Times like these demand a lot from you; you’re sending significantly more emails, to significantly more people, with heavy news and unknowns. Delivering messages that resonate with your target audience in a meaningful way is especially important, and may feel exceptionally difficult. In this session, we’ll look at humanizing email and being empathetic with every send—through content, audience segmentation, accessibility and more.
Speakers: Dr. Josie Ahlquist, and Logan Baird, Professional Services Team Manager at Emma
– [Logan] All right. Hello, gentles, thank you so much for joining us today for this webinar made especially for our friends in higher education.
We’re so excited to have you join us for this talk, also with a very special friend of Emma’s. If you have any questions throughout, please feel free to submit them via the chat function and we’re going to do our best to answer them and if we don’t get to your question today, we will follow up with a very personal email. We will also be…I want to be very clear about this, we’ll also be sending out an email to all registrants with today’s slides and recording so if you miss even the smallest bit of it and you are worried about missing out, we will email you, you will get the slides, you will get the full recording.
You can have a watch party at your home, whatever feels right. But on to today’s topic, so the time that we’re currently in involves so much disruption and change and adaptation in higher education particularly and email inboxes were already this place that tended towards clutter and overstimulation and it’s never been more true than right now.
And yet, we still have to communicate with one another, we still have to send email, so how do we do that in a way that’s humanizing, that’s considerate, and that’s sensitive to the space that we’re in while reaching our students and our faculty and staff effectively? So today, we’re going to take some time to walk you through a handy checklist of questions to ask before pressing Send on that email.
But first, I’d like to introduce my very special guest, Dr. Josie Ahlquist. Josie, will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
– [Dr. Ahlquist] Of course, thank you so much for having me, Logan, this is going to be a treat. I am logging in from Los Angeles, California, and I have been doing this work around digital engagement and leadership since 2013. Before that, I worked on college campuses for over 12 years because I love college so much, I didn’t want to leave.
And I still don’t want to leave, I work with universities and colleges across the world to help empower their campus leaders to show up with authenticity and vulnerability in digital spaces, as well as how to guide college students on how to use social media for positive and purposeful methods. And I’m honored to be included in the conversation today as a lot of my work is around social media but as we know, email is a huge part of our digital communication strategy and one that I think is an important dialogue as you consider yourself what I call a digital leader today.
– Excellent. Well, yes, email is very close to my heart. I am Logan Baird, I’m the Professional Services Team Manager for Emma and Campaign Monitor brands. And similarly, Josie, to you, we consult a lot, we consult a lot with our higher education customers among many others on their email strategy, how to do so effectively, and how to make sure that you’re getting the results that you need to.
So today, what we’re going to be touching on in the midst of this checklist is we’re going to talk a little bit about personalization. We’re going to be talking a bit about cadence and how often we’re sending, how to segment our audiences; the questions to ask around who to send to. How to be inclusive and accessible with the content that we send and, of course, what communication channels are right for the right message.
– So, personalization is actually a major finding in my research about how we show up online and in digital spaces that actually resonates and connects and in things like email, gets a response that we are hoping for that connects with emotion and as Logan shared earlier, humanness.
So, instead of using the words personal or professional, even for higher education professionals, we think about personalization, how does the content we’re sending help our audiences feel seen. Because, unfortunately, we sometimes approach digital platforms with a little bit of promotion and bulletin board methods that especially now don’t really see the person that’s consuming that information.
And so, I hope to share actually a little bit of a lighter of a model for you to think about when you’re crafting your email, some very simple ways to use some personalization as you the human that’s writing the email, even if it’s on behalf of your division or your university or brand, you should still have this feeling that it wasn’t a robot writing that email.
And you can call this authentic, you can call it vulnerability, whatever word really sits in with you, but I call this some secret sauce and it’s also applicable into how you show up on social media as a digital leader. So, obviously, there’s messages we need to get into these emails but are there ways that you can softly add some secret sauce?
So, the first one would be personality, what are the words that you already use based on your personhood? What are the quirks about you as a person and your personality? Also, obviously, considering where we are located, working from home most likely, another element of the secret sauce is being able to integrate a sense of place, sprinkling in what it’s like where you physically are, in your home, in your state, in your environment to share a little bit of storytelling.
