You’ve Got Mail: Email is (Still) Your Top Engagement Tool

Posted on May 13, 2019


Right Now with Warren Kagarise (Linkedin/Twitter/Instagram)

What I’m watching: “Social Animals” — a clever documentary about the ways Instagram affects a trio of teenagers in ways both predictable and unexpected.

What I’m listening to: The local debate du jour, about how people in my age group think the negatives of living in Seattle outweigh the positives. (While we have our challenges, I cannot imagine living anywhere else.)

Your most important engagement tool is hiding in plain sight.

Email, beckoning from one of the icons on your home screen or tucked away in your taskbar.

Email is not fashionable. Email is not the Next Big Thing. And yet the medium persists, a workhorse among the social media show ponies.

In King County, where social has been a cornerstone of our engagement for the last decade, email remains the most consistent digital engagement tool available and, increasingly, is where we can tell stories to the people most interested in a particular topic.

We sent more than 25 million emails last year. Our engagement rate reached 55 percent.

Topics span from what you might expect from a regional government — transit alerts, emergency updates, public health information, etc. — but also success stories and a call to action asking residents to help us plant 1 Million Trees.

Now, back to the 55 percent engagement rate I mentioned.

Engagement — recipients who opened the message, clicked a link or interacted with the email in another way — is the holy grail for communicators, especially public-sector communicators who often lack the budget to promote every social post.

While King County’s overall email and social audiences rank about the same in size, with about a half-million subscribers apiece, we reach a more consistently engaged audience via email. For comparison, the average engagement rate on any major social platform represents a fraction of our overall engagement via email.

Despite the ubiquity of social media — or perhaps because of it — email remains the single most important platform we use to communicate with our community. As the people we serve grow increasingly wary of social media platforms, we need to maintain other ways to engage our community.

Email is a cost-effective, low-risk and easy-to-use way for government agencies to connect.

The medium is something most of our agencies started using quietly, and without a second thought, to engage with our communities around the time Tom Hanks met Meg Ryan IRL in “You’ve Got Mail.”

In the decades since, email has seemingly been pushed aside to make room for social media, text and social messaging platforms, and digital town halls.

Email is not a panacea. As with any digital engagement tool, your message is likely to get lost in the churn if you do not work hard to stand out.

How? Start by learning more about your audience.

  • Examine the engagement data for past email campaigns, and see what content resonated with your readers. Use your open and click rates as benchmarks when you plan future engagement efforts. (Unlike Facebook, where frequent algorithm and platform changes can make year-to-year comparisons difficult, email metrics can be easily tracked from year to year.)
  • Understand how subscribers interact with you, and whether they check email on a desktop or mobile device. At King County, we’re currently working to make sure every email template we use is optimized for mobile devices.
  • Include a clear call to action. The call-to-action step requires a bit of nuance. You do not want to sound spammy, but at the same time you need subscribers to take the next step and open the message.

Like the other digital engagement tools we use, email occasionally deserves a bad rap. Studies show the deleterious health effects of checking email too often. Overwhelmed by digital clutter, many of us work to attain a state of Inbox Zero.

I am not advocating for us to turn back the clock to 2005, before the launch of Twitter and the rise of Facebook Pages. Email is not a replacement for other forms of digital engagement — but it should be a key piece of your strategy.

Nationwide, 90 percent of U.S. adults use the internet, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center.

While Pew does not have recent granular data about email use among the same audience, several market research firms estimate at least 85 percent of American adults regularly use email.

Even the three most-used social platforms do not draw the same potential audience as email. For comparison, 73 percent of U.S. adults use YouTube, 69 percent use Facebook and 37 percent use Instagram. (Twitter, a key part of our digital engagement strategy at King County, remains a lesser-used platform locally and nationwide.)

While doubling down on email may sound like a back-to-the-future strategy, remember: Email still remains one of the top tasks people do online.

And though you may have long ago uninstalled the Facebook app and given up on understanding Snapchat, you’ve (still) got mail.

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