Category Archives: Employee Communication

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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Get Time on Your Side

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

“You can feel the industry-wide pinch on time and budgets. We saw a lot of ideas that could have been great with better execution.”

“With the speed of the industry, we can lose the craft of good storytelling and attention to detail.”

These are comments from two of the jurors who selected entries for the Communication Arts Advertising Annual 58. While the industry they’re referring to is the advertising industry, we’re seeing the same trend in internal communication. Projects are starting later, compressing timelines. Budgets, too, are shrinking as organizations try to do more with less.

It’s all understandable and not always a bad thing. Deadlines and budgets can force better decisions and maintain focus. And, besides, racing against time and having limited resources is all part of the creative challenge we communicators thrive on. As one of my heroes, Robert Frost, said about writing poetry without the self-imposed strictures of rhyme, meter or structure, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” 

Working without obstacles just isn’t as fun. But facing near-insurmountable obstacles increases stress and threatens quality. It can also diminish the creativity needed to help your message break through. 

Here are four ways you can increase the time available to work on your project, even if you can’t increase your budget. 

1. Don’t Wait to Engage Your Communication Team

We understand. You want to wait until you have everything figured out. You want your decisions approved, your strategy in place. But there’s a lot your communications team can be doing as your project takes shape. Every project requires discovery. We need to learn about you, your organization, your audience and your specific issues. We need to take in a lot of information before we can ever put out a first draft. Every project also needs some set up time. We need to assign a team and take care of a few administrative details. You never see these steps on a project schedule, but they still need to be done. Loop us in early and, when the iron is finally hot, we’ll be ready to strike.

2. Don’t Pay by the Hour

This will sound nearly blasphemous to many in the consulting industry. If you’re used to paying for consulting and creative services by the hour, you know what the underlying motivation of your partner is: Bill more hours. So, you may think that allowing less time to work on your project will help shave dollars off your bill. When we founded Smith more than a decade ago, we decided to bill flat rates. Quality, not time, is our focus. Our motivation is to understand your needs up front so that our final bills are in line with our initial statements of work. So, once you’re sure you’re going to need help with your project — even if you’re not exactly sure what your needs are — invite us to the table. Give us the opportunity to get to know you and prepare for what lies ahead.

3. Get Your Cowcatcher On

Ok, that metaphor is a bit folksy, but it’s a good one. Think about what could derail or delay your project at a critical moment. One of the more common hazards we see is a content reviewer who chimes in late. This is often a senior leader who doesn’t want to see things until all the kinks are worked out. We understand the logic, but the closer a deliverable gets to its final form, the longer it can take to make changes. While you don’t want your VPs wasting time on a draft that has too many holes in it, you also don’t want them to veto the talent in your video the day before your video was set to debut. (It happens.) Talk with us in advance about the process and the players so we can create realistic schedules and steps.

4. Don’t Hesitate to Run Something by Us

If you have an initiative in the offing, let’s chat, even if you’re not sure about where things are going. Let’s pick out some key considerations early. It could save precious time later.

I have a simple formula. Talent > Time. But with a good communication partner, you can get both on your side. 

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Believable internal branding

Marketing isn’t always brutally honest. At best, it tends to exaggerate the upside and ignore the downside. At worst, it resorts to hype, slickness and even deception. This leads many consumers to consider most marketing communications phony.    

Cynical consumers are more difficult to reach. So serious brands are cultivating authenticity as a remedy to prevent consumer skepticism and apathy. When companies adopt a marketing approach that is authentic, genuine and truthful, it helps build consumer confidence, especially when that approach aligns with a consumer’s experience. 

Measuring authenticity

Authenticity simply means real, reliable and genuine. Not phony. So how does a consumer know when a brand is making authentic claims?

Marketing researchers try to quantify authenticity to understand its effectiveness. Often, they look at two types of signals that consumers receive from a brand called “indexical” and “iconic” cues.[1]These cues are the evidence by which consumers evaluate a brand’s claims.

Indexical cues are those experiences/evidences that are real and measurable—800 thread count for a set of sheets. Indexical cues are verifiable and not subjective. They either are true or not.

Iconic cues are those that resemble the object, as in “these sheets feel like liquid silk.” These are cues marketers use to represent the actual product or experience. These claims are subjective. Yet they are verifiable through the consumer experience. Authenticity hinges on the gap between the two cues.

So soft

According to Becker, et al., it’s not the object (sheets) that create authenticity, but the messages and other signals sent by the brand. The reality is fixed. The sheets have an actual thread count, and either are or are not soft.  The expectation of “liquid silk” is created in the mind of the consumer. When the two align, authenticity is established. When the claims are exaggerated, authenticity is damaged. 

Authenticity is easy (if you’re a marketer)

Creating authenticity should be a simple task for most marketers. Simply deliver on brand promises. A shoe seller need not be perfect. They just have to sell shoes that meet or exceed the expectations they set. 

Five-dollar flip-flops won’t be inauthentic if they’ve blown out by the end of a long beach weekend. They’ve fulfilled their implied $5-shoe brand promise. 