And a few other elements of the secret sauce is how you might be able to, again, show up as a human and sharing maybe things about your hobbies, your family, or what the internet loves to run on is pets. And if you happen to have pets or you want to adopt a cat or a puppy, you could potentially include a photo or a video or even a quick story that’s going to pull people in and feel like at least a person writing it, it’s a little bit more personalized.
– Makes a lot of sense. Of course, all personalization is really aimed at building familiarity. Mass email, by its nature, is depersonalizing event. And so, when we start from that base, we have to work to try and re-personalize it in so many ways.
Sending out a mass email is a lot like shouting at a room of people, it doesn’t feel like we’re connecting with anyone individually. So, personalization, when we’re talking about like tailoring our content and shaping it so that it connects with individuals, we’re talking about, just like what Josie was saying, like helping people feel known, helping people feel like we see them as three dimensional human beings that we’re sending to.
And, of course, there are a lot of ways, Josie, right, like that are poor ways of offering personalization.
– Sure, so if you were to take this kind of checklist that Logan and I are sharing as a checklist, know that the low hanging fruit is great but also not the end all. So, personalization isn’t just adding First Name, Last Name codes and that you’ve checked that box. A lot of folks we are accustomed to are now are quite hip to the fact that that is just a line of code, that actually we now need to go above and beyond what personalization may have been in email past.
– “Josie Ahlquist, I don’t understand what you might mean, Josie.” “Doesn’t this feel personal to you, Josie? Josie” Very much so. Another way like sending content, when we’re sending content that feels relevant to the audience. So, when we think about what are the universal experiences during this period of time, one of those is that almost everybody feels isolated to some degree, almost everyone feels a little maybe overlooked at places and a little over stimulated.
So, when we send content that addresses relevant needs, that really helps people feel seen and heard, it helps diminish that sense of being alone. Relevancy is about, like, needs that are recognized and seen and belonging is such like a powerfully fundamental human need, so that if we can offer that by helping people feel seen, then that will be a powerful draw and engaging to the people that we’re sending to.
A couple of ideas around this are like so if you’ve got people on your list that you’re sending to, students or faculty, staff, or alumni, if they’re feeling isolated, then offer ways to find connection, right? Like interest groups, Zoom hangouts, a number of ways where they could find ways of connecting with other people.
On the flip side of that, if people are feeling overstimulated, if they’re feeling overwhelmed, then you could offer them content around how to manage that better, how to organize all of the Zoom links that we have to have for engaging with people these days, or better ways of managing inboxes even.
– I really appreciate the inclusion of belonging that that could be an outcome that you would want from an email and as you’re crafting that message, like, put that sticky note up to say, “Not only do I need them to do X, Y, Z that we’re asking in emails, but this is the sense of emotion.” And I think in higher ed especially, we can reground ourselves in things like the sense of belonging that we were always aiming to work towards because both those emotions but also the language we use that really matters.
And it kind of goes back to personalization again, are you speaking really from the heart or are you using corporate or…language we don’t need to use. Bureaucracy? Yeah, we don’t need to use it, just…
– You don’t need that word.
– Yeah. Are we already including acronyms that even the audience in normal times would get lost in super quickly? So, we might even get to simplify in order to make people feel like they could really connect with the information.
– Very much. I think a nice kind of rule of thumb is reading the content out loud to someone not in your department or not in your purview and see if it makes sense to them. Another thing to keep in mind, of course, is that most of you who are sending to students or faculty or staff and they have to receive your communication, so there’s a little bit of a power imbalance there because with regular email marketing, people can opt out if they aren’t interested or unengaged with the content.
But in many cases, you were sending needed information and so you have to be able to send to them every day. But the way that we help mitigate that, that loss of autonomy, really, is by keeping things very clear, keeping it very concise, making your content really easy to parse. Those are small ways to offer consideration and respect to the people that we’re sending to, knowing, of course, that they can’t say no to our emails.
So, a good question then that leads into…that ties off of that respect and consideration is how often should we be sending? How often are we sending out our emails? How often are other departments sending emails?
