You’ve Got Mail: How to Connect with People through Their Inboxes

Gray Gill, Content Strategist and Writer at Southside Creative, writes about how to effectively use email. Last month, Gray wrote about Reimagining Libraries: The Front Door of the Innovation District.


After eight wonderful and wacky seasons, the IFC sketch comedy series, Portlandia, came to an end just a few weeks ago. The show playfully poked fun at stereotypes of the city of Portland, hipsters, and millennials—and yes, many of the jokes were directed at me or things I enjoy. There were bits about brunch, bike messengers, music festivals, and the viral sensation “Put a bird on it.” Creators and stars, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen played the roles of many endearing personalities on Portlandia, but one of my favorite recurring characters on the show is that of the Portland mayor, played by Kyle Maclachan of Twin Peaks notoriety.

He’s peppy and full of big ideas for ways to get Portland out of Seattle’s shadow. In one episode, he recruits Fred and Carrie to serves as missionaries of sorts and travel to Seattle to literally go door-to-door to proselytizing Portland to convince people to move there. So how successful was their guerilla campaign? #spoileralert, they only convinced one woman to relocate.

Instead of going door-to-door, local government should subscribe to a different strategy for connecting with citizens: email. Now, some of you may read this and think there is nothing more inhuman than email. I’m no expert, but as a copywriter for a digital marketing studio I can say that with the right approach, the inbox is a cost-effective and personable way to spread the word. Here are a few tips to share you can share with your team to ensure you get more opens, clicks, and kudos.

  1. Don’t call it a newsletter. The first rule of fight club is no one talks about fight club. The same goes for newsletters. Just reading the word “newsletter” can almost put you to sleep. It denotes dry and dense content with big chunky paragraphs—which is the opposite of what people want to read. Instead, come up with a catchy name that people will want to open.
  2. Nail the subject line. This is vital for two reasons: first, you have to get past a person’s spam filter and then, you have to get noticed by the recipient. Think of the subject line like a trailer for a movie. It should be the teaser for your email that makes people want to open it. And yes, I encourage using an emoji or two—just don’t go overboard.
  3. Write like a human. I just mentioned emojis and some of you probably audibly gasped. But an email is not a press release, so don’t treat it so formally. Use contractions so you don’t sound like a robot. Even though you’re sending to multiple individuals, imagine you’re just sending it to one person. With email marketing platforms like Mailchimp (which I highly endorse), you can have your email autofill the recipient’s name. Sidenote: Writing casually doesn’t excuse bad grammar and typos. PLEASE PROOF EVERY EMAIL.
  4. Use images. If you went to your favorite coffee shop and cracked open Where The Wild Things Are, you might get some odd looks. Adults aren’t supposed to like pictures! But think about how easy it is to get the gist of a story with a massive image and just a few sentences beneath it.
  5. Timing is everything. I’m not saying you have to synchronize your watches and send at exactly 3:37 every Thursday, but I think consistency is key for an email coming from an organization. Like Pavlov’s lab, people will start to unconsciously look for it. It’s up to you whether or not you want to send one email a month, every two weeks, or once a week. But I would suggest sending it on the same day every time.

I’m just scratching the surface of what you can do with email, but I think the best way to learn is by doing. Start brainstorming with your team to come up with a killer name, think about what kind of content you want to feature, work on building your lists, and hit SEND.