Get Them to Open Your Email: Three Tips from GovDelivery

Email is the simplest of digital marketing tools and one of the most effective ways of motivating an audience. Of all the tools in the online suite, it’s been around the longest. It’s pre-web, people! The first email was sent in 1971, when the World Wide Web was nothing but a fanciful theory and social media meant communing over magazines with your friends.

It’s old. It’s not sexy. Yet, a good email list can drive traffic to your web site like nothing else.

But how do you get subscribers to open your emails? That was the subject of a recent GovDelivery talk, How to Design Great Emails. This breakfast talk offered tips to create engaging emails that resonate with citizens and drive results.

While geared for government communicators, the tips offered by Allison Hamilton, are applicable for anyone who manages an email list, no matter what technology they use.

How much of your email do you actually read? If you’re like most people, you scan the subject lines in your inbox looking for things you have to read or want to read. Everything else gets trashed, right? How else can you cope with the onslaught of electronic communication that all of us endure?

To get readers to open your email, you need to be clear, concise and direct. Remember: the average attention span online is 8 seconds. You need to capture readers before they move on to the next bit of online communication.

That means simplifying. Make things easy for the reader. Don’t make them think.

Use a compelling subject line, include relevant imagery and have a clear call to action – that’s how you get people to open your emails.

Here’s a slide from Allison’s talk on the anatomy of an email. She could’ve spent an hour just on these keys to getting readers to open your email.

Anatomy of an email1. Subject Line – Imagine writing the title of a book. How would you describe it in 5-7 words? What is this email about? What are you giving the reader? Look back on previous emails and check open rates. What words/phrases resonate with your readers? Don’t use your organization’s language – use that of your readers.

2. Relevant Imagery – Why do ads contain photos? Why don’t companies just spell out the benefits of their products in long blocks of text? Because photos work. They draw the reader into the page – particularly photos of people. Create/buy/acquire a photo library of relevant imagery to use for web and email. Relevant imagery means images that tell the story of your organization.

3. Obvious Call to Action – This seems, well, obvious, but it’s not. I’ve worked in organizations where the call to action is buried under paragraphs of text. Why? Because XYZ Agency wants to tell readers how wonderful they are. Or they want to explain how they developed this new thing and here’s a page of scientific explanation that you need to slog through. No. If you want reader to do something – download a report, sign-up for an event, lobby their Senator – then put that “above the fold.” It belongs at the start of the email, not the end.

We look down upon email. It’s an “email blast” in many organizations, which is a terrible term for such an important tool. Do you want to be blasted?

Email is simple and effective. It delivers results. And it could do more, with just a few simple tweaks to the “above the fold” content. To improve open rates on your emails, use a compelling subject line, include relevant imagery and feature an obvious call to action.

For more tips on successful email, check out the slide presentationsblog recap and photos from GovDelivery.


Employees Are the Brand

Lincoln Memorial amid trees

Your employees are your brand, according to an all-star panel of communicators at the recent workshop, “Building an Agency’s Brand and Defining the Audience.”

The Federal Communicators Network (FCN) and the Partnership for Public Service sponsored this conversation on how to build a strong brand and better define your audience. This lively discussion featured real-world stories from professional communicators who have honed their organization’s brand and established a clear customer base.

Panelists included Danielle Blumenthal (NIST), Bill Walsh (AARP), Suki Baz (National Park Service) and moderator Dave Herbert (NGS).

Suki Baz began by describing the rebranding efforts going on at the National Park Service. They have a logo that’s iconic and instantly recognizable. However, the design of the NPS arrowhead is limiting, as it was designed before the needs of web pages and social media. As their 100th anniversary approaches, they’re reintroducing their logo with a fresh new feel that’s designed to appeal to millennials.

However, NPS recognizes that to appeal to younger audiences they need to do more than just change their logo. NPS is adding to their social media teams and encouraging their parks to actively engage with younger audiences, particularly online.

(An aside: of course I asked NPS about how they never respond to my tweets! Unsurprisingly, NPS is a large bureaucracy like any other one. Suki has little control over what local park districts do. So, how do you get in touch with a park if you have an issue? She suggested calling.)

