Tuesday, December 1

Opting Out: American Greetings


"... but what if people don't want to opt in your content? Wouldn't it be so much better to ask them to opt out? What do you think?" — Valeria Maltoni

Maltoni already knows the answer to the question she posed on her much more substantive post "Lists, Permission, and Content Marketing." American Greetings Corporation does not.

In 1996, at about the same time American Greetings launched its first site, AmericanGreetings.com, it also launched Egreetings.com, and Bluemountain.com, concepts that were designed to capture consumers from different demographics. The classic marketing strategy seemed to be working. Between the three sites, the company boasts two million paying subscribers.

To help put that in perspective, the subscription rate for Bluemountain.com is $15.99 per year. However, to really understand the presumed success of the mom and pop vignette e-card shop identity propped up with American Greetings cash, you have to look below the surface and under a few rocks. It does not rely on quality content as much as sleight-of-hand marketing.

The enrollment process requires customers to provide all payment information prior to receiving a "free" 30-day trial. If you have any concerns, BlueMountain.com borrows the VeriSign Secured brand and Better Business Bureau (BBB) brand, pointing consumers to this BBB page.

However, if customers search the BBB on their own, BlueMountain.com leaves a different impression. The BBB processed a total of 301 complaints in the last 36 months (from people willing to take the time over $15.99). And of those complaints, only 198 were closed in the last 12 months. In fact, the subscription trap scheme was so disingenuous, the BBB contacted the company in April and sought cooperation in addressing the underlying cause.

The company responded in May, promising changes to be implemented by June. The BBB took the company's response in good faith, never realizing that American Greetings didn't fix the problem but rather elongated the process. No follow up by the BBB has occurred. So we followed up.

The American Greetings Subscription Trap Scheme

This morning, I received notification that BlueMountain.com would extend my membership for another year, at the new rate of $15.99. I originally subscribed to BlueMountain.com on a trial basis to evaluate its system and, like many consumers, failed to opt out in time because there was no prompt that the trial membership was expiring. No worries. I decided to stay with the system a year, promptly forgetting about it until receiving notification this morning.

To ensure that you enjoy uninterrupted access to the heartfelt cards your friends and family have come to expect from you, we'll continue your eCards Membership for the next year at $15.99 as your current eCards Membership was scheduled to end on 12/15/2009 00:00. It's automatic -- we'll simply use the payment method we have on file, unless we hear from you. The charge will occur on the date of your expiration noted above.

It went on to say that if I wanted to cancel my membership, I could find the instructions in their Help section or simply click on the link. It seemed easy enough, even if I had to retrieve a long-forgotten password. Here is what the Help section said:

To request a cancellation of a subscription, please contact our membership support center by calling 1-888-254-1450, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 8 p.m. EST

Since customers outside of the U.S. and Canada are allowed to cancel online, I decided to submit an online complaint and cancellation request anyway. Within minutes, BlueMountain customer support sent me notification that said "For security reasons, we are unable to process cancellation requests via email," which was followed by Terms of Service outlining customer obligations.

The explanation defies logic.

American Greetings wants consumers to believe that an online service enrolling members online and accepting payments online cannot accept membership cancellations online for security reasons. But more than likely, American Greetings wants to prevent cancellations. And if there is any doubt, the call confirmed it.

Customers hoping to cancel their memberships are greeted by an automated recorded call service with voice recognition technology. My first thought was that the technology belongs to a union, given the set hours of operation.

My second thought was that it is disingenuous that the recording requires a membership number, last name, and the original phone number to verify the identity of the caller. (BlueMountain.com doesn't tell customers to have any of this information prior to calling.)

If you miss any of the questions or if you do not speak slowly enough for the machine, you cannot proceed or cancel your membership. If you do answer all of the questions, your name is likely added to a marketing list that will be sold at some later date. We suspect that to be the case because once you answer these questions, you are transferred to a live scripted customer service representative who has to verify the identity of the caller.

