Ensuring Your Messages Gets Read Amidst The Noise: A review of the CSAE Trillium Chapter’s Communications Roundtable PDX

By Maureen Shuell


Sometimes, the way we deliver a message gets in the way of our message and it get lost, ignored and undervalued. This was a recurring theme among the comments at the Communication’s Table Topic at CSAE Trillium Chapter’s last PDX (Professional Development) session of 2016 where I helped facilitate.

Four groups of participants took part in half-hour roundtable discussions looking for best practices, solutions and new ideas in the association and nonprofit space to tackle the questions surrounding how to get people to pay attention to the communication material being sent by their organizations amidst all the noise. We delved into the expectations each attendee had in using other means to get to their members and stakeholders beyond direct in-box delivery, and the reluctance, both internal and at the recipient’s end, to have messages broadcast in new ways.

There’s a fine line between providing valuable information and spamming members while adding to the communications noise we are supposed to be avoiding. Familiar themes became clear: the need to know your audiences; using your data and feedback to your advantage, and starting with clear goals when defining what you’re trying to communicate in the first place.

Know Thine Audience (ie. Your Members)

Do you know whom you’re trying to reach? By using your email distribution system’s IT data, you can see when your members open emails, the click through rates to the links in your messages, and the day of week, or time of day, that your message gets the most engagement.

Track these data behaviours and use this knowledge to change your methods based on data that’s available. There’s likely analytical data also available from member surveys to make decisions on what to send, when to send it, what’s valued and perhaps also learn what content members consider low-value, but require considerable resources to create. It’s a good thing to assess if you are continuing to do something because it’s always been done that way, or if it still has value.

In an effort to know your audiences, internal and external, segregate them. Does it make sense to send the same messages or different messages to your distinct audiences? Try A/B testing; send an email to half of your list at different times or use different subject lines. Measure the results and act on what you’ve learned. Do you send members, lapsed and potential members the same email? By tailoring your message for the audience you’re trying to reach, your voice will be seen as more authentic and relevant.

Whatever you do, please do not spam the people most valuable to you, and with whom you have a valued relationship of providing value with valuable content. That being said, you can’t please all your members all the time. Beware of the ‘squeaky wheel’ with many suggesting change for change’s sake. Refer back to your data and your survey responses in decision making for what works for your audiences.

The Email Subject Line and Best Practices

The email subject line discussion centered around creating the right subject line to get the email read by the most people. To my surprise, the subject line question was a hot topic, and there was a lot of interest in covering what entices a reader to open an email!

The subject line is the headline that has to be true to the content of the email. Those of us in the discussion coined the phrase, “The Promise of the Subject Line.” This means that a subject line must let the recipient know what in the emails is timely, what project, newsletter, call to action or reply is necessary and if it is a quick message to read on the go or one that will require opening attachments and giving a more thoughtful responses. This provides some level of triage that allows an audience to prioritize messages easily. If an email is asking for action, say so in subject line.

Using clear subject lines is crucial, and when changing topic during an email thread, change the subject line. If is it possible for an email to be on one topic, have a clear subject line. Not only does this make it easier to group issues together and see threads, but it also makes filing and email recovery easier. Another key takeaway from using the “Rule-of-3” in subject lines to keep headlines concise and clear; no more than three topics should be introduced in a single message.

Developing a themed or standard formats/templates for certain types of emails (ex. newsletters, policy updates, advance copies of media announcements, or board reports) makes it easier for the reader to know what to expect and if it is to be shared with colleagues, replied to, etc. Consistency pays off. If members like a newsletter at a regular interval, such as every two weeks, stick with that. The point is to know that they like it, read it and get value from it.

The word ‘urgent’ in an email should be used very carefully, and preferably in a very limited way, if at all. It may be important the message be read, but if it truly is urgent, pick up the phone and call.

Know when -and when not to hit the ‘reply all’ button. If you are thinking about ‘replying all,’ think carefully if the response is intended for that one individual sender or if the group needs to hear you weigh in on the conversation.

Key Takeaways For Email Best Practices

In short, the best practices we agreed to were making emails clear, easy to share and organize, and with a great subject line as a teaser that drives people to want to read more. Keep messages short and to the point, and potentially with action directives on where to get more information.

Know what works for your audience, what they like, what times work for delivery and who they are. Keep you email delivery and style reliable and predictable as far as timing – and keep checking in to see if what you’re doing works for your audience!

Be selective and send important information, like call for abstracts, and timely industry information. Most importantly, have a system in place internally -that has leadership backing – on what goes out to members, who sends it, when it’s sent and shows coordination from the association. If each department is competing for the attention of the member, you’ll likely look like you’re spamming the audience and will drive them away.

Managing Your Brand

All the communications sent from your organization contributes to your brand. Are your mundane and routine emails working in your favour on that front? Perhaps it’s time to take a look at what your communications say about your association, and if there are ways to refresh what you’re saying, experiment with new methods of delivery – like social media – and renew your offerings.

This review skimmed the surface of what we discussed, and other table topics communications themes will be covered in future articles. Watch for ideas for your association on using social channels and digital tools to reinforce your messages and reach new audiences, using media relations outreach to traditional journalists, sharing routine publications like annual reports, and integrating your communications with your government relations and promotional campaigns.


If you’d like to discuss any of these ideas, please feel free to get in touch with me!


Maureen Shuell

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