Photo storage and repurposing site Shutterfly is in a bit of hot water with customers today, after sending an email to many female users congratulating them on the "amazing" accomplishment of "bringing a new life into the world" and dishing out etiquette tips about when it's appropriate to send Thank You cards to people who sent new baby gifts. Problem is that many of the women who received the email were not pregnant, or new moms. Some had even struggled recently with infertility.
Several tipsters forwarded us the email that Shutterfly sent out in the wee small hours of this morning. One characterized the email as "data science gone wrong." Another says that she had actually been pregnant and would have been due this month, but miscarried six months ago. Is it possible that Shutterfly analyzed her search data and just happened to conclude, based on that, that she would be welcoming a child around this time? Or is it, as she hoped via email, "just a horrible coincidence?"
This shitstorm, as shitstorms tend to do, only escalated when confused and upset Shutterfly users took to social media to air their grievances. Most were puzzled; some who had struggled with infertility or miscarriages were upset.
And on Twitter, it's even more shitstormy.
So, what can we learn? First, sending out a mass "Congratulations on your new baby!" email sans prompt to thousands of users is to marketing what swinging for the fences is to baseball; it's much too risky for any sane person to justify. While not everyone who received the email was offended or upset, pregnancy and childbirth are incredibly personal issues for many women, and when dealing with them, companies should err on the side of oversensitivity rather than risk alienating their customer base by revealing to them that their data is ceaselessly mined by robots who don't care about feelings and don't know pain.
Of course, this also might be the result of another sort of mechanized mindlessness; the digital equivalent of an unexpected fart in an elevator. If that's the case, glitches happen. If not, someone's marketing strategy is about to get retooled.
We've reached out to Shutterfly for comment.