No, I don't want to send flowers to my ex: When social intelligence goes bad

By Michael Carney , written on August 12, 2014

From The News Desk

Jason is due to get married in under a month. It’s an all around happy time, but one that makes it poor taste to bring up his ex-girlfriends. Color me shocked, then, that over the last few months two large companies have relied on bad social intelligence to put their proverbial feet right in the wedding cake.

The first incident occurred just days ago when the so-called private online community ASW (formerly, A Small World) sent Jason an email with the subject “Monica wants you back.” Monica, as you may have guessed, is one of Jason’s exes. But she wasn’t just any ex – you might describe her as the one that got away. Smooth, ASW.

Underlying this ill-conceived email was a simple bit of social intelligence gone wrong. ASW has always been an invite-only community. To become a member, you needed to be invited by an existing member. Years ago, Monica was Jason’s sponsor. ASW has since pivoted from an invite-only, but free service to a paid service, and in the process all existing members who declined to pony up were booted from the community. Well, it seems that Monica recently decided to fork over the cash (why is a whole other discussion), and the result was an automated email to Jason alerting him that ASW just got a bit more, um, friendly.

Glutton for punishment that he must be, this isn’t Jason’s first encounter with socially-insensitive corporate communications this year. ProFlowers, the 16-year-old giant of online flower sales, decided to re-engage Jason around Valentines day. The problem was, Jason’s last purchase on the site was for his most recent ex-girlfriend Julie – in 2012. The email promotion read:

Jason, as a thank you for your past Valentine's Day order for Julie, we'd like to offer you $19.99 Sweetheart Tulips! Or make her day with One Dozen Long Stemmed Red Roses with a Cherry Trumpet Vase, Chocolates and Plush Bear (4 Gifts in 1!) and Save 50%.
Thanks. Dick.

The good news for Jason is that he’s long since moved on from Monica and Julie. But that doesn’t mean he wants to get emails from corporations about them.

For ASW and ProFlowers, these emails were meant to re-engage a former user who had long since gone stagnant. It’s common practice in the world of ecommerce, so much so that entire businesses have been built around how and when to send these communications for maximum effect. But, the world's best intentioned email is going to leave the user with a bad association with the associated company if it accidentally treads on romances gone bad.

In ASW’s case, the mention of Monica is somewhat excusable, given that it had no way of knowing the context of her and Jason’s relationship. That said, the choice of phrasing is just asking for trouble. “Wants you back?” What is this, a late night text message? How about, “Monica just rejoined ASW. You should too.” At least if Jason glances at the email subject, he won’t be apt to misinterpret it as an email sent by Monica or one of her friends.

ProFlowers offending email is much less excusable. Jason last sent flowers to Julie 24 months ago. With the abysmal success rates of romantic relationships in this day and age, there was a (much) better than 50 percent chance that Julie would be a past flame. Why take the risk? The company also mentioned Jason’s mother later down in the email (presumably because he sent her mother’s day flowers via the service in the past), but it seems wholly presumptuous and unnecessary to insert these names into a marketing email. Why not just write, “Want to tell that special woman in your life how much you care?”

It’s not just Jason. I’ve had my own encounters will ill-thought-out corporate emails, with some in particular landing much more painfully than others. For some reason, LinkedIn has spent the last five years trying to get me to connect with two of my now wife's ex-boyfriends. Awkward, but not very.

Years ago, however, while I was still getting over the end of a long-term relationship, I got an email from Facebook with the subject: “Kim says that you are no longer in a relationship.” Rub it in, why don't you? Evidently Kim had finally chosen to make her single status “Facebook official.” Of course I knew full well that Kim and I weren’t in a relationship, but having Facebook remind me, in all too brutal terms didn’t help. This is the clearest case of all of the offending company knowing the context of the message it’s sending but failing to show any care or tact in delivering it.

When Target famously began sending maternity-focused ads to a household several years back, the company didn’t know that the pregnant woman was the family’s 16-year-old daughter, or that her parents didn’t know. But given the context, the company took a big risk by so blatantly letting on that it knew the top secret news. The incident was enough to make the company and its creepy data mining activities headline news. Target has since masked its ad-targeting, such that in similar cases it will now put ads for diapers next to power tools or other non-threatening items. It’s a simple fix, but one that goes a long way toward ensuring smoother customer interactions.

Big data and social intelligence are among the most transformational forces driving the way that businesses interact with customers today. But wielded irresponsibly, these tools can quickly become weapons of mass destruction. Companies would be wise to think carefully before pulling that trigger.

(Note: The above incidents are all real, but the names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.)