovered playing your guitar in Golden Gate Park. The stock photo (behind the Diet Coke logo) of the “Painted Ladies”, another touristic attraction with little meaning for the young scrounger unless he sleeps under the bushes in Alamo Square, and the very location of this kiosk where few actual San Franciscans would see it all suggest the campaign was conceived by a couple of nicotine-stained hacks peering out the dirty windows of an office in Midtown Manhattan.

I haven’t yet mentioned the tag line, with its subtle-as-a-brick double entendre. Note in the photo that the period in “You’re on. Diet Coke.” is in a smaller font than the rest of the type (compare it to the punctuation in the body copy) to give us an extra wink. Oh. I get it. “You’re on” is one of those anthemic phrases like “let’s ride” but they just couldn’t resist suggesting the youngster is hopped up on caffeine and artificial sweeteners.

Which makes me wonder…. Could this actually be intended as irony? Is it in fact designed for the tourists, inviting them to mock the Friscans they know are mocking them? If so, genius. But I don’t believe that is what is happening here. Diet Coke team, if you’re reading, please tell me it is or isn’t so.