What’s wrong with think tank bulk emails, and how can it be put right?

A recent exchange around bulk email providers over on the WonkComms LinkedIn group got me thinking about what think tanks are doing with bulk emails. Though I might write about the best and worst bulk emails next time (a bit of naming and shaming never hurt anyone) for now here’s the bigger picture and some ideas for how things could be done better.

The setup

Having worked in the ‘think tank world’ for a relatively short time, and having come into a press-focused position from a more communications-focused one, I’ve found that (as with so many professional circles), there is a bubble. A bubble occupied by ‘wonkcomm-ers’, the press and policy-makers. This triangular bubble suits all three parties down to the ground. Each carefully bring their own roles and skills to bear on the work of outreach, informing the public and informed decision-making.

But there are various times and places where this breaks down. Times when think tanks don’t go through an intermediary – such as a media organisation or a government – to try and get their message out to ‘the public’.

The most common of these, and arguably the elephant in the room of think tank communications, is the bulk email.

Across all sectors bulk emails take a variety of shapes and sizes, but are almost invariably boring. From multinational corporations to big international NGOs, institutions around the world offer the experience of either being inundated with irrelevant information once a week on a Friday or receiving a 16-page round-up email once a month.

Having been set the task of improving my specific think tank’s bulk emailing, I have seen my fair share of other think tanks emails and it is much easier –and kinder – to pick out one good example (take a bow Policy Network) than to name everyone else.

The problems

The problem is that bulk emailing has evolved into a part of people’s working life in a way that is completely divorced from any assessment of audiences and their habits. Staff compile a newsletter on a Thursday, check on a Friday morning and then send off at 5:00pm before leaving for the weekend. Timing isn’t everything, but Friday afternoon isn’t when I read newsletters.

Another problem is that newsletters are generally known as quite boring things to receive. Why invest any time in them if it is already accepted that no one cares about or reads them?

Lastly, there is an issue that the market for expert and affordable advice and provision for bulk emails is pretty thin on the ground.

The mistakes that think tanks make with their emails are many: too long, too congested, too wordy, etc. But what options are there other than the Friday afternoon newsletter?

Possible answers

The answer will be different for different types of organisation. The New Economics Foundation have just embarked on a whole new strategy with Blue State Digital (the company behind the Obama ’08 and ’12 email campaigns) which is starting to pick up steam with specific projects being sent to all contacts with the question ‘Do you want to hear about this in the future?’. Though they may end up sending to less people, at least those people will want the email they’re receiving, or so the theory goes.

This approach might not work for certain organisations though, the informality – and campaigning background – doesn’t sit well with the more traditional think tank model, especially as it includes getting rid of newsletters for good.

Political campaigning though seems to be the only ‘sector’ then where email has been found to be useful from an institutional perspective, useful in that they have been an invaluable addition to the organisation (or sometimes the entire lifeblood in the case of Change.org, Avaaz etc.)

For those with less of an eye on experimentation and more on consistency though, it is still worth having a look at the literature and statistics available (check Mailchimp’s website for a whole lot of material), which all tell us what we probably already know: emails are more read when they are relevant to the readership, soon after a big news story, and easy to read. The first two of these points are often out of our hands, but the last is where most think tanks fall short.

To burst through the bubble and talk straight to a broad audience, to engage members, to influence debate or stakeholders informed, think tanks need to catch up with political campaigners and begin to question their most basic assumptions.

All data, and all industry advice, will include some variation on: ‘keep-it-short-and-link-to-your-website’. This answer is fundamental to rethinking bulk emailing. Bulk emails are not something to tack onto the end of the working week, but a shorthand guide to someone who might want to engage with your organisation.

The answer to his problem seems to cut across the think tank sector: entice your audience using your email and bring them onto a website that will engage them.


To finish off it might be useful to share a brief rundown of some of the bulk email providers I’ve come across and what their strengths and weaknesses are. [Disclaimer: this is separate to broader questions of strategy and is more to do with which provider might suit which type of organisation, I still think that the majority of these companies aren’t asking the really fundamental questions]

So, for what its worth, we have been with Pure360 for 2 years. We have 20 or so people around the organisation who have to use the email system, so for us the emphasis has been on finding a provider who’s easy to use. Unfortunately, for those without advanced IT skills, and little time, Pure360 is time-consuming and we have experienced a number of deliverability issues as well as general slowness on their end.

Adestra have similar usability issues, but a much better setup for organisations with multiple users.

Mailchimp is easier to use, but I think more so for organisations where there is one central bulk email coordinator, as you have to really engage with them to get the most out of it. The Cabinet Office use them, as well as a number of think tanks (Young Foundation, IPPR, Policy Network, Demos, RSA). They’re also cheap.

Campaign Monitor are used by companies like Facebook, Apple, WWF and have a good reputation. They are however less focused on the UK so if you need a lot of hands on help they might not be best suited. Two similar ones to Campaign Monitor are Communicator and Campaign Master.

For those with a bit more money and interested in the ‘easy-to-use’ side of things: DotMailer

For those with a lot more money and interested in analysing all the data that comes out of emails: Silverpop

For campaigning: As mentioned above, no one is thinking more about what is best about emails than Blue State Digital (Health Warning: do not go with BSD unless you want to abandon the whole newsletter concept and move to a more campaigning model)

Ones to avoid: Communigator, GraphicMail, Mailing Manager, Createsend, Cheetahmail.

Further Reading

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