My position as the Director of Management Information Systems places me in a somewhat unique position to make some observations regarding the use of email at my institution. It affords me an opportunity to understand the impact that mass emails have on our email servers and the potential email from our site has on us becoming listed as a spam site. It also gives me the opportunity to understand and appreciate the business drivers from across the organization to communicate and how challenging that can be on many different levels.
The increase in email traffic over the past several years has been significant. Most email users can relate to the feeling of being inundated with email. Most are particularly annoyed with unsolicited junk mail commonly referred to as â€œspam.â€ Of course, with a twist on an old adage, one can appreciate that one manâ€™s spam, is anotherâ€™s gold-communication-tool-of-choice. This is the dilemma with email as a communications tool.
Getting an organizationâ€™s message out in a consistent manner is also being made more challenging with the expanding mix of traditional mass media, print media, and a host of relatively new tools such as blogs, wikis, IM, and podcasting. But email still presents the challenge for organizations as it is the preeminent personalized communication tool. In addition, as more organizations adopt Constituency Relation Management technologies (CRM), email predominance is increasing as it is a key component in many automated business processes. Between email automation and the increasing ability by sub-organizations and even individual staff to communicate internally and externally through various listservs, third party email managements systems, or email clients such as Outlook, a strategic communication question for any organization must be â€œAre we effectively using email to support the strategic communication goals of the organization.â€
For higher education institutions, this is a particularly difficult question to answer. Most academic institutions have a culture that adopts new technologies quickly. Additionally, most Higher Ed. institutions have a loosely coupled and autonomous organizational structure. The combination of non-centralized structure with numerous and rapidly changing modes of communication does not lend itself to highly coordinated efforts. It makes the identification of the appropriate medium a challenge. The question of â€œhowâ€ a message should be communicated is occupying more of the time and resources traditionally dedicated to the â€œwhatâ€ and â€œwhen.â€
Before questions of message content and coordination can occur, the organization must come to terms with the position of email within the overall communication strategy. This can range from the non-centralized, hands-off approach, where any employee with a list determines message content and timing, to organizations with sophisticated communication plans and strict control. Some institutions recognize that the academic culture does not lend itself to the more controlled approach. Therefore they make strategic communication content available internally in order to facilitate the inclusion of strategic content by individuals or individual departments in their communications. In fact some, such as Mississippi State, recognize in there official communications plan that â€œconstituents suggest that "word of mouth" communications from faculty and staff, students and alumni constitute a major source of information about the University, rivaling more "official" University communications and the mass media.â€ This strategy basically recognizes that it is much easier to pull as string than it is to push it.
Given the challenges of branding and marketing, the rapidly changing communication technologies, and the demographics of a changing student pool, institutions should be taking an in dept look at how best to leverage email strategically. Key stakeholders, at the very least, should meet on a fairly regular basis and review the organizationâ€™s overall communication strategy and alignment with institutional goals.
The questions surrounding strategic use of email can be categorized into two areas, quality and quantity.
For quantity: How much email is too much? Is it known how much is even sent to any one particular type of constituency? How frequent is too frequent? What processes are in place for determining when and where community members are placed within a list? What degree of coordination is occurring among shared stakeholders in the communication? How good are the opt-out options? Are efforts made to determine recipient satisfaction with email services?
For quality: Is â€œofficialâ€ email reviewed for quality. Are mailings coordinated for content as well as timing? What new tools are available? Are we on message? Is the message shared effectively internally?
There are more questions, but, again, the key one to ask is â€œare we using email effectively?â€