Another organization that has approached rebranding is AARP. For most people, it’s an organization synonymous with senior citizens. The arrival of a letter inviting you to join AARP is like an official acknowledgment of old age. Bill Walsh of AARP hopes to change all that. AARP no longer stands for the American Association of Retired Persons. Instead, it’s just AARP these days. They’ve modernized their web, print and social media materials to reach out to Baby Boomers – you only need to be 50 to join. These efforts fall under a single banner: Real Possibilities. AARP no longer wants to be known just for travel discounts – they want to be seen as an organization that will help you reach your potential through career and life advice.

Employees are a key element in this transition. AARP has offices nationwide and a cadre of volunteers. Field offices have been provided with briefing materials and messaging guides so that the organization can speak in a single, consistent voice.

Danielle Blumenthal underscored this point with examples from her career in federal government. Her experience is been that most people don’t read the employee newsletter. The way to reach busy employees is through short, concise, valuable content. Instead of doing a newsletter, she suggests sending out a daily email with the three things that you need to know for the day. You need to focus on value (the things employees care about) and be real (speak as a person, not an organization). After all, the first people you need to sell your brand to are your own employees.

Employees are brand ambassadors. The public builds impressions of brands based upon the experience they have with them. New logos and redesign efforts are only part of the solution to modernizing a brand. Employees are the key element in any transition for they embody the brand.

For More Information

Every Communicator Needs a Real Photographer

Leica M9 and prosecco

This recent post by Vocus – Every Communicator Needs a Real Camera – highlights how important photography is for business. We depend on photos for blogs, web sites, brochures, tweets, Facebook posts and other kinds of marketing collateral.

Photos are a kind of shorthand, selling a product more effectively than a hundred lines of copy. They communicate who you are and what your brand stands for. Photos are essential to sharing your message with the world.

Despite this, photography is an unappreciated medium. Because free photos are widely available on sites like Flickr, and because anyone with an iPhone can take a picture, many organizations pay little money or attention to their photo needs. Yet, a compelling business case can be made for paying for photographers and photography.

A couple of examples:

1. At a company I worked for, the CEO received a major award at a trade show. We wanted to run a story on the web site about it. But the only photo we had was a blurry iPhone shot from fifty feet away. Without a good photo, we couldn’t do the story.

2. I was the photo coordinator for the DC Shorts Film Festival, responsible for managing a volunteer army of photogs who captured images of film screenings, crowded parties, red carpet arrivals and VIP events. This is an awesome event that you should attend. But don’t take my word for it – check out the photos and decide for yourself. In addition to helping attract attendees to the festival, these photos demonstrated to sponsors how their products were being enjoyed, were included in the annual report and were widely shared in social media.

The Vocus article states that communicators need a good camera. But a camera is just a tool. You need someone who knows how to use it. That person is a photographer. Look for one in your organization. Don’t make photography “other duties as assigned” but give them the time, money and equipment they need to tell your organization’s story. Invest in photography the same way you invest in web site hosting, email marketing and social media.

And if you don’t have a photographer, hire one through a group like APADC.

In this digital age, digital photographers are essential. Don’t miss the important moments in your company because no one had a decent camera. Hire a photographer to create images that you’ll use for years to come.

Storytelling: The Most Powerful Communications Tool in History

We are storytelling animals. It’s what differentiates us from our primate cousins. We are literally Homo narrativus. We use stories to assign meaning to our lives, transmit vital information and communicate with future generations. Without our storytelling ability, we would never have evolved out of the jungles of Africa.

Human history begins with stories, like The Bible, the Odyssey and the epics of India. These stories were so important that they were memorized and passed down countless generations prior to the written word.

Storytelling is an ancient and powerful tool that we all possess. The ability to process, remember and share stories is man’s oldest and best trick.

But we live in a dreary age of PowerPoints and TPS reports. Why can’t you remember anything from yesterday’s HR briefing? It’s not your fault; it wasn’t a story.

Lead with a Story

Paul Smith addresses that problem in Lead with a Story, a guide to using this ancient tool in the modern world. Storytelling is a skill that’s increasingly being adopted by major corporations trying to break through the clutter of messages that we’re all deluged with.