As an institution, how often are we touching base with people via this particular message? So, a very easy rule of thumb to offer here is, would this amount of communication feel overwhelming if this was just a regular offline human relationship? Now, there are always going to be caveats to this, there are always going to be quickly developing situations that may need a rapid cadence of continued updates around things, whether it’s like last minute class schedule changes or details around that.
Outside of that, though, at its best, email communication reflects the human experience, mirrors healthy human relationship. So, taking a step back and asking like, “If I was hearing from someone every day, is that something that would feel helpful to me or too much?”
– And as we look to the field of higher education and many other industries, if we look to how we have adopted and used email over time, we get hundreds, if not thousands of messages in our inbox and vice versa. So, even in this moment, it gives us an opportunity to pause and evaluate how we use this one tool as individuals, university, small groups, and so on.
But also, when we are choosing to send these messages and I’m encouraging you to think of yourself as, “Whatever behavior I was doing, if that was setting the tone for my entire team or the future going forward of email, is that how I would hope it to be?” So, for example, if you’re sending emails late in the evening or the weekends, that sends a message to your whole team, to your students about timing that actually might be tapping folks out.
Also, thinking about, again, like, “Does this belong in an email?” We’re going to talk about that in a moment. It just might be our gut instinct to quickly go to email and assume everything needs to go into there. So, really take this opportunity as, one, for reflection about your current practices, but also the impact that you hope to make and not just having it be a function of getting to inbox zero, which probably isn’t the right goal to focus on.
– Yeah, it’s fair to say. Another consideration to think about is, as I touched on earlier, it’s not just about…you might be saying like, “Well, I don’t send that often,” and that may very well be true. But what does that look like across the organization? Do you know, for the people that you were sending to, whether it’s students or alumni or anywhere in between, how many other lists are they on?
And so, this is a great time, I think, as an organization to evaluate like, “How often are we hitting inboxes and what does that look like across the organization?” Because you don’t want to duplicate effort, you don’t want to say the same thing that three other departments are saying to students and that doesn’t help people feel seen or heard, right?
And it really helps with diminishing that overstimulating or overwhelming inbox when there’s coordination kind of on the back end. Yeah.
– Yeah, I would really encourage folks to use this time to audit not only your individual practices, but within your team, your division, whatever your reach is, to see what those sequences already were and/or a centralized place to… You know, in higher ed we’re really good about…like, almost too good about setting up too many systems, so I don’t want you all to feel like we have to, like, go all out here.
But we do have to look at minimum touch point of who’s being communicated with, how often, because we might have opportunities to collaborate that we don’t have to send three different emails from three different departments where they could have been combined into one or maybe even more stronger in one unified place. So, again, use this summer to see how we can audit and look at assess.
– Yeah. Our Emma HQ platform does offer a really nice way of being able to see what’s being sent across accounts as a way to not add too many systems, as you said, Josie, but just enough to be able to make smart decisions around this. So, let’s think next about, like, segmentation.
Let’s think about who really needs to receive this and who can do without, very much along the themes of what you were just talking about, Josie, with taking an audit. Who all are we sending to and do we need to?
– Yeah, I think it applies both thinking about the timing of where that person is in their life, what’s going on that weekend or weekday, again, should you really be sending something in the evening or the weekend, what’s the best emotional time for it?
But I would also encourage you as you think about segmentation to go beyond obvious segments, not every first generation student is in the same bucket of a scenario, not every biology major is coming in with the same potential message that you’re trying to articulate. So, go beyond the obvious.
One that could be really interesting to do right now is based on state geography. I’m in California, we’re in a much different world right now than a Florida or a Georgia that doesn’t have as many restrictions. People that live in California probably have different questions about potentially going to school in Florida or going back to school in another state, like I think another state just said they were going to be opening by fall and having in-person classes.
So, think about where they are physically, emotionally, and trying to time in some communications with that.
– It’s such an apt point, across the state lines being so different and relevant information being different depending on where people are located geographically. Something I like to think about when we’re talking about segmentation too is if you imagine like a classroom size, when you have a very large classroom, it can be really difficult to tell who is engaged, who’s tuned out, who’s the one who is looking for more.
But segment is like a much smaller classroom size and so it allows you to pay attention to the specific needs of those that you’re sending to in a much more detailed and intimate way and it allows you to adapt and flex if you need to change the approach of how you’re presenting that information because you’re just not having to sort through as much data in terms of understanding who’s engaging with the content and who isn’t.
