8 ways to present emails that employees will actually read

How long should a subject line run? What makes employees read—rather than delete—a message? Read on for tips from Deloitte Services, BECU and other savvy communicators.

You’ve reminded your employees time and again about their benefits open enrollment deadline, and half of them still haven’t bothered to sign up.

What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they care about this vital topic? Then again, maybe the question should be, why isn’t your message getting through?

If you’re looking to get employees to open your emails, click on your links and take action, maybe it’s time to rethink your approach.

Email remains the most crucial messaging channel, says Ilene Peterson, senior manager for internal communications at Washington-state-based credit union BECU, which has 1,500 employees.

“Email is not going away, and it is not going to be replaced by other channels and other vehicles that we use for communication,” she says.

Download this free guide to discover smart ways to measure your internal communications and link your efforts to business goals.

You’ll have to find a way to get your audience’s attention amid all those unnecessary cc’s and e-coupons that pile into their inbox. Here are some tips to boost email attention and engagement:

1. Make your subject lines count.

At Deloitte, which has 60,000 employees worldwide, communicators limit their subject lines to 50 characters or fewer, says Ashley M. Smith, senior manager for strategy, brand and innovation at Deloitte Services.

“It’s intimidating to have a subject line that runs on past what you see in your preview,” she says.

A well-crafted subject line can increase by 5–10 percent the number of people who open and spend more than three seconds in the email, Smith says. The following types of subject lines have worked best at Deloitte:

  • Give them a deadline (“Benefits open enrollment ends this Friday, Oct 30!”).
  • Ask a question (“IT partners: Where are you at with the system integration?”).
  • Make an announcement (“The 2015 Innovation Challenge winners are…”).
  • State the request up front (“Today is the last day for …”).
  • Use numbers (“26 proposals netted $300 million in revenue for June”). At Deloitte, which has many analysts on staff, people respond to subject lines with numbers.

The goal of the subject line is “that readers understand what it is that you want before they even click on that email,” Smith says.

2. Improve attention rates by changing the “from” address.

When an email arrives, everyone glances at the “from” line to weigh the importance of the message. Getting people to pay attention to your message means considering the source, says Michael DesRochers, founder and managing director of PoliteMail Software.

“If the majority of your employee broadcasts, both important and irrelevant, come from the same mailbox, you may have inadvertently trained employees to ignore most messages from that source,” he says.

At BECU (formerly Boeing Employees Credit Union), metrics show that subject lines naming a top executive tend to spur better open rates, Peterson says. An email from Chief Executive J. Benson Porter would have the subject line, “A message from Benson.”

The “what’s in it for me?” approach works, too. A discussion of an expansion to the Puget Sound-area light rail system stated, “An easier commute could be in your future.”

2. Write actively.

Sure, you’ve got a ton to say. We’d love to pull up a chair and hear all about it. But do staffers have time to read those exhaustive emails you’re pumping out?

At MillerCoors, emails are “short, sweet and super-concise,” says Kelli Watson, communications manager at the company’s Chicago headquarters. This means far more people are reading the messages.

“People are reading stories of 140 characters [on Twitter],” she says, “so we definitely want to meet our employees where they are and help share stories the way they are consuming information today, outside our walls and then inside our walls.”

Use the good writing practices you would in a blog or a newsletter. “Include teasers, but don’t scoop yourself,” offers Kevin Kolus, communications manager at Cleveland Clinic. “Use action verbs and the active voice.”

3. Use metrics to shape your content.

Open and click-through rates are only the most basic of email metrics, DesRochers says. “A more valuable metric is tracking read-time; how much of your content are employees reading?” he says.

This is not the time to write a book, Smith adds. If your email is 1,000 words and the average read time is 33 seconds, then you can conclude that that readers have bailed on you, she says.

What are they reading of the content you send and promote? What do they click through to? What do they ignore? MillerCoors tracks what interests its employees. If they click through from the newsletter, did they flock to a particular story or a contest? If you’re sharing content from brand pages, social media or external sites, what do they click through to and read?

Design your content accordingly. Identifying what is successful will give you “a good idea of what employees want to see, and that helps support our editorial approach,” Watson says.

4. Design for mobile.

Metrics can point the way. If your measurement software shows you have a workforce that accesses content on mobile devices, then focus on their preferred means of delivery, not yours, Smith says.

Once you know how your employees are reading their emails, “you can design content that meets the need of your target audience,” Smith says.

5. Use images and color.

Several successful communicators recommend embedding photos and other images within the email. “Make it colorful and visually interesting—icons and photos do the trick,” Kolus says.

Certain messages such as executive directives perform best as simple text, using colors and font size for headlines and action items. Other messages such as news benefit from images and colorful layouts, DesRochers adds. Knowing what works drives higher read and effectiveness rates.

6. Use HTML templates.

HTML templates allow you to present information using visually engaging formats while remaining accessible across a variety of mobile, tablet and operating systems, Smith says.

User engagement increases when you share visually engaging content in a way that allows recipients to access it on their chosen device, she says. This can bring 3 percent higher click-through rates, and an overall better content engagement that is 4–5 percent higher—i.e., the percentage of recipients who read at least 30 percent of the message, based on average read time.

On the flip side, the percentage of readers who ignore the message is 5–6 percent lower, and multiple open rates—when readers go back to a message repeatedly—are 4–5 percent higher, she says.

7. Target an audience segment, and write for it.

Deloitte segments its emails according to which aspect of the business the recipients are in, and what level they’re working at. Are they tax professionals, consultants, technology workers who support clients?

Even within its different businesses, the company further segments according to career level. Is the employee a brand-new consultant out of college, or a seasoned senior manager looking to make partner this year. Messages may vary according to levels of experience.

“Once you’ve figured out who you’re writing for, you should focus on delivering a consistent message time after time after time,” Smith says.

8. Use boldface and bullets to highlight important points.

So, you got your employees to open the message, but will they absorb that message with a quick skim? BECU boldfaces phrases that the company wants to stand out, so that readers who scan the text will see key phrases that give them a gist of the message or, better yet, drive them deeper.

For example, a recent email about BECU’s giving strategy highlighted three points in a headline and with three bolded bullet points, helping employees to absorb the key message at a glance.

Cleveland Clinic uses boldface, too, and Kolus recommends experimenting. You must recognize when to quit, though.

“Experiment with boldface and other enhancements, but only do so in working toward a standard,” Kolus says. “Then be consistent and commit to that style for a year or six months before reimagining your look and feel.”

Download this free guide to discover smart ways to measure your internal communications and link your efforts to business goals.

This article is in partnership with PoliteMail.

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