In a talk at the annual Federal Digital Communications event, Smith explained the power of stories to an audience of government communicators.

Storytelling is a skill that we can all learn. We literally grew up with it. What makes a great story? Great stories are:

1. Simple. What is the plot of Lord of the Rings? While it sprawls over hundreds of pages, the plot is really simple: destroy the One Ring. Great stories are simple, with a clear problem for characters to solve.

2. Timeless. Fads come and go, but the great stories are timeless. Boy meets girl, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or the latest Hollywood romcom, is one of the oldest and most commonly told stories.

3. Universal. While you may not speak ancient Greek, you can understand the desire to get home after a tough day (or decade). This is why a classic like the Odyssey is a universal tale.

4. Viral. Someone tells you a funny joke in the elevator and you immediately want to share it. Jokes were viral before the cat videos of YouTube.

5. Memorable. The story of Noah and the Great Flood doesn’t just appear in the Old Testatment – it is also a part of ancient Babylonian texts. Why? The whole world being wiped out with one survivor? That’s a great story.

6. Inspirational. We long for inspirational stories. While other ages had saints, we have business profiles of inspiring figures like Oprah, Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz. We read these stories of perseverance and success because we want to be inspired, looking for motivation to act upon our own dreams.

Good stories engage audiences. Rather than showing people a slide full of numbers, tell them what the numbers mean. Tell them how they matter to one person. Connect with your audience with stories of how people use your product or service.

For example, I had a job where I had to tell actors to be on time for a performance. I could’ve just yelled at them. Or just repeated the call-time over and over again.

Instead, I told them a story – The Tragedy of the Late Actor. The year before, one of actors was late. We replaced her. She didn’t get a chance to perform.

None of the actors were late. They remembered my message (don’t be late!) because I expressed it in the Tragedy of the Late Actor.

The reason is the human gift for narrative. Stories are how we remember information and direct our lives.

The next time you need to communicate something, whether it’s an article for the corporate newsletter or a message to your significant other, think about how you can make it a story. Write a beginning, a middle and an end. Have a clear protagonist, with a  problem for them to solve.

Tap into the ancient gift of storytelling – our most powerful communication tool.

Update: check out the slides and notes from the day’s presentations.



Communicating Science: Make It Relevant

How do you communicate science to a general audience? That was the subject of a recent presentation I gave to the Federal Communicators Network. Based upon my experience as a science communicator for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy, I suggest that writers:

  • Use common terms
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Get out of your organizational bubble
  • Make it relevant to the reader
  • Stress benefits, not features

In the talk, I used case studies from my current job as a Communications Manager for The National Weather Service (NWS).  For example, NWS has a great new technology under development  – Wireless Emergency Alerts.

When talking about this new service, do you communicate the features (cell towers, polygons, alerting authorities) or the benefit (getting a text alert before a tornado hits your house)?

You stress the benefit, obviously. The benefit establishes relevancy in the mind of the reader. Grab the reader’s attention by leading with benefits and then you can explain the complicated details.

Is Greenland Melting?

Is Greenland melting? Has the ice cap suddenly disappeared from this frosty island?

That’s the conclusion I drew after skimming DCist this morning, which had the headline:

Nearly All of Greenland Melted in Span of Four Days, NASA Finds

And then below was this alarming graphic:

And here’s the lede:

This is kind of scary. According to a NASA analysis of recent satellite readings, it took just four days for nearly all of Greenland’s surface ice to melt amid an oppressive heat wave a couple weeks ago.

Reading this, I thought, “The ice cap has disappeared from Greenland.” All of Greenland’s surface ice has melted away over four days.

But the reporter got it wrong. If you read the comments from the smart readers of DCist, you discovered the truth. The chart above only indicates what’s melting on Greenland. Everything right now is melting on Greenland but it’s still covered in plenty of ice and snow. It’s like an ice cube that’s sweating but is still plenty big.

How could this information be communicated better? Should reporters receive more training in interpreting scientific information? Is this graphic from NASA confusing and easy to misinterpret? Should public affairs officers “dumb things down” even more?