And it lets you tailor it to more specific interests as well and who doesn’t like to have their interests tailored to? I love it. Do you feel good about that, Josie?
– Yeah, that’s why I love Stitch Fix because they let me tailor items. So, another idea for segmentation, and I would love to know if any campuses are actually doing anything like this, is thinking about, again, where we are right now. Let’s say we think about our next incoming class and graduations are happening all this month and next month, how you could send targeted messages based upon those high schools, those states, those systems that you know are going through these shared experiences together?
But even going beyond that, we know parents and families who are trying to celebrate these graduates are going to very creative means to recognize them. And we are familiar that parents and families make a huge difference in the decisions of students to make a choice to go to school, to return back to a college. So, maybe a segmentation is parents and you could send a list of all these ideas that we’ve seen out there of parents…like one parent I saw, like, build his own stage for his daughter outside his home to, like, recreate a graduation, like that could be an article you include to…
you know, like a variety of other things like Facebook and Instagram did that those parents could send to their students. So, we’re looking beyond maybe our typical…and then, of course, your call to action and information would be in there as well but we are adding more substance and heart to these messages that I think you’ll also find parents are then going to actually reply to these messages. You could also see how there’d be branding opportunities, like maybe you include a branded Facebook cover that a parent could upload onto their Facebook page that then recognizes the student’s high school graduation and transition into college.
I could just keep listening a million more ideas but there’s just so much more that we could do that will take a little bit more time with segmentation but I would not be surprised if those data show the rates are much higher in engagement.
– Very much. And, of course, the more personal, the more direct, the more relevant the information that we’re sending, the more trust and goodwill and faith that we’ll build with the people that we’re sending to. And email communication, by and large, is a trust building exercise, it’s saying like, “I’m going to send you good information this time and then I promise I’ll also send you a good information next time,” and the more predictable we can make that, the more engagement that we will see.
And so, just to note that if we send information that isn’t helpful or isn’t relevant, that degrades that trust and we want to avoid that and we know that you all work very hard at trying to build that good faith with the people that you’re sending to. The next portion that we’d like to cover is talking about accessibility, it’s talking about taking into account all the ways that people who receive your emails are taking in that content.
A very basic first question to ask ourselves is, “Does my content make sense without any imagery?” An over reliance on imagery can really alienate those who are taking in content via screen reader. A lot of times, images can be interpretational more so than text, and so being able to put out more of our content through the medium of text where it offers a little bit more clarity and then using imagery as a way to highlight or to elaborate on something but not containing the core of that content is a really good idea.
And, of course, anytime we’re talking about imagery, we want to make sure that we’re using really robust and descriptive alt text that makes sense when you read it out loud. That’s a point we’ll touch on a number of times is, “Let’s read these things out loud, let’s make sure they still make sense.” And you have a few thoughts about imagery that you’ve seen, right?
– Well, I don’t receive all of your emails out there but what I do see often from campus leaders is in public social media spaces like Instagram or Twitter, so I’m only to assume that most likely those practices carry over, unfortunately, into email, is that that graphic that you created, that flyer maybe visually, you know, like, on point but most likely it is not made for social media or an email based on its dimensions but also the readability for a screen reader to pick it up.
If you were to just upload and send a flyer without any kind of other considerations, you might as well be sending a blank email to a number of your community members. So, we are going to have to transform existing content to make it fit in different spaces and that doesn’t just mean uploading it and adding a little bit of copy in there.
The other pieces when we think about visuals is really look at that visual to see what’s the emotional reaction that comes from it, even from you or ask someone else. If you were to start to use that COVID-19 graphic over and over, that itself is the reason why I wouldn’t want to open an email. I mean, I get it the first time but, again, language matters, the visuals that we use matters.
It’s a little beyond accessibility but also if you’re using any kind of graphics, how are you making sure that you are representing anyone that you’re really working toward attracting to your campus and retaining? So, when we think about diverse audiences and faces, and so making sure that that is another type of audit you’re looking towards.
Another example within videos because I know you can link to those and have those hosted on platforms like YouTube or Facebook, double check, even if you turn on the captioning, you might have to go back and fix those captions. Sometimes there’s errors if you’re just auto populating but captions are so darn important in videos.
