10 days as a Rosetta Stone email subscriber and the dramatic impact on brand impression.

In my mind, Rosetta Stone long stood as a company held in high regard, a provider of quality learning products that were set above other language learning methods and systems. Which is a rather strong impression to have, given I’d never actually used any of their products, outside of a brief carefully orchestrated demo at an airport kiosk some many years ago. In fact, if you ask anyone, how you’d best go about learning a new language, more often than not Rosetta Stone’s reputation would put them at the top of most people’s recommendation list. Suffice it to say, they’ve carefully engineered a strong brand over the decades in existence.

So when I’d moved to Jakarta and wanted to get my Bahasa beyond “selamat pagi” and “terima kasih”, Rosetta Stone was naturally where I first turned. Visiting their site, I poked around to see they’d made the migration from their traditional CD-ROM format to a more contemporary cloud based monthly subscription offering and more or less kept with the times. Given some of my needs for the product I held off on buying a subscription and wanted to see what else had come about in the language learning landscape before committing. I dropped my email address in their newsletter signup and flew away to other corners of the Interwebs.

Let The Avalanche Begin

This timeline is what transpired after signing up for the Rosetta Stone email list. In all, 49 emails made their way to my inbox over the course of the following 10 days. Honestly, the effort in cataloging and building a timeline for this was laborious at best, but it serves as an excellent case study for others building similar such EDM campaigns to learn from. While I’ve tried to apply humour to the situation, the comments are largely what would go through any sane person’s mind. Humour is often truth spoken aloud.

Here’s the log of emails received over 10 days; complete with each email’s subject line, timestamp of receipt and a snippet of my thoughts and observations as each email was opened…

You say potato, we say…‏
Fri, 20 Nov 2015 06:25:37
“Ah, my first Rosetta Stone email has arrived. Promotion thinly veiled as seasonal content.”

It’s all gravy‏
Sat, 21 Nov 2015 06:33:49
“Strange…. I thought I’d seen this yesterday? Further inspection reveals, yes it’s basically the same, just some minor keyword changes.”

Early bird savings start now!‏
Sun, 22 Nov 2015 06:05:27
“It’s a seasonal sales promo, $219 subscription price instead of $499. That seems like a good deal.”

Thanksgiving Sale ➨ Save $280!‏
Sun, 22 Nov 2015 12:19:45
“Seasonal promotion, essentially same as previous email, $219 instead of $499. How short term do they think my memory is? The same email was sent only earlier this morning?”

Give thanks in a new language‏
Mon, 23 Nov 2015 08:06:28
“Last ditch attempt on leveraging Thanksgiving before it gets uncomfortable to reference it again. And it certainly won’t be getting any Terimkasi from me, that’s for sure.”

$219 Thanksgiving Sale
Mon, 23 Nov 2015 13:36:13
“Identical imagery to previous email, just wording changes.”

Save $280 during our Thanksgiving Sale‏
Tue, 24 Nov 2015 06:04:14
“Same images again, different wording, it’s starting to get annoying.”

Happy Thanksgiving! Rosetta Stone‏
Wed, 25 Nov 2015 12:34:07
“Image of dinner table for Thanksgiving and text offering a glimpse into the future, inviting you to click, “Be the first to get our best Black Friday deals”. Strange though, only received one email from Rosetta Stone today.”

Happy Thanksgiving! Rosetta Stone‏
Wed, 25 Nov 2015 12:35:33
“Ahh, there’s my second email of the day. But it’s an identical resend of this morning’s email!”

$199! Gobble up this deal‏
Thu, 26 Nov 2015 09:38:15
“Black Friday promotional email with related text, but the “Gobble” title seems to still reference Thanksgiving. I’m beginning to think the $199 deal isn’t so limited time anymore.”

Early Access to Black Friday Deals‏
Thu, 26 Nov 2015 13:14:14
“Same email again as the one from only hours ago, just different subject. Are they for real?”

Good gravy! $199 Black Friday offer‏
Thu, 26 Nov 2015 19:41:23
“Same email AGAIN, just different subject… Is there some kind of technical problem at play here? Surely someone must have changed the subject? It’s my third email, surely I’m not going to get more today?”

You asked for it, you got it!‏
Thu, 26 Nov 2015 20:36:42
“Same email AGAIN, just different subject. This isn’t an email subscription, it’s a SPAM list. Fourth email today, please let me rest. And no, I DIDN’T ask for it.”

No lines here – just DEALS‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 03:20:50
“Back to using the main image from a previous email, only with changed colours. Still $199 sale price from regular $499. Effort factor evidently seems to really be waning.”

Your Black Friday Deal has Arrived
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 05:39:08
“Identical to previous email… I’d love to meet the genius that thinks subject changes constitute new emails.”

$199! Our BEST deal just for you
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 10:18:15
“Back to the same Black Friday Sale from a few emails ago. $199 sales price off of $499. Wow I better act soon or I’ll miss out on the big savings *sarcasm*. It’s my third email of the day, the flow should be tapering off anytime soon now.”

Trust us, you’ll want to open this one…‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 11:47:57
“Another identical email. I love the really unfortunate “Trust us” subject line.”

