When Digital Marketing Activation Strategies Fail

I’ve done a fair amount of business with Staples over the years. With four kids, there’ve been a lot of school projects with the usual last-minute requests for supplies. In a pinch, I’ve even gone there myself for printer ink, toner cartridges, shipping supplies, and the occasional computer accessory cable. Heck, I’m even a Staples Rewards member.

A couple of days ago I received an email from Staples with a coupon offer. I get them semi-regularly and usually delete them as soon as they land in my inbox. The content and offers aren’t very relevant to the things I buy these days, but I haven’t unsubscribed because once in awhile, I figure the planets might align and I’ll get a good deal on something I need.

Since my high school junior had a project due and we were out of color printer ink, I thought I’d make use of the coupon and order some ink, having the product picked and held at the local Staples store for pickup.

When I clicked the link in the email coupon to redeem it, I was taken to the Staples web site and promptly shown an error message indicating the coupon had already been redeemed.

Staples Coupon Fail

I tried a couple more times thinking it might have been my error, but that was not the case. Staples had a technical issue on their backend that was wrongly flagging my coupon code as “redeemed.” I deleted the useless coupon from my inbox and zipped right over to Amazon and ordered what my guy needed knowing that the items would be here in a couple days.

Later, I took to Twitter to share my experience. It took the folks at Staples awhile to reply and the customer service rep who intercepted my tweet asked me to send the offending coupon so they could “look into it.”

Staples Twiter

Here’s the synopsis:

  1. Staples had a customer in their funnel that was at the point of conversion; they succeeded in connecting with me at the precise moment I was ready to buy.
  2. Frustrated when the coupon didn’t work for me, I made a purchase at a competitor’s site.
  3. Because their email strategy wasn’t properly executed (I doubt that I was the only person who encountered this problem), the time and effort they put into the email campaign likely didn’t return the results they expected or wanted.
  4. Competitors like Amazon and the flawless shopping experience they provide set the bar high and make me less likely to waste a moment of my valuable time with another Staples email offer.

Prescriptive advice:

  1. Test your activation strategies, regardless of the channel.
  2. Be findable and listen carefully on social platforms (Twitter seems to be a first stop for complaints, so start there at the very least).
  3. Reply quickly to customer interactions, both good and bad. It was about 15 hours before Staples replied to my Tweet. I understand that I sent the Tweet at almost 8:30pm and it was the holiday weekend, but that doesn’t matter to me. I want brands to focus on my needs, wants, and desires no matter what time it is. Period). Amazon does. That’s why they get my money more often than any other eCommerce vendor.
  4. Don’t make customers work – we’re busy enough. Like me, you’re just as likely to go to another vendor if the P&O (pain and overhead) Factor is too high. The Staples rep wanted me to send the coupon code so he/she could troubleshoot. In the amount of time it would have taken me to send the email, I hit up Amazon instead and placed my order.
  5. Test your activation strategies some more.
  6. Learn from your mistakes.

What about you – have you had a similar experience. Would you add anything to my prescriptive list?


  • Customers who received awesome customer service are willing to pay 21% more – HootSuite Blog
  • Customers Want Prompt Response to Online Requests – loyalty360


  1. Ann P says

    Amazon has the manpower to be responsive on a 24/7 basis. Staples has no excuse because they’re a huge company too. But what do you do if you’re resources are limited and you’re a smaller company?

    • says

      Great question. I think the rule is to have a plan for customer service/support before you go too far with your business. Putting the customer first in all you do creates more value for everyone (especially the customer).

      As for not having the resources; no matter what size your business might be, using technology to find and reply to online interactions is a great first step. It doesn’t have to be expensive and helps you satisfy the rule of putting the customer first.

      Here’s a post from 2013 that outlines 69 FREE social monitoring tools:

      Do a quick search for “free social monitoring tools” and see what YOU can come up with! If you find anything interesting, please come back and share the info.

  2. says

    I would add dynamic e-mail marketing to the list.

    Also provide a quick solution to the problem and provide value to the customer. Give them $5 off their next purchase. Thank them for letting them know.

    Often brands coupon codes get put on all kinds of freebie sites and 85% of the time they don’t work. Affiliates are hard to keep up to date, but at least try to have banners fresh and current.

    If a customer responds on Twitter follow the customer and write to them by direct message.

    I have tried Seamless a few times. They are always so annoying when I’m trying to look at an on-line menu. Plus, I’ve found that restaurants up the prices on Seamless and it’s cheaper to order direct. It takes so long to do all the work on Seamless, because I can’t go to the restaurant I want to see, they show me 50 other restaurants I don’t care about. I tried one of their $7 coupons it didn’t work, after I went through all the hassle of picking out my food I got a stupid message saying I had to spend $15 before I could use the $7 coupon.

    Nowhere on the coupon they sent did it say that I had to spend $15 to use the $7 so I opted out and never signed up.

    I told Seamless on Twitter. They didn’t believe me about the restaurants charging more or didn’t care. It wasn’t worth my time to research them all for them. They also didn’t care that their coupon didn’t give all the information. They didn’t even follow me like other companies do when I have a problem.

    I still don’t see why they are such a big deal.

    • says

      Hi Lori. I’m not happy to hear that Seamless ignored your comments/concerns. I like some of your suggestions, especially trying to create added value for a consumer who may have had some hassles trying to interact (transact) with the brand.

  3. Lisa Selkin Lupo says

    Sounds like some old fashioned customer service was in order. The customer service agent should have been empowered to immediately send you a coupon of equal or greater value to the promotional coupon. When the error reached management (hopefully in less than 24 hours), a manager should have reached out to you with an apology and an offer you could not refuse (i..e something for free) to keep you as a valued customer.

    They may have lost the sale that day due to poorly executed strategy, but they should spend a little to keep you as a future customer.

    • says

      I completely agree, Lisa. I love your customer-driven approach:

      “(1) The customer service agent should have been empowered to immediately send you a coupon of equal or greater value to the promotional coupon.”

      “(2) When the error reached management (hopefully in less than 24 hours), a manager should have reached out to you with an apology and an offer you could not refuse (i..e something for free) to keep you as a valued customer.”

      If either one of those things would have happened pretty quickly, they still would have had a chance for a conversion.

  4. Flora Carnevale says

    The fact that they’re asking you to help them fix their mistake comes across as misinterpreting their importance to a customer. How many people are so committed to one brand that they would waste precious time walking them through their issues, when another seller with a great reputation is right at their fingertips and can deliver what is needed on time?

    The faster a company fixes an issue, the more likely they’ll have me as a customer for a very long time – not to mention a customer who would sing their praises to others.

  5. says

    I’ve come across this exact problem with a couple clients. The breakdown usually happens on the reporting end, hardly any org I’ve worked for/with pays attention to 404 reporting outside of their SEO depts.Considering the assumed www average, you lie in the 10% who actually communicate the issue.

    The simple, cost effective solution is to engage customers on live chat to ID the problem (on all 404 error pages). Additionally build a communication model around the solution that will escalate similar issues to dev and marketing for the fix. It’s crazy to think that hardly anyone does this…. basic UX if you ask me.

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