We also know that a huge majority of people watch videos without the sound on, so just even for consumption whether there’s an accessibility need or not, knowing how people want to consume videos is a reason why we’d want to add captions.
– This is very relevant. There’s no one perfect way that people will consume the content that you’re sending, we have to embrace the idea that there are any number of ways that students, faculty, staff, alumni will be taking in the content and the emails, the videos, the graphics that we’re sending and we want to make sure that regardless of the method, that your message reaches them, right?
That’s very important. And you touched on this as well, Josie, but the idea of like a COVID-19 graphic that gets used over and over again, I’m going to say…I’m just going to say it right now. Unless you are offering specific information that is relative to COVID-19, we all see just COVID-19, again, seeing it so often in our inboxes that either A, we’re becoming desensitized to it and we’re going to kind of tune it out or B, it becomes kind of triggering for some folks around anxiety, it feels like maybe something dire is happening.
So, let’s be really cautious with our usage of that. I think that there is enough understanding of the time that we’re in right now that we don’t have to use language that’s been already overused in the midst of this. Is this an unprecedented time? Well, not as much as it was maybe, you know, three months ago at this point. So, we don’t have to note that over and over and over again, people understand, people get it.
And by offering that consideration by offering language that is warm but not always referencing the traumatic situation that everybody is going through, it’s offering a form of respect and kindness in the way that we approach our content. And so, again, I would also recommend against using language that has urgency unless it is really urgent like deadlines to enroll in certain classes or to file certain paperwork but urgency right now is also something that promotes anxiety.
So, if you knew that you were talking to somebody who is already experiencing a lot of anxiety, I’d want to avoid using language that added on to that. So, let’s be thoughtful about how we’re using language. We can think about instead of using urgency or kind of fear of missing out language to try and promote engagement, we can think about, “We’ve chose this especially for you,” you know, an idea of, like, picking out things to send people that you thought of them when you saw it.
Things on those lines, the idea of choosing the things that you’re sending to your audience and making them feel special that way instead of promoting a fear of missing out and the anxiety attended with that.
– Something that I think of with potentially slowing down the immediacy also relates to accessibility and internet access of our community that might be receiving it. If you don’t already have a sense of if those receiving your messages have access and/or just assume they don’t, that it might take them two or three days, like, we are seeing folks have to travel places to get internet access, to a parking lot or a McDonald’s, like, this is real, then do you need to extend your deadlines or do you need to provide…even when a response is needed, that those resources are taken into consideration?
The other last piece I’d like to share about the language use and the realities within emails and our challenges that we have today is when an announcement is shared, that you really are very, very specific in the choice of words in order to…be prepared for that message to be shared with the media, public, parents and so on as sometimes these decisions we’re making are being assumed or misinterpreted.
So, trying to be just as very specific and clear as you potentially can at this point. Again, when presidents asked me, “Well, I don’t want to be on social media,” I say, “You’re actually on it already, any email you send could be a screenshot on Reddit maybe because it’s a really cool email and you just didn’t know about it.” So, whatever emails you send out there, just standing behind them and being prepared for them to be accessible anywhere.
– Yeah, that’s two very good points, Josie. Of course, this seems like another case where reading something out loud to make sure that it makes sense if taken even a little out of context in a screen grab or something along those lines. And I think that point around access to Wi-Fi and internet access, there being a pretty large disparity there in a lot of communities.
And so, keeping that in mind and being considerate and kind and thoughtful and inclusive of those experiences just as valid as every other experience is such a way that we can be human to one another during this period of time. Of course, email, as much as I love it, as much as I built a rather large section of my life around it, is not always the exact right form of communication depending on our message, right?
And so, there isn’t just one method, we shouldn’t be just using one medium just in the same way that people aren’t all consuming our content in the same way, that there are forms of communication that are going to be more effective depending on what that is. The University of Tennessee, they decided after they sent out like a very simple one question survey to their student body, that it would be best if their faculty, their staff, even up to their chancellor, they spent time calling each student to talk to them to see if they had any questions around this time to help reassure them, to ask what they could help with.
