Important update about our newsletters & mass emails

December 05, 2020

Important update about our newsletters & mass emails

10 minute read time

Anxiety Reduction Spoiler Alert: Your data is secure, it's just been mislabeled in our bookkeeping by an annoying app. Nothing will change on your end. 

Hi there, Wig Lovers!

With another Black Friday behind us, it has come to my attention that some folks may not be receiving our newsletters

And, by “some folks,” I unfortunately mean about 7,000 subscribers to my mailing list!  This blog post is a summary of what happened.  Once it is resolved, I will try to make a video to discuss the matter and the resolution in more detail, just in case you’re curious, or you happen to be one of the people affected by this technical issue.

I have not done a “purge” of our newsletter subscriber list in almost two years.

When I do this, it is generally to remove inactive subscribers because it hurts the effectiveness of our email list when too many people don’t open the mass emails we send.  Email providers like Gmail and Yahoo keep score of how many people open our mass emails, click on the buttons, and shop as a result.  It is imprudent from a technical or business standpoint to keep too many inactive subscribers on a mass mailing list because those email inbox providers may start to assume we’re spamming people, which is never our intention, and something I work very hard to avoid.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been so crazy busy in the last 18 months that I haven’t gotten around to doing that kind of list maintenance in a really long time.

The good news: If you haven’t been seeing our emails, there is a high likelihood that a technical issue is at fault.  We did not remove you from the list unless you specifically requested that we take you off of it.

The bad news: It came to our attention on Black Friday of this year that over 7,000 people who subscribed to our newsletter were no longer receiving them.  Our app dashboards never indicated anything was wrong, and it was only after several customers contacted us around Black Friday that I started to notice a trend.  I am now working to correct this, but it may take up to a month or two to fully resolve.

I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who wrote into our help desk to tell us they were not receiving our newsletters.  There is no need to write in at this point if you suspect this may have happened to you.  I am aware of the issue, and am trying to resolve this for all involved.  Please hang tight.  I will alert everyone here and via YouTube once we think we’ve got a handle on this.  Until then, please consider this a work-in-progress.

The remainder of this blog post will provide you with broad-strokes details about the glitch, just in case you’re curious.  Small business owners who integrate Shopify and Mailchimp with a third-party app may also find this next section very useful.

First, some important definitions that will make this glitch make more sense. 

Please, bear with me.  I will try to keep the tech jargon to a minimum, for clarity’s sake.

SaaS = “Software as a Service”, or another way of saying “cloud” based software provider.  I would like to elaborate a little more, just in case no one has ever taken the time to clearly define what the “cloud” is for you.  The “cloud” is just marketing spin.  It’s a flashy way of selling companies and the public on the convenience and low overhead cost of outsourcing servers and software to third parties instead of having their own IT team, in-house coders, and internal hardware infrastructure.  When something is cloud-based, it means that the servers are not on site.  In the case of SaaS providers, the software isn’t on site, either.  It also means that companies that use cloud-based solutions (in other words, most of the companies in the USA since 2010) lose a lot of control over their own data, the tradeoff being that they no longer need tech specialists to maintain equipment and debug software code, because all of this is being outsourced off-site to the “cloud.”  As someone who used to work in IT and loved it, I have mixed feelings about the “cloud computing” revolution.  It saves a lot of money, but eliminates a lot of jobs and concentrates a lot of power in the hands of increasingly fewer large tech firms.

API = “Application Programming Interface”, or a fancy way of describing the code that allows one SaaS program to talk to another.  Since most of these SaaS providers are not controlled by the same company, written with the same code, or housed in the same location, they require an interpreter app, a code-based intermediary, to transfer data in a controlled manner from one outsourced service provider to another.

Mailchimp = A popular mass email SaaS platform used by my store, Estetica, Wigs.com and many other companies in this industry to send bulk email newsletters.  They are based out of Atlanta, GA.  (Side note: the main reason I chose them when we started our business was because they were another local start-up like mine.  They are much, much larger than CysterWigs now.)

Shopify = A popular e-commerce SaaS platform for large and small businesses alike, used by my store, wigs.com, Name Brand Wigs, BelleTress, and many other companies in this industry to host our stores.  They are based out of Canada.  (Side note: We were the first major wig brand in this space to use the Shopify platform.  As the platform grew, other companies in this space began to move away from their self-hosted websites and onto this less expensive SaaS provider.  For example, wigs.com used to have a custom Magento site on a self-hosted internal server.  As I mentioned above, though, the tradeoff for making that switch is that you lose a certain amount of control over your code, infrastructure, and data in exchange for convenience and a less expensive IT profile.  For these reasons, it makes a lot of sense for small companies like CysterWigs to go the SaaS route.  However, this can be a bad move for large companies because they lose control over a lot of their own software and internal infrastructure in the process.)

Here is how all of this nonsense lead to a gigantic hidden glitch. 

Shopify has its own marketplace for third party apps, much like Apple does with its Apple Store (another really large SaaS that just happens to sell smaller SaaS).  As Shopify has grown to dominate the e-commerce space, their demands on the smaller SaaS providers in their app marketplace has greatly intensified.  In many cases, app developers need to allow Shopify to have more and more control over user data while Shopify increasingly takes a page from Amazon’s playbook by making cheaper alternatives to the most popular apps in their marketplace.  In short, Shopify now directly competes with many of the app developers in its marketplace that have been the backbone – and a major selling point – of their platform since they came online.  Many smaller app developers give in, but those with more clout push back against this betrayal and hyper-competitive behavior.

In 2019, Mailchimp decided it did not want to capitulate to the demands of Shopify.  Mailchimp released multiple public statements at the time to explain the situation.  It became apparent to them that Shopify intended to launch a competing mass-emailer app in their marketplace and was making new rules that would harm Mailchimp’s existing business to give Shopify’s own app a competitive edge.  By this point, both have grown into very large, successful companies.  Neither was going to be pushed around by the other.

