The art of writing better union emails

Most unions regularly use emails to communicate with members. This can be responding to emails sent by members, or as email bulletins and newsletters. Many unions do not, however, follow some of the basic email etiquette rules, and often make simple mistakes.

Writing effective emails, whether it is a reply to a concerned member, or a e-newsletter to 10,000 members, is an art that can be easily learned through following a few simple guidelines.

It may surprise you to know that in the not for profit sector, only 13-27% of emails actually get opened. The rest remain unopened or deleted.

1. Keep it short and simple

Like all writing for the internet, writing for emails must be brief, concise and easy to read.

Many unions write long emails that cover multiple topics. This practice may be acceptable for e-newsletters, but not for general bulletins, updates or replies.

Most people get bombarded with emails every day. An office worker may receive 50 or more emails in a day, and irregular users of emails (who may only check their account every few days) could have dozens of emails to read.

Union emails must therefore convey important information in the short time the reader likely has before they move to their next email.

Even e-newsletters should not be overly long. The content in newsletter should be clearly and rationally laid out, so that the reader knows how to find the content they are looking for.

If you must have lots of content, try to put it on your union’s website, and link to it in the email, so readers with the time or inclination to read it can do so at their leisure, while those who are uninterested can go to other content

2. Ineffective subject lines or “From” fields

Many union emails have subject lines like “Union Circular 323/09 re Next AREO Training Course”, “URGENT: Important Enterprise Bargaining Information Inside” or just “Union Bulletin 21”.

Needless to say, these aren’t very engaging or easy to understand subject lines. Why would a member open the email?

Union emails must be descriptive, simple and consistent. Email subject lines should describe the content of the email. If it is a newsletter, say it’s a newsletter. If it’s collective bargaining information, describe the information.

Avoid “spammy” subject lines – anything that looks like it is putting a “hard sell”, or is in All-Caps is likely to remain unopened, deleted or picked up by the member’s spam filter.

Subject lines should be short. Long subject lines can often by truncated by email programs, so that the reader doesn’t see the entire line. Similarly, readers can be turned off by long subject lines and simply decide not to open it.

Another tip is: don’t try to get too creative. Most people get lots of emails trying to sell them things. The subject lines for these emails often read like a headline in a newspaper or blog – trying to suck them into reading the email. Believe it or not, boring (but descriptive and concise) email subjects are more effective than “exciting” or “attention grabbing” ones.

3. Don’t attach unnecessary files

While the days of people having email accounts with only a few megabytes of storage are largely over, not everyone has broadband internet or unlimited account space.

When sending emails to members, whether a personal reply to an individual member or a large bulk email to all members, make sure you only attach a file if necessary.

Ensure the file sizes are as small as possible. Don’t mail large video or sound files, and make sure the image files you’re sending have been re-sized to be smaller. Try to avoid sending files that are larger than 1mb in size unless absolutely necessary.

4. Don’t write in CAPITALS, use red text or underline

These days, using All-Caps indicates that the writer is “shouting”. A member reading an email with ALL CAPITAL THROUGHOUT IT may think that the writer is shouting, expressing anger, frustration or being aggressive. Do not all-capitals to emphasise a point. If you must emphasise something, use italicised text.

Similarly, use of red text or underline to emphasise something can be easily misunderstood as aggression, anger or shouting. Many readers can mistake red text as conveying that they (the reader) have done something wrong, or are at risk of a penalty of some kind.

When writing an email, remember that the reader can’t hear your tone or see your expression. You want to make sure that what you are writing can’t be mistaken as anger or aggression.

5. Watch out for list fatigue

During the height of an industrial action or community campaign, you may be sending emails multiple times per week. Your members may start to grow tired of the constant updates and start not reading or deleting your emails. They know that they can read the next email tomorrow, rather than the one they get today.

This comes back to consistency. You should allow members to opt out of frequent email lists, or opt in to daily, weekly or monthly emails from the union. Activists and delegates for example are more likely to want to receive daily or weekly updates.

6. Check for grammar, spelling, formatting, emoticons, and abbreviations

Just like you would proof-read a hard-copy letter, make sure you read and re-read your emails. Check for grammar and spelling. Use your word processor’s or email client’s spell check function. Avoid using abbreviations (such as BTW = by the way or IMO = in my opinion).

Emails should convey professionalism from the union. Spelling mistakes, poor grammar and abbreviations can make your union seem amateur. Additionally, some abbreviations and emoticons, such as : -) for a smiley face, may not be understood by every reader. It could be misunderstood or confuse the reader.

Check your formatting. Make sure you have kept it simple, without excess HTML (that is, fancy formatting).

7. Don’t use a background colour or fancy fonts

Some email programs allow you to set a background colour for all your emails. Resist the temptation to use non-standard fonts. Stick to Arial, Verdana or Times.

Your emails will rarely appear to your reader as they do to you. Email programs vary quite widely in how they display an email. Many combinations of background colour and text colour could be unreadable. Similarly, if you use a non-standard font, your reader may not have it installed on their computer.

8. Track email open rates and clicks

For emails sent to large numbers of people, use an email program that allows you to track the number of opened emails, bounced emails and click-throughs on links.

The screen shot to the right shows a report from a recent small-scale email campaign that Creative Unions ran.

As you can see, despite the fact that we had 63 people who had opted in to receive updates from us, only 23% of them opened the email, and only 11% clicked on a link in the email.

As I noted in the introduction to this article, only between 13-27% of emails for the non-profit sector actually get opened. While unions may like to think that every member opens an email from their union, this is unlikely to be the case.

There are lots of programs and service providers that give you this option, and some of them are free. If your website was designed by a professional web design company, it is likely that they can offer you this service.

There are lots more tips for effective emails…

I’ll probably write again with some more ideas about how unions can better harness the power of emails.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Leave a comment.

Update (10.09.09)

A while ago, Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital, the company responsible for Barack Obama’s website, discussed the role of not-for-profit newsletters. His point is that e-newsletters are becoming less useful, and instead, the not-for-profit sector should focus on “short, simple, action-oriented advocacy emails”, aimed at getting readers to take a specific action:

When is the last time you read a nonprofit email newsletter?

Or rather, when is the last time you read a nonprofit email newsletter for an organization you don’t work for?

The point of my argument is simple: that for all the effort it takes to produce a high-quality e-newsletter – to write the articles, choose the graphics, format the html coding, ensure that the email is compatible in every email browser- the returns are typically pretty dismal.

But short, simple, action-oriented advocacy emails – like those used by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and so many of our clients – are both easier to produce, and create a larger, stronger and healthier email program. They’ve worked not only for the Obama campaign, but dozens of successful strategy engagement clients at BSD, including the American Red Cross,Wal-Mart Watch, Sundance Film Festival, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and many, many more.

I’m inclined to agree.

One response to “The art of writing better union emails”

  1. cris Avatar

    Thanks for your help. I work in an Argentine Telephone co and I want to help my Worker’s union in this kind of topics . I’m also a journalist and I try to undestarnd and learn about political marketing . I’ll appreciate too much all you can teach me and forgive me for my English.

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