However, a $95 pair of Allbirds, which claim to be the “Worlds most comfortable shoe,” sustainable, and 100% washable because they’re made from wool, has a much higher bar than the flip-flop. Allbirds had better feel great and come through the wash like a champ. If they don’t deliver, they lose authenticity.

Work and play

Compared to internal communicators, marketers have it easy because the consumer’s exposure is limited to the brand and its products. 

When I buy shoes, I neither know nor care if the person packing my box is a miserable crank, the break room smells like reheated cabbage soup, or the corporate culture is toxic or chaotic. All of that is invisible to me as a consumer. I have no direct experience with the internal workings of the organization. So my sense of a brand’s authenticity is easier to build and maintain.

Unfortunately, things are not so easy in employee communications.  

Workplace challenges to authenticity

“A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.”

This phrase is shorthand for the phenomena where one’s talents are not appreciated by those closest to them. This lack of respect can come from many places. 

Sometimes we have relationships to persons/situations that are removed from what makes them special. Tom Brady’s kids don’t care about his Super Bowl rings, they just want him to sit down and watch Frozen again.  

Sometimes, we’re close enough to see the real situation or person, warts and all. Close proximity often causes situations and people to lose their luster.  As essayist William Hazlet put it, “Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it takes the edge off admiration.”

Remember, employees experience the organization as it actually is, not as we depict it to be. Employees spend eight or more hours a day living and working inside indexical cues. This hardens them to iconic cues that don’t line up with their experience.

Employees know the true score; who’s the office crank, how the break room smells and how well the organization treats them. They also have memories built on internal brand promises made in the past. All of that informs credibility whenever you craft a message or campaign.

That isn’t to say that employees won’t buy into aspirational and motivational communication. They certainly will. Employees want and need forward-thinking leadership to stay hopeful, happy and engaged. But, they won’t believe messages that ignore today’s reality. Own the reality to make your messages authentic. 

Authenticity is critical to long-term success and healthy corporate cultures. Shading the truth and over-promising leads to cynicism and disengagement. A firm foundation of truth and reality builds employee trust and increases leaders’ ability to engage and challenge them. 

[1]Becker, M., Weigand, N. and Reineartz, W. (2019). Does It Pay to Be Real? Understanding Authenticity in TV Advertising.

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Hold on, I’m going to get all emotional on you …

A few years ago, a client asked me to help them promote workplace safety to employees. During site visits to two of their production facilities, I quickly realized that they were already doing plenty of communication about safety. Upon driving up to one of the facilities, I was greeted by a 20-ft billboard bearing a brief, charmingly scripted safety message. 

Safety messages were everywhere. One facility even conducted daily safety briefings. What in the world could possibly be left to say? 

Face-to-Face Discovery Matters

After speaking with managers, supervisors and employees, I realized that these people cared very deeply about safety and about keeping others safe. One manager even choked up while relaying to me a story from earlier in his career about a co-worker who was badly injured on the job. I think I saw his eyes tear up. 

On the plane ride home, while I pored over my notes, that story kept popping up in my mind along with the image of this otherwise burly man getting weepy on me. That’s when I realized what was missing from this company’s communication about safety: emotion.

We’re People, Not Computers

The workplace is the domain of logic and data. You have to back up what you say with proof and facts. You have to be in control of yourself. You have to be poised. You can’t let your true feelings poke through. But we are human; humans have feelings, and feelings are a way we communicate with each other. They are a cunning way our inner selves let the truth slip through our well-crafted facades. 

The reason the manager’s story was so memorable was not because it was a particularly unique story, but because of the way it made him feel. I could see he was passionate about safety, and I needed to let employees see that passion.

During that trip, I just so happened to pick up a book called Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in the Brain. Chapter 17 was “Impact Booster #4: Emotion.” 

Back in my office, I flipped through another of my other favorite tomes: Made to Stick. Chapter 5: “Emotional.” 

Then, I watched a brief video clip of a speech delivered by another client’s new president and CEO. He stood before his company’s sales force and, while extolling the company’s competitive advantages, he paused. He seemed to get choked up. Then he said, “I am proud of you.” If it weren’t so sincerely stated, it could have been an eye-rolling moment. I’m not a salesman, but his passion made me want to jump up and sell something!

Emotion Is Part of the Message

Emotions help us form memories. They are like a bookmark in the mind for a passage of time that has particular meaning for us. The authors of Neuromarketing say that emotions communicate directly to the decision-making center of the brain. 

An emotion drives you to act, and you can’t argue or debate with emotion. It’s immediate and real. Just think of our reliance on emoticons in text messages. We already know that our audience needs the additional context of our emotions to really understand what we’re saying. 

Communication in the workplace is no different. Employees are like any other audience; an emotional appeal will help get their attention. It also will help your message squeeze through their cynicism and doubt. And later, when they’re driving home or having lunch, they’ll remember the passion and the sincerity (sincerity being key). It will stir their own feelings, and their feelings will influence their behaviors.

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