The scripted customer service representative then asks for your membership number, last name (to which she verifies the first name), and a mailing address before asking why you are calling. Except, the customer service representative is not interested in helping you. She has a script to read.

The script is designed to prevent your cancellation, offering a reduced subscription rate or reward. And, even after the cancellation is confirmed, the representative asks you to hold for a bonus offer. A bonus offer for canceling? As tempted as I was to play along for this post, even I couldn't justify wasting another five minutes for what seemed like a 20-minute process.

Twenty minutes is longer than most customers will sacrifice for $15.99. American Greetings knows it.

Does The American Greetings Scheme Pay Off?

It's a valid question given the brand value. How can American Greetings, even if it is hiding behind the BlueMountain.com brand, justify the considerable risk associated with a subscription trap scheme for $15.99 per year? Or, perhaps more appropriately, was this the model Jacob Sapirstein, a young Polish immigrant, envisioned when he set out to achieve the American dream with ambition, ethics and hard work?

That seems doubtful. It doesn't even seem to be what shareholders expect since the company's first public offering in 1952, but it does seem to fit the pattern of progress since Zev and Jeffrey Weiss were entrusted to oversee the varied brands in 2003.

Since 2004, American Greetings seems to have headed in the wrong direction, delivering an increasingly diminished return when compared to the S&P 400 and its own self-defined peer group. Last year, in fact, the company experienced a net loss of $227.8 million. It was the worst performance in the last five years of diminishing performance.

If there is an e-card for karma, someone might consider sending them one with a bit of marketing advice. Q: Wouldn't it be so much better to ask them to opt out? A: Only if you want to follow in the footsteps of what used to be one of America's best-loved and most trusted greeting card brands.

7 comments:

Micah | SEO Specialist on 12/2/09, 4:23 AM said...

This is a very nice post. I can see you have put hard work on your blog. I'm sure I'd be back here more often. You can come by and visit my site if you have time. See yah!

Rich on 12/7/09, 10:51 AM said...

Micah,

Think so?

It almost seems more likely you are trying to connect your name to SEO Specialist, I see. Earned is better.

Best,
Rich

Jess on 12/9/09, 4:58 PM said...

It can't get any better than this.

Rich on 2/7/10, 10:35 AM said...

Jess,

It is always amazing to me when someone drops a link to promote the problem.

Best,
Rich

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I, too, was automatically 'reupped' for a new subscription and $15.99 was deducted out of my Paypal account (no notification email either) Paypal said to contact Bluemountain themselves. If only I'd known...after several infuriating attempts to contact Bluemountain under there "help" section(no contact us link, no email customer service, etc), I finally found an actual phone number and dealt with the automated system. Under Tech Support, after several exasperating attempts in other areas, I finally got the response system to respond to the word "agent" and was directed to "veronica", a nasty individual who actually hung up on me because she said my call was muffled. I called back, veronica again answered, asked for the exact same info she had asked for two minutes before (even the spelling!!) and actually did cancel my subscription and issue a refund through Paypal (we'll see on 3/8!!). I somehow think it's still not over. You're right...most people would give up for a lousy $15.99 refund and that's what Bluemountain is betting on. I am sad to hear they are affliated with American Greetings.

Rich on 3/1/10, 1:45 PM said...

Anon,

I'm glad you found some value in this post, if for no other reason than to know you aren't alone. I'm happy you seemed to have resolved your issue.

Please do let me know if it isn't resolved in the future.

Best,
Rich

Anonymous said...

hi!...i'm so glad to read this post cause all along i thought that i was the only victim of this scheme. i like bluemountain cards but i would like to have the option to easily get out of the subscription if i want to. i tried to do that and exactly what was written in this post is what i also experienced so i let pass another year. the next year, it was the same story but boy was i glad that my credit card finally expired and they just couldnt bill me anymore so they had no choice my cut my subscription which i have long wanted to be cut!... and also, people who sign up for the trial dont even know how much they will be charged until they complete the joining process which already entails giving out your credit card number. this is really bad dishonest marketing. it's a pity. they need not do this cause the cards are nice and they can get clients without trapping them.

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