All posts by Jennifer Needham

About Jennifer Needham

Jennifer is a Senior Consultant and founding Partner of Smith. Contact the author directly

How to Write High Performing Emails

Try to name a way in which goldfish are superior to people. 

Swimming aside, it’s attention span. Goldfish have an average attention span of 9 seconds. But humans consuming digital media have an attention span of just 8 seconds.

That’s why you feel like no one reads your emails. Most employees aren’t reading them. Heck – most employees aren’t even opening them.

So: how do you get your emails opened and read? And, how do you reduce complaints like, “But I didn’t know about the deadline!”

We’ve got to lean into the way our employees consume information now – like it or not. 

  • Nineteen percent of online viewers defect in the first 10 seconds, so we have to pack the most important information up top.
  • We process information better in short bursts of high attention, so send a series of short, just-in-time messages rather than one long, comprehensive email. (You can link your email to a comprehensive reference article on your intranet instead.)
  • We find it exciting to jump from subject to subject, so when you have to make multiple but related points, be sure to write in short, bulleted sentences and use compelling headlines.

Now this doesn’t mean that you should become Susie Email, constantly invading your employees’ inbox. You need a strategy, and for that we can take inspiration from an online marketing launch sequence.

When our clients have a specific email campaign they want to undertake – maybe it’s ESPP enrollment or Deferred Compensation enrollment or asking employees to consider a Health Savings Account – we suggest they focus on five core emails. We’re just taking the launch strategy and paring it way back.

Here’s how it works – and if five emails feels like too much for your subject, emails 4 and 5 are optional. (But they are proven to be really effective, so use them!)

  1. Preview content, deliver value
  2. Address mental blocks, build credibility
  3. Introduce the “product”
  4. (Answer the most common objections)
  5. (Reinforce deadline)

The gist is: bite size information in each email. Each email should have a specific purpose and lead to the next email in the sequence. You want only one main message and one call to action per email.

Still worried that five emails feels intrusive? Remember that you are tailoring your content so that it’s helpful and actionable. Employees won’t be irritated by news they can use.

If you can, segment your audience. For instance, you might target a Health Savings Account email to employees who aren’t currently enrolled in an HSA. Segmenting your audience allows you to target your message. More specific messaging can lead to higher open and click through rates because the content is more relevant to the reader.

Now, how can you make your emails more reader-friendly?

  1. Use the employee’s name and personal pronouns.
  2. Your sender name should be familiar to your audience, so maybe it’s Acme Benefits Team rather than John.Smith@acme.
  3. Your subject line should include both a desirable promise and an information gap. That’s a combination of what the reader wants + curiosity: “Want to save money on healthcare in 2020?”
  4. Write a compelling preheader. This is the short summary text that follows the subject line when an email is viewed in the inbox.
  5. The headline of your email should build on the promise of your subject line and pre-header. If you asked a question in the subject line, answer it in the header.
  6. In the first paragraph of your email, get to the point fast – in three sentences max. Tell the reader what action you want him to take.
  7. Focus on benefits to the reader – not features of the plan.
  8. Give your readers a way to avoid pain: Most people want to avoid inconveniences, glitches, and complications. Consider rephrasing the benefits of your offer as a problem you’ll help them avoid.
  9. Present a clear deadline: it prevents people from procrastinating. Never pressure people to PUSH them into acting. Instead, use pressure to PREVENT them from procrastinating. Do this by using the magic word “because”: give people a logical reason why they should act now (instead of procrastinating), and more people will do what you ask.
  10. Repeat your call to action in a post-script and make it crystal clear.

How do you measure success?

A 30% open rate plus a 3.5% click-through rate is really good. Don’t worry about the 70%: that means you can – and should — repeat your content in another format.

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Isn't Gamification Really Expensive?

It doesn't have to be.

When we think of gamification, we often think of online applications – something akin to a video game. While partnering with a gamification vendor may be the gold standard, it also can cost between $1 and $6 per user per month — a cost that can quickly reach into the six figures. 

Gamification doesn’t have to be that expensive or complicated to implement. Instead, you could take almost any existing communication tool and make it more engaging by applying gamification concepts.

Gamification really just means using principles of gaming (“game mechanics”) to teach and motivate your audience. Different game mechanics produce different game dynamics. So, it’s important to take a step back from the idea of incorporating gamification and ask, “What dynamic do you want to achieve?”

