Saturday, February 04, 2006


You're standing in a bar...

A great email has a great subject line, a quick, sharp formulation of the proplem and proposed solution, and a brief landing page with the action people can take. This is harder than it sounds.

When we know a lot about a topic, its easy to over estimate the amount and type of information that people want to know before they will help us move reforms on that topic. If we are communicating by email, its important to distill out the key points that will generate a sense of shared urgency--and not overload people with our expertise.

To get back to basics, I often imagine myself in a bar--its crowded, noisy, and distracting. Standing next to an interesting new colleague, someone says, "so, what are you working on these days..." and I know I have just a moment to convey to this person (who I like and want to like me in return) the most compelling thing about my current project. Suddenly I've reformulated the wonky, detailed policy proposition I started out with as a real problem with easily identifiable implications for my new friend, and my strategy sounds fun and potentially successful. All in a couple of quick sentences delivered in a strong tone to cut through the surrounding chatter.

This simple, mental roll play works for me because it changes my relationship with my audience from one of writer/reader to that of an active participant with my new acquaintance in a conversation. I must first figure out in a blink how to spark some interest and then draw out further conversation from that interest.

It also works because it takes advantage of the enormous power of our brain's unconscious congnition processes--the process that allows us to just say something, without thinking about it ahead of time, and its perfectly...right. In his recent book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell identifies this power of rapid cognition with the "zone" described by athletes or the insight certain art experts enjoy instantly when they see an artifact.

"Whenever we meet someone for the first time, when ever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we're faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second part of our brain," he writes. I believe this applies directly here. The things we say and do directly, without thinking too much ahead of time but with the benefit of our years of experience and knowledge of a topic, are often the best formulations we can create.

Once I feel like I've formulated the problem and my strategy in a couple or three quick sentences that would inspire a new friend in the bar, I make sure that I've identified the most positive aspects of my work that encourage optimism, and I try to frame a subject line around that optimism.

This week I got a great email from MoveOn. The subject line was so simple: "Amazing." I must confess that I don't open all my MoveOn email, but I opened that one. What was amazing? Did something good happen? God knows, I want to have some good news the way things are going these days. I opened the email just to find out what was amazing. And the first line told me that MoveOn's last fundraising appeal brought in more than the goal. Now I didn't contribute to that fundraising effort (in fact, I didn't even know about it, no doubt because I didn't open the previous email), but I experienced a small, warm feeling anyway that something amazing had happened that would help MoveOn do amazing work in the near future. Amazing. You may even feel just a shade of that positive feeling as you read this paragraph. That's the power of a good subject line, and the power of a positive attitude.

Your activists want some good news; they want to know that their actions count, and they want to see some progress--even if its only progress to a fundraising goal or a supportive editorial in the daily paper. In order to give people a positive but honest assessment of the impact of their participation, you will eventually need to start measuring that impact in more creative ways but I'll save that for a future post.

I find that examples help, so here's an email we sent last month that resulted in a good open rate (over 30%) and a reasonable action rate (over 10%).

Dear Kathy,

Last year, more than a dozen states passed strong identity theft laws. Now Indiana will join them and bring you the right to control your credit information so that thieves can't open new accounts in your name.

Take a moment now to support newly filed legislation that will help you defend against identity theft.

Dozens of security breaches at major banks, data vendors and retailers put millions of people at risk of identity theft in 2005. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that almost ten million are victimized each year. When an identity thief has the right information about you, he can open new credit accounts in your name and just start charging. The mess takes years to clean up and can cost you a fortune.

But Indiana is about to change all that, with your help.

And please, tell your friends to take action too. State legislatures are just now getting started, and now is the time to show support so that legislation will quickly move and pass in 2006. Don't delay!

In the coming year, you will be part of a movement to pass bills in states, hold legislators and corporations accountable, and show the media the human faces demanding financial privacy, clear disclosures, fair credit card contracts, better cell phone service and much more. We can successfully pass major reforms together. Take a look at what these incredible people, with just a little help from Consumers Union, accomplished in 2005!

Gail Hillebrand
Consumers Union
1535 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103-2512

I hope others who write a lot of email will chime in here with other good examples from their own experience--emails that got a good result and can show us all how to improve our work.

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