Emotion behind email: How to manage challenging messages in a challenging time

This year has thrown us all for a loop to say the least. From the pandemic, massive economic impact, and civil unrest, we’ve been challenged in a multitude of ways, both as humans and as marketers. 

Email inboxes already tended toward clutter and overstimulation, and that’s never been more true than right now. And yet, we still have to communicate—so how do we do that in a way that’s humanizing, considerate, and sensitive to the space we’re in societally while also reaching our students, faculty, staff, and alumni effectively? 

In this post, we’ll walk through a handy list for thinking through the emotional impact of our emails as well as make suggestions for tailoring your message to be respectfully engaging.

Personalization: Does the content we’re sending help our audience feel seen?

Marketers often think about whether our emails should be more personal or professional. But to be more effective, we should consider how the content we’re sending helps our audiences feel seen. It can be easy to fall into an iterative approach to digital platforms with too much promotion or too many “bulletin board” methods. 

A lighter model you can adopt is to use personalization as you craft your next email; remember that it’s you, the human, writing the email, even if it’s on behalf of your division or office or brand. All personalization is aimed at building familiarity with your subscribers. Mass email, by its nature, is depersonalizing. So, when we start from that base, we have to work to try and re-personalize it.

Often, as humans, when our needs go unseen and unheard, we feel alone. Remembering this when you craft your next email message can go a long way. Keep in mind:

  • Relevancy – Recognize your reader’s needs.
  • Belonging – How can you reinforce this basic human need? Think backward from the anticipated or desired emotion evoked by your email. 

Some ideas here: Is your audience feeling isolated? Provide some ways to connect. Perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed? Share some tools to help manage their stress. 

Even for transactional or mandatory emails that can limit your creativity, we suggest being succinct and brief to avoid adding to their feelings of being overwhelmed and communicating with respect. 

Bottom line: At the end of the day, speak like a human. 

Cadence: How often should we be sending?

For all institutions, it’s important to consider how often you’re sending, how often other departments are sending emails, and whether this amount of communication would feel overwhelming if this was an offline human relationship.

There are always going to be caveats to this, whether you’re communicating about a last-minute class schedule change or a quickly developing situation that may need a rapid cadence of continued updates. 

Outside of that, though, email communication reflects the human experience. It should mirror healthy human relationships. Take a step back and ask, “If I was hearing from someone every day, would that feel helpful or overbearing?”

It’s fair to assume that your audiences receive hundreds, if not thousands, of emails in their inbox a week. With that crowded space in mind, we encourage you to pause and evaluate your sends with these questions:

  • Does this belong in an email? Is there another channel we should consider? 
  • How many other lists (across the entire institution) could your recipients be on? 
    • Do you have a process or tool to know how many sends they receive from your company? If not, should you seek one out?
  • Are you or other departments duplicating efforts? Can you combine or collaborate if so? 
  • What sort of tone does this message evoke based on send time? (i.e. a weekday morning send versus the weekend) 

Bottom line: Not overwhelming inboxes will go a long way to build goodwill with your audience. It may be advantageous to use the summer to see how you can audit and assess your cadence. 

Segmentation: Who needs to receive this and who can do without?

Segmentation is a powerful tool to help you hone in on who needs to receive your email and who can do without. It allows you to tailor your sends based on geography, class year, major, geography, and more. Think of a segment like a much smaller classroom; it allows you to pay attention to the specific needs of those you’re sending to in a more detailed, intimate way and allows you to adapt your approach more effectively and freely. 

You can also tailor your message based on interest, who’s engaged, who’s tuned out, who’s not opening your emails, and more. Overall, segmentation makes it easier for you to be human, personalized, relevant, and considerate with all your sends. 

Bottom line: The more personal, direct, and relevant your information is, the more trust, goodwill, and faith you’ll build with the people you send to. 

Pro-tip: Here’s how you can start setting up segments in Emma.

Accessibility: Am I considering all the ways people may receive our content?

Now let’s take into account all of the ways that people are consuming your emails. One of the first questions to ask yourself is, “Does my content make sense without any imagery?” 

An over-reliance on imagery can alienate the readers who consume content via screen readers. Often, images can be more interpretational than text. So, one of our recommendations would be to use text to express the core of your content and to offer more clarity, and use imagery as a way to highlight or elaborate something. And don’t forget about creating robust and descriptive alt-text that makes sense when you read it out loud. 

Other areas to consider accessibility are:

  • Videos – Double-check captions and transcripts. Sometimes the auto-population of captions on Facebook or YouTube generates errors. 
  • Social media graphics – What sort of visual, copy, display, and language considerations do your posts require? 
  • Anything COVID-19 related – Is the content you’re sharing going to trigger an emotional reaction? Are you sending so many messages with “COVID-19” that you risk desensitizing your audience? This consideration is not the traditional idea of accessibility, but we should still consider the appropriateness of language, messages, and visuals during this polarizing and difficult time, and how all of those things may trigger a traumatic or emotional response. 

Bottom line: Sometimes accessibility can be as simple as approaching all we create with respect and kindness. Instead of adding urgency or fear-of-missing-out language, opt for alleviating anxiety and attempt to make your audience feel special with thoughtful and personalized content.

Communication channels: Is email the right medium for this message? 

While email is the most effective way to reach your audience, other communication methods may also be practical and often they work best in coordination with one another.

For example, the University of Tennessee sent out a simple one-question survey to their student body to learn the state of their audience in the early days of the pandemic. They then decided it would be best if their faculty and staff, including their Chancellor, spent time individually calling each student to see how they’re doing, what questions they had, and how UT could help. 

That was a much more human and kind format for the interaction than an email, although they were able to use email as a way to start that conversation with the survey.

In light of how the pandemic is changing how we communicate and how society operates, it’s especially important to break down walls and discover new ways to show up for our communities on campus and online. How campus leaders defined “professional” and “appropriate” a year ago may now look completely different. And we’d advocate that it should look different. 

One might think that direct messages from a student or parent on a social media platform is inappropriate. But let’s rethink that: You were just given an opportunity to connect! Even if it’s not ideal from a support workflow perspective, you can then connect them to the right person. 

You can also take this personal approach to your email, encouraging subscribers to reply to a specific query and not just consume your latest update.

Comfort zones are important, and this approach is certainly different in a digital classroom. But if the goal is to create a sense of belonging, that may need to start in other platforms to make email work in the ways it needs to. 

Bottom line: Build a cohesive web of connection across platforms in an effort to connect with your audience wherever it feels comfortable for them and wherever feels most effective for them.

Wrap up 

While email is a strategy and a digital communication tool, we’re all still rooted in the same humanity and the goals we have for our institutions. The core of being human and empathetic should be a guiding principle for how we connect with people during this time, through email especially. 

We hope this post (neatly compiled in a handy printable PDF checklist below) is helpful as we all try to show up, digitally and in-real-life, as humans first and marketers second. 



About the Author

Chelsea Castle is a Senior Content Manager on Emma's marketing team. A true journalist at heart and concert junkie, she can often be found #doingthings outside, crafting creative ways to be sustainable, and traveling the world (as often as she can).

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