University boosts engagement with email analytics

Where it once operated with little email data, Northern Illinois University now knows how successful its messaging is. That allows tweaking email programs with low engagement rates.

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Employee engagement at a university comes with particular challenges that make email an essential form of messaging.

For example, faculty members operate independently, scattered in 20 buildings across campus, says Andrew Pemberton, internal communications manager at Northern Illinois University.

“You’re going to a classroom,” he says. “You’re teaching students. You’re going home. You’re not necessarily engaging every day with another faculty member or your administrator.

“So communicating through email is the way to create community at an institution that doesn’t necessarily have a central working building.”

That makes it essential not to operate blindly when it comes to understanding whether messages are getting through to audiences. That’s why NIU is using PoliteMail—an internal communication platform that plugs into Outlook—to track its email engagement.

The university builds employee morale by disseminating positive news stories—research, artistic achievements and other accomplishments—on its NIU Today internal news blog and promoting it with twice-weekly emails.

Until 2017, however, the only tool that NIU’s three-person internal comms team had to measure engagement with email was a URL shortener, Pemberton says. This required additional work because they had to convert each link into a shortened URL in order to track the number of people who clicked through to stories.

Replacing flawed measurement

However, that system was ineffective. Some may click on a link, but the data didn’t indicate how many had opened or read the email to begin with.”

The bane of any communicator is people who say they never heard of a development that the team has already announced. NIU was no exception.

“We heard from members of staff and faculty that they weren’t opening their email, they didn’t get messages, they didn’t receive messages—kind of a gamut of excuses for why people didn’t know information,” Pemberton says. “So we knew that we needed to put in place some sort of a system to track open rates, if email was actually an effective form of communication.”

A new system of analytics

PoliteMail provided a system with clear analytics across the spectrum. Pemberton says NIU now had a user-friendly way to see “how employees were engaging email, what the open rates were, what links they were actually clicking on, how long they were reading the email, if they were forwarding email to colleagues,” he says.

Another bonus was saving time. In the past, Pemberton had to use DreamWeaver to code emails, adding a half hour to his task of preparing an email. Now he can get it done on Outlook in five minutes, without switching to a different program.

Universities, like other organizations, are increasingly finding that mobile-responsive design is a must.

“We realize a lot of our faculty and staff are checking their emails on their phones or on their iPads in class,” Pemberton says. “It’s just great to have the ability to have our messages scale down to size and look nice and feel cohesive in their presentation.”

Measurement is important for communicators, because they want to make sure employees are engaging with email. This can be a challenge, as mass emails are impersonal and few people reply to them, Pemberton says.

“They’re just kind of reading it, and you don’t know if they got it or not,” he says. “You’re left wondering, ‘Hmmm, did they read it or not?’ So it’s important to have some sort of measurement system, so you can create baselines for your productivity and your communications strategy.”

Top leaders garner more readers

PoliteMail reveals that NIU email open rates average about 55 percent, depending on the content. High-interest emails can reach 80 percent.  Often these include policy changes, as well as messages from the president, provost, chief diversity officer and chief financial officer.

On the low end of the scale, an offer of free tickets to a basketball game had an open rate of just 30 percent. (NIU is “a commuter school,” Pemberton says, and many faculty and staff travel up to an hour to get here. That makes after-hours athletics a difficult draw.)

Segmented messages—those targeting, say, faculty or administration staff with information specific to their work—also elicit higher open rates.

The metrics allow NIU communicators to tweak their measurement system. When data reveal there’s a low open rate on an email, they can resend it with a different subject line or tweak the content.

If readers open and quickly close an email, communicators can deduce that it might be too long. “We can revise the copy and make it more digestible to the reader,” Pemberton says.

NIU plans to try different layouts, use more graphics and experiment with video.

“We find that including images increases the number of people who click through to read the full story on our website,” Pemberton says.

This article is in partnership with PoliteMail.

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