Adding some colour to council emails

The November edition of Total Politics has the second in a series from me on councils and communicating. The first part, Yes, council websites can, looked at lessons from the Obama campaign for local council use of the internet. This piece now looks at email in more detail.

In October’s Total Politics I wrote about the broad lessons councils can learn from Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, for both councils and election campaigns need to communicate successfully online with large numbers of the public.

Despite this similarity of aim, many of the internet techniques which are now second nature to most political campaigns are still almost unknown in local councils. As I wrote of one example, “Whilst for political websites the email sign-up box is a near ever-present feature, on council websites it is almost never there.”

Most commonly, the underlying problem is that email (and indeed Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or a host of other services) is a communications channel between the council and the public which does not sit easily in traditional departmental structures. It can be communications. It can be IT. It can be marketing. Wherever it sits, it needs to cross those organisational boundaries – and to serve all the council’s departments. Planning news, local area or neighbourhood assemblies, changes to refuse collection days, new library opening hours, you name it – across them all, email can be a very powerful tool for talking with the public.

It is nearly impossible to find a council which does not use email extensively for internal communications, and for diffuse one-to-one communications with the public. It is also not that hard to find a council which does a monthly HTML heavy email bulletin that is largely lifeless and rarely read. But it is almost unknown for a council to regularly send out interesting and relevant news, in accessible and exciting formats, to large numbers of residents.

Whether you are a councillor or a senior member of staff in a council, here is a simple eight-step plan to revolutionise your council’s use of email.

First: ask how many email addresses with permission to use for sending general and varied messages the council has – and who is responsible for tracking and increasing that number.

Second: give that person senior support to help change the way their colleagues and other departments work in order to keep on gathering emails. Again, take an example from comparing councils with election campaigns: political leaflets frequently ask for your email address; council literature almost never does.

Third: whether the council’s websites are run by communications, IT or externally, get into the objectives helping to increase the number of email addresses.

Fourth: make sure there is a clear editorial process –so you avoid the twin perils of either having no emails going out or drowning people in a flood of bad ones. Keep an eye on ensuring that some emails do go out though, for in most organisations the problem is that too little use is made of email to send out news, not too much.

Fifth: get a little more advanced with the management and ensure someone is tracking the bounce and open rates on the emails sent out, as that give a very good indicator of the quality of the data on the one hand and the quality and relevance of the messages on the other hand.

Sixth: develop your email strategy further by mixing up regular newsletter style emails with specific news or requests for action. If you really want to get people to do something, it should be in an email that is about that topic alone, and which is less than 300 words. Learning how to write good, pointed emails is specialist skill – so don’t blame staff for getting it wrong, nor expect them to acquire those skills without any help or support.

Seventh: start regularly surveying email recipients to see what they like and don’t like about the emails; what would they like to hear about more, and what less?

Eighth: now you have regular, useful and popular emails going out regularly, start addressing the harder issues of how you tie up different data sources in the council and how you efficiently link up emails with geographic and service information, e.g. so you can send an email to leaseholders or to people in and near a new residents’ parking zone. I have deliberately left this to last because I have seen too many organisations try to start here and then get bogged down with grand plans, complicated discussions, nervous lawyers and fraught departmental rivalry. The result? They never even get going with the easy stuff.

The result, even if you get only part way down this list? The council’s efforts to keep residents informed will be better – and at very little extra cost.

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