Corporate E-mail publications: A remedy for employees with overloaded inboxes

This TechnoFile column appeared in the November 2000 issue of the Ragan Report.  What amazes me is how both the problem and the advice haven’t changed more than ten years later.  Companies are still flooded with useless broadcast e-mail messages.  And getting control of it means doing things differently.  E-mail publications that combine information from multiple teams and departments can go a long way toward mitigating the problem.

Is the e-mail network at your company getting bogged down with too many company-wide e-mail announcements?  Do you regularly keep one finger on the delete key when you open up your inbox in the morning?  An e-mail publication can be a terrific tool to help you regain control over the chaos… And help you drive more traffic to your intranet.

Both benefits were reasons Abbreviations, the e-mail news publication EDS uses to keep its employees informed, won the Gold Quill award at IABC International this year.  I was fortunate to work on the team that created Abbreviations just prior to starting my consulting practice.  Coming up with the right approach took a good bit of trial and error before we refined the publication into something that really worked.  Here are some tips to help you build an effective e-mail publication:

In many ways, an e-mail publication is similar to its print cousin, the newsletter.  You have to pull together a diverse amount of compelling information into an easy to understand format.  Where does that content come from?  Start by looking at all the information that corporate departments are sending out as ad-hoc email messages to everybody in your company.  What if all of those different messages could be consolidated into a weekly publication?  So instead of 8 messages going out from Sales, HR and Security, you have one message with a simple table of contents so people can easily scan the information.  Cutting down on corporate message clutter was a big area of focus when Abbreviations was created.

An obvious challenge to following this approach is getting some of those departments to give up their old ability to blast messages on everyone.  There are a couple of ways to get their support:  first, conduct a user survey that asks if people would prefer to receive one message a week with all the announcements included or if they wish to continue to receive separate announcements from all departments.  I can almost promise you that employees will support the consolidated approach.  Second, make it clear to these departments that they can still send out flash alerts if they need to communicate information which needs to be acted upon with 24-48 hours.  This ended up being the email communication guideline at EDS.  Messages that required a timely reaction from employees were sent immediately.  Informational messages or items which did not require immediate action had to wait until the end of the week to be included in the next edition of Abbreviations.  The result was a marked drop in the volume of corporate email traffic clogging employees inboxes.

Obviously, a message that only contains a list of corporate announcements is probably not going to be the most compelling bit of prose ever written, so be sure to add some variety.  Include abstracts and links to external news items on the public Internet that are relevant.  Highlight lesser known areas of your intranet to make employees aware of all the internal resources that are available.  List some of the important upcoming dates.  Link to the latest press releases that are going out of your company.  List the closing price of your stock and any major events that might have affected the price.  By placing this information in context with the corporate announcements, you make the e-mail publication much more valuable and likely to be read.

Pulling together all of your sources of information into a single e-mail each week can be a challenging process.  How do you keep the message from stretching out over multiple pages and losing your readers?  First of all, make sure you always include a very clear table of contents right at the beginning of the message so that your audience can scan the first page to decide if they want to read any of the items in detail.  Next, limit the amount of information in the email message itself, and link to more detailed information on your intranet.  So if the HR department is announcing a new 401K plan, put a headline in your email publication that announces the change, include a short one paragraph description of what the policy change will mean to employees and provide a link to the all the details on the HR intranet page.  In this way, you are using the e-mail medium for what it does best – alerting people quickly and succinctly about information that is relevant to them, and pointing them to where they can find out more.

Abbreviations used linking techniques in some very interesting ways.  Since EDS was a global company with employees in many countries, there were often instances when an item would be news worthy in the U.S., but not in the U.K.  To make sure that only relevant information went out to everybody, the company-wide version of Abbreviations provided links to regional editions.  So if an employee wanted to find out what was happening in the U.K., they would click on a link inside of the main message which would bring up U.K. Abbreviations, a region-specific supplement that only contained stories that related to their area.  Aside from the regional approach, a link was also provided to an index of topical e-mail publications.  These smaller topical publications covered everything from specific customers that EDS was working with to broad technical subjects like e-business.  Taking this approach kept everybody informed of the corporate information, while giving them easy paths to deeper information on more specific areas of interest.

Crafted properly, an effective e-mail publication can be one of the most valuable tools you can use to keep employees informed.  The trick, as with any good communication, is delivering worthwhile information to your audience in a format that is appropriate to the medium you are using.  Taking the time to do it the right way will help you avoid creating one more message that employees end up deleting, come Monday morning.