  • Do you want to foster community or collaboration?
  • Do you want your employees to compete with each other?
  • Do you want to reward achievement or progress?
  • Do you simply want employees to explore new ideas?

Once you know your goals, it’s easier to determine which game mechanics to implement. 

Examples of game mechanics and the game dynamics they can produce

Points = achievement or progress

Points are like gold stars from elementary school. Players earn points by completing small tasks and trade in the points for a reward. 

Levels = achievement or progress

Levels can be built on points and demonstrate greater achievement. Once you accumulate a certain number of points, you progress to the next level. Reaching a new level also might unlock new game features or rewards.

Missions/Quests = competition or community, achievement or exploration

A mission or quest gives the player more autonomy – it puts them in charge of finding a way to complete the mission. Players can simply explore and be exposed to a new concept, or you might create a more challenging mission to create an achievement dynamic. And since missions can work for individuals and teams, you should decide if you want to encourage collaboration and a sense of community or if you want to spark a competition.

Challenges = achievement or exploration

A challenge is a more directed version of a mission. While a mission might name a goal that players figure out how to achieve, a challenge gives players a daily or weekly bite-sized goal to accomplish. When the challenge is over, players will have completed a larger goal. In the process, they will have established a new habit or learned a new skill.

Badges = community, achievement or progress, exploration

A badge is a public reward – a sign of achievement that can be displayed on a player’s profile. Badges are useful as rewards when a player completes a certain set of challenges or masters a new skill.

Leaderboards = competition, community, achievement

A leaderboard ranks your players so everyone can see who’s ahead or behind. Depending on how you position the leaderboard, it can encourage competition (who is ranked highest?) or community (are we all pulling our weight and working together towards our shared success?).

Push Notifications = community, progress

Pop-ups built into a game can provide reminders to complete an action or offer congratulations on successfully completing a level or mission.

Quizzes = competition or community, achievement, progress

A quiz can help cement learning, prove completion of materials, and measure comprehension. After a player completes a learning module, they would take a mandatory quiz for a pass/fail grade. The quiz also would explain the correct answer when a player gets an answer wrong.

Lower-cost gamification implementation

If your budget doesn’t permit an online gamification implementation, here are some lower-cost ways to incorporate game mechanics in your existing communication strategy.

Points – Imagine an Annual Enrollment campaign where employees accumulate points from reading materials or watching campaign videos. This might be as simple as including a checklist or as involved as asking employees to scan a QR code when they finish reading a document.

Levels – Providing employees with a process map can be one way of both explaining levels to be achieved and the steps inside each level. 

Missions/Quests – A mission is like the Choose Your Own Adventure version of benefits education. Give employees a fill-in-the-bank worksheet when they attend a presentation. The worksheet will guide them to record the most relevant information from the presentation. 

Challenges – Just like an influencer runs an Instagram challenge, you can run a challenge using email. Invite employees to opt-in to the challenge, then send them one email a day or a week with their instructions. If you can set up a blog on your intranet dedicated to the challenge and open it for comments, even better.

Badges – When employees earn a badge, provide them an icon to add to their email signature.

Leaderboards – Create an online dashboard using Google Sheets so your employees can check their performance against others.

Push Notifications – Send a congratulations email or text message when your employees complete levels, missions or challenges. If your email system has the capability, set up these emails to be triggered and sent automatically.

Quizzes – Use SurveyMonkey, your Learning Management System, or even a PDF quiz to test your employee’s recall and understanding of content.

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Why You Should Audit Your Communication (And How To Do It)

When clients ask us to design a communication strategy, we often start with an audit of their current materials. Why? Because as Dr. Phil says, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.” A communication audit is simply an objective analysis of your current state that can point you toward an improved future state.

A communication audit starts with an inventory and then a big sort. This is like Marie Kondo pulling all your clothes out of your closet and drawers and dumping them on the guest room bed.

  1.  Ask your team and vendors to send you electronic copies of all your HR and benefits communications. This should include emails, web pages, PDFs, videos, etc.
  2. Now, sort the communication samples in a way that makes sense for you. For instance, if you have a Total Rewards philosophy with five categories, you might sort the samples into Benefits, Community, Career, Wellbeing and Compensation.
  3. Sort those categories into campaigns. These might be Annual Enrollment, Incentive Statements, New Hire Orientation, etc.