Hurry! Only hours left to save 60%‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 14:44:34
“Basically the previous email with green colour scheme main image instead of yellow. And a new countdown time ticker atop of the email to create sense of urgency. $199 sales price off of $499. What? Hours left! Oh my goodness. I’m fumbling for my mouse!”

This is HUGE. Get clickin’ ➤‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 16:10:00
“Same as previous email. Surely this is the last email of the day…. at least save some for tomorrow.”

Only ❹ hours left to get $199!‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 17:34:53
“That same image again, but they keep changing the background, now it’s red. They’ll run out of colours, eventually… I hope. 7 emails in one day? I feel like I’m in one of those stalker / obsessive relationships that include incessant messaging, what did I do to deserve this?”

Only ❹ hours left to get $199!
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 17:38:39
“Identical email from previous. I was hoping it was only one email per countdown hour, but now I see the reality of the situation. I was oh so wrong.”

Time’s ticking…‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 18:05:47
“Same main image used in many previous emails, just colour palette change. $199 sales price off of $499. Countdown timer in email. Time sure is ticking, and there’s less ticks between emails each passing day.”

Hurry! $199 is almost gone
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 19:28:13
“Same main image used in many previous emails, just colour palette change. $199 sales price off of $499. Countdown timer in email. This is almost comical if it wasn’t so sad.”

$199! Less than ONE hour left‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 20:17:00
“Same main image, colour palette change and countdown timer as per many previous emails. $199 sales price off of $499. The only fate I could wish on Rosetta Stone employees, is to subscribe to their own email list.”

It’s now or never! SAVE 60%‏
Fri, 27 Nov 2015 20:44:20
“Utterly identical to previous email. It’s been a long week of checking Rosetta Stone emails, thank god it’s Friday, let’s hope they leave me alone on the weekend. Surely the email guy needs a break too.”

There’s still time! $199 extended until midnight
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 03:30:05
“Same main image used in many previous emails, just colour changes. $199 sales price, countdown timer in email. Thank god it was extended, I thought for sure it was a “snooze and you lose” situation. Hold on a minute, it’s Saturday… Oh shit. The emails aren’t going to stop, are they?”

There’s still time! $199 extended until midnight‏
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 03:36:34
“Identical to previous email. It’s getting hard to even do this case study because the only way I can tell which email is which is by looking at the email source code and confirming the minutes between each email.”

Black Friday extended just for you – TODAY ONLY
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 05:35:14
“Identical to previous email. The subject line has DEFINITELY lost it’s sense of urgency.”

Last chance! Our Black Friday deal expires tonight‏
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 12:41:27
“Same main image used in many previous email, just colour changes, $199 sale price, you know the deal by now. “Last chance?” My money’s on either an extension or an identical new offer? Wonder which? This could become a popular drinking game.”

Hurry! $199 is going…going…‏
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 14:06:37
“Identical to previous email. I don’t even know what to say right now. Honestly.”

$199 Expires at Midnight! Get it now
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 17:40:42
“Same main image used in many previous email, just colour palette change. $199 sales price off of $499. Countdown timer in email. Midnight is fast approaching, better scramble the jets!”

This.is.it. $199 – ONE HOUR LEFT
Sat, 28 Nov 2015 19:50:44
“Identical to previous email. Given this is the final hour, you’d think they’d mix it up a bit.”

Cyber Monday Preview! Reveal Your Deal
Sun, 29 Nov 2015 09:44:28
“Basically the same as the Black Friday main image, but now with a CYBER MONDAY SALE stamp instead and a “Bonus Mystery Gift”. Only received 7 emails yesterday, hope they haven’t held back for a full blown attack today. “Mystery gift”, oh how the mind wanders what that could be!”

Cyber Monday Preview! Reveal Your Deal
Sun, 29 Nov 2015 09:52:31
“Identical to previous email, subject line and all. Last one was sent at 09:44:28, this one at 09:52:31. At some point they’ll come so fast I’ll be able to do stop-frame animation with them, if only they looked different from each other.”

Reveal Your Deal‏
Sun, 29 Nov 2015 12:39:02
“Identical to previous email. Out of sheer morbid curiosity I’d love to know what the mystery gift is. Some e-voucher for $5 off when you spend $200 or more? Something like that?”

Reveal your price! Special offer inside‏
Sun, 29 Nov 2015 17:35:27
“Identical to previous email. I’m emotionally depleted, numb to its “special” offers.”

Save 60% + Mystery Gift | Cyber Monday Event‏
Sun, 29 Nov 2015 17:42:11
“Identical except now it boldly displays 60% off on top of Bonus Mystery Gift, and some minor text wording changes.”

Why wait? Special Cyber Monday offer for you
Sun, 29 Nov 2015 19:36:09
“Identical to previous email, in every way shape and form. Every pixel has been copied, pasted and resent. It boggles my mind. I’ve ended up on Nigerian scam email lists less persistent than this.”

