Using bulk email effectively

How to communicate with thousands of your closest union friends

Chris Lawson

PSAC National

Workshop Introductions

Workshop outline

Expectations and limitations

Why email

For all that we talk about social media, email is still it. Why?

We can know with certainty - one way or the other if we got a message to a member.

In Canada, email use closely parallels internet access, which is now almost ubiquitous. Its true there are demographic, geographic and socio-economic pockets of Canada that do not use email but they are shrinking at a pace we would not have imagined even five years ago.

Furthermore both the clamour for email from those among your members who are connected to the internet and the lure of the relative cost-effectiveness of it cannot be ignored.

Email is old. Like almost 30 years old. It’s pretty drab. Very un-sexy. As anyone with teenaged children or millennial co-workers will tell you, it’s for old people. But even the millenials will stoop to using it because they often get messages from the old people in their lives. The boss. The parents. The union.

And we are forever discovering new and exciting social media which are apparently the next big thing, and our continued efforts to communicate using these ever multiplying channels are taxing our limited resources. Social media are getting more fragmented, not less.

If social media audiences are coming together anywhere, it's still on Facebook. But that is getting harder to use for mass communication as Facebook is starting to 'finally' make money off its huge user numbers. To get your message in front of your members you now have to pay. $220 for 2077 post 'engagements' for a reach of 51,000 pairs of eyeballs.

The money of it

It doesn't take much to exceed the value-for-money quotient of boosting posts on Facebook. With the numbers I've seen, anyway.

And I'm wondering if people won't be heading back to email in droves now that Facebook has clearly found a way or the way to make money off of its hitherto untapped resource of 10 billion users.

We used to talk about one 'share' reaching on average 130 people because we assumed (at the time correctly) that when someone shared an item on Facebook, all their friends saw it.

That has changed. The numbers on this slide suggest that email is back in the running. I don't imagine it's anywhere near as compelling content as a kitten video on Facebook. Nor is it as easy to spread email as it is Facebook posts (people's reluctance to forward emails to friends is high and getting higher).

But the strategy for email reach has always been to acquire addresses, not have other people pass messages on to their addresses.

Write better headers

It’s not because they’re bad people. It’s not because they’re stupid or apathetic. It’s because they’re smart and they have to be picky about how they spend their time. And more often than not you’re not their priority.

You can’t take it personally. People are waiting for emails from their boss, from their clients, co-workers etc etc. By default, you’re not on their first tier of interest.

Use the subject line to summarize, not describe your message.

When writing news stories we often talk about writing the story three times. Once in the headline, once in the lead and once in the rest of the story.

This is not true for email headers. You have one story to tell all through those three things. So you have to use words more sparingly than you ever imagined. And you have to write them for the email.

Write the story once

PSAC Communications,
PSAC launches campaign on pension reform Treasury Board must consult with the union on pension changes


Tell Treasury Board to consult on pension reforms

Summarize, don't describe


This is going to lend itself to some pretty shouty emails. And that may not sit well with your readers.

Generally speaking the research suggests that using the word 'help' in an ask or a subject line is a conversion killer, which is marketing speak for 'buzzkill' or 'turnoff'.

Exclamation marks are spammy and should also be avoided.

But I have done A/B testing which suggests that the word 'Urgent' in the subject line can boost open rates. Fundamentally that's about getting to know your audience. And not just what you think you know about your audience.

Personal, but not too personal

Write the message as if you are actually talking to the person not as if you're waving a pamphlet at them.

The software can help with merge tags but you have to compose it accordingly


If you are writing about layoffs don't make it look too personal. Dear (name) we are working very hard on your behalf as your union in this time of restructuring. 20 or so people though we were giving them their surplus notice or that they had been made surplus.

The real issue with the email might have been, however, that we were breaking the universal communications rule of 'Show don't tell'.

What about content

G = generous. Give something away. Let them know about the barbecue or free coffee at meeting

I = informative. Congeal a complex section of the CA into Ten steps to maximizing your time off.

V = Value. Show them what you are doing - don't tell them you're there for them working for them. Write an email that works for them.

E = entertaining. Naheed Nenshi. Nuff said.

Can the labour movement be funny? Most of the time, the answer is 'no'. But we must try to rise to this if we are to be effective on email or even social media.

Not all your emails have to have an ask. Maybe your e-newsletter has no asks but is merely informative.

The twitter stream of yesterday's internal communications workshop suggested that individual IRL communication still trumps electronic interaction in terms of mobilizing, changing behaviour and reaching people's hearts.

And I believe that. But I still focus on this digital communciations stuff because I think if we do a better job of it we can free up more bodies to go and have those life-changing, activating conversations with our people.

So the give principles are about getting your email newsletter to do some of the informing and routine provision of information so your reps and your leaders can go out and talk to people and make them part of the movement we want to start.


Make that ask as glaring and obvious as humanly possible.

Transactional emails

They all generate emails. Confirmations. Anything like this is an opportunity to get someone to sign onto your list.

Make sure you use it.

Add a 'call to action' to your confirmation page.

Numbers are angels