There will be differences in how your team refers to documents, which can create confusion. For that reason, you’ll want to export an image of each document. It’s easier to know that “postcard #1” is the same item as “AE announcement postcard” when you have a picture of it in your audit report. At this point, you should know each communication element of each campaign. Piece by piece, you’ll run through an objective scoring system that rates:

  1. Accessibility / Delivery
  2. Visual Appeal
  3. Readability
  4. Clarity
  5. Completeness

Here is a sample of our scoring system, using a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest rating. You should rate the communications against industry best practices, and – if you have it – your internal brand guidelines. If you don’t feel informed enough to make these judgements, it may be useful to call in professional help at this point.

You can measure readability using these formulas. Just insert a sample of text, and the tool will give you a grade level report. Generally, 7th or 8th grade is a target reading level that works for lower-level readers as well as for higher-level readers who may just skim content.

Now, you’ll complete a more subjective analysis of each document. There is no reason to make this overly complicated: a simple pros/cons list will do the trick, along with your recommendations for improvement.

For instance, a “pro” might be “The sick leave policy is written and is up-to-date.” A con might be “Reading level is grade 14.” The pros/cons list allows you to flesh out the rating system with the observations that drove the ratings.

Once your ratings are complete, open up Excel. For each of the five categories, determine your average rating. If visual appeal averages out to 1.96, you know you have work to do in this area. We like to provide a summation for each category that speaks to “where you are,” “where you want to be,” and “actionable steps to get you there.”

At the end of your audit process, you should have a comprehensive inventory of your communications. You should also know:

  1. If each communication element is useful and continues to be required.
  2. How effectively each deliverable presented its key messages and your overall messaging.
  3. Specifically, how each deliverable might be improved.

Our clients will generally proceed to the next steps of incorporating the audit results into a total communication strategy. That strategy will move from the deliverable level to a bigger picture view, considering what communication channels may best serve the client’s audiences, and how individual campaigns should be improved as a whole.

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Peering into the Future of Private Benefits Exchanges

Early on in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy runs across Professor Marvel, “acclaimed by the crown heads of Europe” as someone who can “read your past, present and future in his crystal.”

Professor Marvel greets Dorothy, saying: “And who might you be? No, no, now don’t tell me.
Let’s see. You’re traveling in disguise. No, that’s not right. You’re—you’re going on a visit. No, I’m wrong. You’re, you’re—running away.”

To which Dorothy responds, in all sincerity, “How did you guess?”

When we consider past predictions about the future of private benefit exchanges (PBEs), we find that experts have struggled as much as Professor Marvel to discern the future. And, in 2018 when we consider the viability of PBEs—especially in light of Washington’s mixed support—well, our “crystal’s gone dark,”— just like the Professor’s.

Still, we can’t help but wonder: what will the future of PBEs be?

First, a Definition

PBEs are defined in a variety of ways, but for our purposes, we are thinking of PBEs as does the Rand Corporation in its 2016 report “Private Health Insurance Exchanges[1]”:

“Typically, businesses using a private exchange will offer employees a credit that can be applied toward the purchase of a health plan. Employees can then access a variety of health plans through an online portal and can chose and enroll in plans that meet their needs. . . . [P]rivate exchanges are run by insurance carriers or consultancies, rather than the states or the federal government. Plans offered on [a] private exchange are regulated as group coverage, and employees shopping on these exchanges are not eligible for the ACA’s tax credits or cost-sharing subsidies.” 

Dorothy, Meet Malcolm Gladwell

In 2015, Accenture made a bullish prediction: PBE enrollment growth from the then-current level of 6 million to 40 million by 2018.[2] It looks like that growth curve will fall short: in 2016, the actual number of enrollees was only 8 million[3]—making 40 million in 2018 a big stretch.

Why are the numbers off? It’s not because of lack of growth. In November 2016, Employee Benefits Adviser reported that “Since September 2015, the number of employers using exchanges has increased 144%, the number of employees enrolling in benefits through the marketplaces has risen 92% and the number of lives covered by the plans sold on the platforms has jumped 100%.”[4]

Employers’ intentions should have borne out the predicted curve: A 2016 Aon survey found that “15% of organizations are in full replacement now and another 43% are considering it in the next three-to-five years.”[5]

So PBEs aren’t lacking in popularity; it’s just that the growth hasn’t met expectations. It may simply be that Accenture’s projected growth curve was the wrong shape. In his 2000 book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell[6] describes an “epidemic curve” that tracks the “contagious spread of a new idea” as a bell curve.