This is an even longer and more complicated story that I’m going to skip.  Just know that Mailchimp decided to go it alone, and as of last year, they no longer provided direct integrations (“API”s) between their email app and Shopify.  Any company that uses these two platforms in their IT software stack would have to buy yet another cloud-based app simply to provide that API connection.  This is how the wig companies I mentioned above, as well as CysterWigs, can continue to use both Mailchimp and Shopify after this rift.  We have to outsource that integration to yet another SaaS provider.

And that, Dear Reader, is how we find ourselves in the current situation.

It is incredibly cumbersome from a technical perspective to use a software-based intermediary to act as the communications director between one app and another, particularly when none of the players involved can see or interact with the necessary source code that drives those apps directly.  This is a very real limitation of the entire SaaS IT model.  Data is king, and gatekeeping access to that data, as well as information about how it is managed and interacted with, is about as precious a secret to these SaaS providers as your Social Security and bank account numbers are to you.  Needless to say, they aren’t really inclined to share that intel, and that makes sense.  It also makes things very, very clunky at times.

After spending the entire day on Black Friday dealing with tech support at Mailchimp about this issue, I have learned the following:

  1. Over 7000 people on my mailing list prior to this rift between MailChimp and Shopify were mislabeled by an API somewhere as “non-subscribed,” and only eligible for transactional emails.

Most of these people are subscribers who are still opted-in to the newsletters.  This is the crux of the technical glitch, as it is an issue of a malfunction in the API, a communication breakdown between bots that resulted in a lot of people not receiving my emails when they actually want them.  I will call these “legacy subscribers” for the remainder of this blog post.

  1. Mailchimp accepts no responsibility for problems that arise when the 3rd party APIs they force us to use in order to work with their email marketing app malfunction and screw up our mailing lists.
  1. The 3rd party integration we used – Shop Sync, the one recommended by Mailchimp – accepts no responsibility for anything.  They also claim that there is nothing wrong.
  1. Mailchimp blames Shopify and Shop Sync for everything.
  1. Shopify blames Mailchimp and Shop Sync for everything.
  1. Ergo: The more people you invite to the party, the harder it is to tell who left a turd in your proverbial punch bowl.  More APIs mean less accountability.

This last point is particularly infuriating for me, as a former IT professional.  If it were not cost-prohibitive, I would much prefer to have an in-house IT infrastructure so I could move away from dependence on cloud-based apps.  I have the ability to run that kind of IT team, and so does my business partner.  We both have backgrounds in IT systems administration.  We are not beauticians.  We’re hardcore nerds who cannot get jobs in our fields due to this shift to SaaS.  It’s ironic and frustrating to us when we encounter these kinds of technical impediments to conducting business online.  I also hate it when macho tech support guys feel the need to dumb things down for me because I’m a woman, yet cannot answer simple questions about their own apps and integrations.  Alas, that kind of blatant sexism is another topic for another day.


My solutions:

  1. Move away from Mailchimp ASAP.  I don’t care who’s fault it is.  At the end of the day, the issue is evident in Mailchimp’s interpretation of the mailing list.  Their lack of accountability or concrete assistance that would help us avoid a lot of extra work on our end is very jarring to this particular independent small business owner (me).

I understand that Shopify may have put the screws to them in 2019.  However, they could have compromised to continue to make it easier for their customers to continue to use their services with their Shopify stores.  It was a foolish decision to force customers to choose to abandon them, abandon Shopify, or use a clunky third-party app to act as liaison between the two warring parties.  If I have to choose between the two, I have to choose Shopify.  Plus, Shopify isn’t messing with my data right now.  Mailchimp’s required third-party integrations, by their own admission, are causing the issue.  It’s time for me to say buh-bye to Mailchimp.  That is an easy call.

  1. Manually reconcile my mailing list ASAP to help legacy subscribers who might have been caught up in this.  This will take a while and will not be cheap.  Please be patient with us as we address this issue as quickly as we can.
  1. Notify everyone once it’s done.
  1. Clear up any remaining loose ends afterwards.

Take heart, Legacy Subscribers!  We’re working all month long to manually comb through the raw subscriber list (over 30,000 people) to find you and make sure you are properly categorized in our mailing list.  We will NOT be adding back people who unsubscribed on purpose, nor will we be adding anyone who did not specifically opt in.  Both of these things are against the law.

Instead, we will be manually looking at people with a mis-matched data tag in Shopify relative to Mailchimp to reconcile the two.  We’re getting some freelance assistance with this, since the scope of this will be massive, and I am actually rebuilding our website at the same time to make it more mobile-friendly in 2021.  My dance card is pretty full at the moment!  Making matters even more complicated, we’re in the middle of changing our product catalog, a radical pivot to our social media strategy, and I’m creating a lot more of my own products.  All of this requires a lot from me, personally, and most of it cannot be outsourced.  Not to mention the fact that all of this came to my attention on Black Friday, when I obviously had a lot of other stuff going on!

Please be assured that there was no “purge.”  We may do that mid-2021 once this migration is complete and we can more easily identify folks who are no longer interested in receiving our emails.  This will be particularly important in 2021, since we may not be carrying a lot of the same products by this time next year.  I recognize some folks only hang out with us for coupons on known name brands, and they may not be interested in my product designs.  That’s A-OK.  The point is, I want to give everyone on the mailing list a fair chance to see if they’re into it before removing anyone from our mailing list on purpose.

Time to pull up the big-girl trousers and get to work, I guess!  There’s never a dull moment in the e-commerce biz.  We will make multiple cross-platform public announcements once the rebuild of the list is complete.





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