And that was ever so much more human and kind of the best format for that kind of interaction than, say, an email, although they were able to use email as a way to start that conversation with the survey.
– Yeah. I think if you do those really personalized ways, I think there’s a correlation too when they get an email from you, they’re going to be more likely to open it because, “Oh, wow, he called me,” or, “He jumped on and did a Facebook Live or an Instagram Live Q&A.” Even if they don’t know us yet, ways that we could start to reach out in those ways, I think, will make a significant impact.
So, a lot of my research and work is around social media but as well as how do higher education professionals show up online and a lot of times, there’s debates about what’s personal, what’s professional, what’s appropriate, and what’s not. So, I will say not only this pandemic, but where we were already going as a society is breaking down walls of saying, “What needs to go where and how we show up both on campus and online?”
So, for example, you may have come into your worldview thinking, “Direct messages are inappropriate, no student or parent should DM me on Facebook or Twitter.” But if we were to reverse that to say, “You were just given an opportunity to connect,” like, that’s amazing, like, even if it’s a problem, right, for customer service, you could connect them with the right person, they’ve actually extended the invitation to you.
And there are college presidents that DM with their community on Facebook, you would not be the first person to do this and the same thing if you were to personalize your emails that actually asked folks to reply and not just consume whatever latest update or message that you shared. I do realize there’s some comfort zone differences based on public versus private platforms and this message really isn’t for in the classroom learning where we do need to have some of those definitions clearly set up.
But I do think we’ll start to see ways and just reflect on your resistance potentially to communicate on other platforms and where that’s coming from so you could potentially connect. That’s the goal, right? And the sense of belonging, some of that might need to come in other platforms to make email come back to life in the ways that we need it to.
– Yeah, we’re talking about kind of a cohesive web of connection that we’re building across platforms in an effort to connect with the people that we’re trying to communicate with wherever feels comfortable for them, wherever feels most effective for them.
And sometimes, that’ll be combining things like the University of Tennessee with the kind of email survey followed up by a phone call or Stanford University started including video messages from their dean and their president…their deans and their president as a way of just humanizing that interaction. Because not everything, the same way, has to be text either, hearing people’s voices during this time can feel very powerful, seeing them on video can help remind us that all of us are just in this together.
– I think this just gives us a unique opportunity to get back to our roots of who we are and what we aim to provide in higher ed. Email is a strategy, a digital communication tool, but we are still rooted in our same humaneness and the goals that we have for our institutions.
I think maybe we had forgotten how we could make sure that showed up in places like email or even in Instagram. So, making this almost like a fresh take of how you would approach opening your next email inbox, I think that will allow a field like higher education to shine online.
– Very much so. At its core, one of the things that drew me to email initially was its potential for being human and personal and so holding on to that as the core and letting that be kind of the guiding principle for how we connect with people during this time will certainly serve us all very well.
So, just as a note, we have over 500 universities that use Emma. As I mentioned before, our HQ platform allows distributed organizations to effectively connect and collaborate across communication channels and we’ve got a lot of great data tools for being able to manage contacts across multiple teams and departments and all of that.
As well as, and I’ll say this somewhat selfishly, a professional services organization who would love to help you with…whether it’s up in your kind of email strategy or analysis, design, or development, we are here to help and to support you as you work so hard to support your students, your faculty, your staff, and your alumni.
So, Josie, what are some decent good ways of connecting with you?
– Yes, I’m everywhere on the internet. So, yeah, whether it’s from Instagram or email, I’m also here to help connect and support, whether it’s from my blog, my podcasts, or the panels I’m offering with real campus leaders, know there’s lots of resources out there for you and know that this can be as simple as just showing up and looking at it just a little bit differently.
– And you can find me on Twitter @logansandrock and, of course, if you’re interested in any professional services, you can go to myemma.com/services. If you want to learn more about Emma HQ or if you’re looking to learn more about just email best practices, you can head over to myemma.com and sign up for our newsletter. We’ve got a great resource section, we’ve got several good articles around universities, and you could maybe download a guide or two, some light reading during this time.
Thank you all so much for your time, we really appreciate it. Thank you, Josie, so much for being a part of this and be able to speak to this, we appreciate it very much.
– Wow, my pleasure. Thanks, you all.
– Thank you.