Accenture noted that the “mid-size employer segment of 100 to 2,500 employees is driving initial growth,” which follows Gladwell’s premise. Gladwell writes that Innovators and Early Adopters tend to be smaller companies, more willing to take risks. (Think: “I am Dorothy—the small and meek.” Dorothy undersells herself; she is a leader and a risk taker.)

For the Early Majority—more typically big companies—trying something new is harder because more complex change has to be managed to create success. Because the risk is greater, it is taken on more incrementally and therefore the anticipated benefit also is measured more incrementally. Accenture agrees: “Many large employers have been reluctant to be early adopters of the emerging private health insurance exchange model.” (Think: the Scarecrow, willing to follow Dorothy only after careful debate. And, you know, a song and dance number.)

Lions and Tigers and Bears

What, specifically, makes an employer reluctant to join a PBE? Those 43% of Aon-surveyed organizations who are still considering a PBE could be described as Gladwell’s Late Majority (they want proof) or Laggards (they see no urgency for change) or Cowardly Lions, but that last name would be so judge-y.

Employee Benefit Adviser found seven reasons that employers hesitate to introduce a PBE.[7] I’ll restate these reasons as fears, which of course, is what they really are. These questions explain the stall in Accenture’s projected virality of PBEs; let’s call it the “lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” syndrome. Fear makes us walk more slowly.

  1. What if our employees or executives confuse private exchanges with the federal marketplace?
  2. What if we lose control of our plan design or contribution strategy?
  3. What if we incur extra costs due to administrative change?
  4. What if we have to explain different state-mandated benefits to employees across multiple states?
  5. What if we have to give up a consulting relationship we value or pay more to maintain it?
  6. What if we aren’t getting objective advice from our PBE sponsor?
  7. What if our carrier networks are disrupted?

PBEs are answering some of these questions. For example, the Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative found in a 2016 survey that some 44% of survey participants who had implemented a PBE saved money by doing so.

With that same early experience, some Innovators and Early Adopters are now insisting PBE sponsors introduce more flexibility and customization to their offerings. The next growth area for PBEs may be a combination of continued expansion of the mid-size market and new growth in the larger employer market as the Late Majority becomes satisfied with the answers to its questions.

PBEs Began with a Carrot, Now Here’s the Stick

Dorothy begins her journey with a carrot (she wants to see the Wizard) but that journey is propelled by a stick (the Wicked Witch of the West). As always, the PBE story is not so different. PBEs began by offering choice, glorious choice. But in 2018, so does the stick.

PPACA reporting requirements, the Employer Mandate and the Cadillac Tax—the hassle factor—all may lead to a surge in PBE enrollments as PBEs are well-equipped to satisfy these requirements. Perhaps this will be the urgency the Laggards have been waiting to feel.

Employee Choice

As communicators, we often worry about employees who disdain reading having to sort through oodles of choice. But the reality is that we deal with near limitless shopping choices in our daily lives (thanks, So, is healthcare choice really so overwhelming?

Yes, yes it is. Health care, while acknowledged by employees to be vital to their employment decision,[8] is not sexy. It’s complicated and a little boring. And this is where Smith sees PBEs not living up to their potential. The templated communications that are bundled into PBE services are often overly long and impenetrable, as well as lacking in any relation to the employer’s story, culture and brand.

Introducing a PBE and educating employees about their options doesn’t have to be a dry, dull business. You do have to pull back the curtain, and transparently show how a PBE works. The 2016 survey from the Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative also found that employers who had implemented a PBE cited “communications and sufficient time to implement as critical success factors.”

Wherever we can make the PBE shopping experience more like any good online shopping experience—intuitive navigation, more consumer reviews, easier to understand comparison tools, improved decision support tools—we’ll help turn employees into savvy consumers.

When our communications succeed, the choice that could be overwhelming can become what employees value most about their healthcare benefits. And, the shopping experience can drive employee understanding of their benefits. What remains to be seen is whether the PBE also can increase long-term engagement in wellness and consumerism.[9]

It’s All About the Shoes

So PBEs seem here to stay. They are working for employers and employees alike. They may be growing more slowly than expected, but they will keep growing. And the answer to their future growth, like the power of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, is something we’ve had all along—employers just have to learn it for themselves.

Further Reading

Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative

Employee Benefits Adviser, June 2016:

Employee Benefits Adviser, December 2016:






[6] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Print.



[9] Willis Towers Watson Roundtable Discussion: The Evolution of Private Exchanges for Active Employees (February 2016)
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