60% Off + Mystery Gift | Cyber Monday Event
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 02:54:45
“A new day, and a new batch of emails surely await me. Basically this one is the same as previous but with a mustard yellow background and some minor tweaks. How many times will I get some version of this email? Only time will tell.”

Cyber Monday Mystery Gift
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 05:42:26
“Basically the same as the previous email. My nightmares are unfolding before my very eyes. I had dreams of Rosetta Stone email attacks last night, it was scary, woke up in pool of sweat. I need help.”

60% Off + Bonus Gift Ends TONIGHT
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 08:54:38
“Basically similar to the previous email with some minor styling and text changes. Apparently, today’s word is…. “Rosetta Stone””

Free Bonus Gift with Order – Save 60%!
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 11:38:23
“Identical to previous email. Does the guy making and sending these get paid by the email or what?”

Last chance for our BEST deal – ends tonight!
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 14:57:23
“The text claims “Your Cyber Monday Offer just got BETTER!” with an invitation to see a new offer button. I must be hallucinating, they’re using a totally new background image that wasn’t in the batch of emails.”

We know you want it…
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 15:03:51
“Identical to previous email, with exception to that countdown timer appearing again. The urgency is overwhelming me. Like those final steps to the bathroom when you REALLY have to go.”

Don’t wait. It’s our BEST deal of the year!
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 18:01:26
“Essentially another regurgitation of the previous email but with new background colour. BEST DEAL OF THE YEAR? Seems to be pretty much the ONLY deal of the year.”

Last Chance to Cyber (P.S. New deals just in!)
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 18:12:57
“Basically identical to previous email. I’ve started to develop a flinching reaction when I check my email. This can’t be healthy.”

Run, don’t walk! CYBER MONDAY ends in a few hours…
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 19:12:13
“Dead ringer of previous email. “Run, don’t walk!” my god the titles are really grasping at straws.”

Alert! Time is running out‏
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 20:15:42
“Basically identical to previous email. Alert! Alert! Captain… The offer you’ve been given for the last 40 some-odd emails is possibly running out sometime this decade!”

Final Notice! Get your email exclusive offer
Mon, 30 Nov 2015 20:44:44
“Basically identical to previous email, except for background colour change. “Final Notice”… LOL the audacity, after all these emails… That’s it… I’m pulling the cord on this, sick of it all.”

Pulling The Cord

During the 10 days, I often wondered what the behind-the-scene factors were for the email onslaught and their often identical content. Email server problems? Campaign configuration woes? Absent creative department? Novice campaign manager? I did at a number of points consider if I’d in fact caught them with their pants down and this was simply a bad time to be walking in on them. This proved to not be the case. In the 20 days following my case study, a further 34 email communications from Rosetta Stone arrived in my inbox. Proving this is practice not exception.

Rosetta Stone Case Study

Is Rosetta Stone a bad company because of all this? No. It simply suffers from heavy handed email marketing that doesn’t consider the end recipient experience.

Case study completed, it’s time to put this sick puppy to sleep and pull the cord. I click the “Unsubscribe” link logically placed at the bottom of the last email, which leads to a page asking me how I’d wish to tailor my email settings. Admittedly there’s an option to lessen the email onslaught by only receiving “important updates and the very best offers”, but frankly it’s too late by the time someone’s reaching for the unsubscribe button, you’ve lost them. I click a clearly labeled “Unsubscribe completely” radio then “Update Preferences” button and get the final nod that my preference has been updated. This is clearly one of those times, as a disgruntled email list subscriber, an option for feedback would have gleaned useful feedback for Rosetta Stone, opportunity missed.

Takeaways

The experience has taken my perception of the brand from pristine to tarnished, which suddenly thrusts the other language learning options I was only perusing to justify proceeding with Rosetta Stone, into primary purchasing options themselves.

Consumers rightfully equate pre-purchase company behaviours as likely post-purchase behaviours. The fear that those same heavy handed marketing tactics will somehow invade their product and customer experiences are wholly justified. Like going through a bad personal relationship and taking measures to protect ourselves from getting into similar such relationships again, we have similar defences for our corporate relationships.

How do I know as a consumer that the marketing barrage stops when I’ve taken them up on their offer?

Many of us have endured overly aggressive anti-virus software subscription renewal tactics, constant offers to upgrade software to Premium versions and so forth; having had enough of those experiences in the past, it would lead a buyer to wonder, “What happens when my Rosetta Stone subscription comes close to expiring?” Nightmare scenarios of bulging email inboxes and phone calls would logically start to fester in the potential buyer’s mind.

Likewise, after receiving endless exaggerated emails with urgently worded subject lines claiming sale prices are coming to an abrupt end soon, only for those prices to live on well past the deadlines, how can a consumer know the product itself lives up to other marketing claims?

I could go into an elaborate analysis of every minute detail as to why their email strategy (if you could call it that) doesn’t work, but there’s no need. It’s clearly a case of three factors that combine into a lethal cocktail… Receiving incessant emails throughout the day, everyday – strike one; that are largely identical to each other (often pixel for pixel) – strike two; and that continually claim it’s the final opportunity to take advantage of a sale price that seemingly never ends (boy who cried wolf) – strike three, you’re out!