E-newsletters that click

Build a company-wide email that people actually want to read

By Alex Benady,

At precisely the same time every second Thursday, a ping emits from the computers of the 132,000 employees of global pharmaceutical giant GSK. The alert heralds the arrival in their inbox of the latest edition of the company’s newsletter, Your GSK News.

For GSK, Your GSK News (YGN) is ‘Lord of the Newsletters’. This year it replaced hundreds of GSK internal communications spanning different languages, locations, sectors and job functions. “They weren’t centrally managed, could land in employees’ inboxes at any time, had an inconsistent look and feel, and delivered duplicative or contradictory messaging,” says Chelsea Jane Moore, editor-in-chief of YGN.

It was a major undertaking to replace all those incoherent voices with just one. “I’m pretty sure I was the most unpopular person in comms at GSK for several months,” Moore confesses. But consolidation was an absolute must if the company was to execute a new business strategy based on ‘innovation, performance and trust’, set by Emma Walmsley, who became GSK’s CEO in April 2017.

The newsletter brings to life GSK’s activity, Moore explains. “In a big company, there can be a lot of noise. One of the primary purposes of YGN is to tame that noise.” It provides a single hymn sheet from which the entire company can sing.

Here are the lessons that comms professionals can learn from GSK and other masters of the e-newsletter.

DEVELOP A CHANNEL STRATEGY

Any company worth its salt has various methods and channels for delivering internal comms: an intranet, digital signage, noticeboards, town-hall meetings, group briefings, departmental trips, memos from senior leaders, surveys, webinars – the list goes on.

“The key is that your newsletter must reflect what you are doing with your other channels,” says Rachel Miller of internal comms consultancy All Things IC. “There is no point simply replicating stories available elsewhere.” She suggests creating a matrix that lists channels on one axis and purpose on the other. “Ideally, every channel needs a purpose; if you can’t think of a clear purpose, then don’t use it.”

In line with the ‘eternal comms’ model, which blurs the line between internal and external communications, one of the most important considerations is your external brand. “It is very important that your newsletter has a coherent relationship with the external brand because what happens on the inside shows on the outside,” says Katie Marlow, director of Little Bird Communication, another internal comms consultancy. This means that not only should the livery, logo, layout and font reflect house style, but so should the tone of the stories and the values expressed in them.

APPROACH DEADLINES LIKE A JOURNO

In the world of journalism one of the greatest sins is missing a deadline. The same rigour must apply to an internal e-newsletter. ”You are communicating important information in a newsletter,” says Marlow. “What does it say about the importance of that news if your newsletter is irregular, late or not published at all? It shows that you or the company don’t really value it – so why should employees?”

CULTIVATE SOURCES

It is clear that your newsletter should communicate your organisation’s strategy. But there is a danger that, if it simply becomes HQ propaganda, people won’t read it or believe what it says. “There’s no room here for spin or propaganda. Sometimes you have to be brave and push back if senior management lean too hard on the editorial,” says Miller.

A newsletter should be about the employees’ voice, so content needs to come from the bottom up and not the top down, she argues. “The editor should see themselves as a content curator, not creator.” This has important implications for the role of a newsletter editor or manager. They cannot just sit back in their office and wait for stories to roll in. Like journalists, they need sources, and that means actively cultivating personal networks. “In the end,” says Miller, “your newsletter will only be as good as your relationships.”

Moore at GSK has taken a perhaps radical stance on this. She makes sure a wide range of voices in the company are represented by having a 200-strong roll of contributors and by allowing them to have a significant input on everything from the content to the name of the newsletter. “If you want to be relevant, you have to delegate ownership of content to communicators who are closest to the audience,” she says.

The total amount of content written for each edition is huge – up to 200 stories in all. The emphasis is on local relevance, so not only is regional content placed before corporate content, but it is written in 13 different languages and targeted at 198 possible audience groups. Employees only receive news targeted at them based on their role, business unit and location.

DETERMINE THE EDITORIAL TONE

The tone and content type of your newsletter clearly depend largely on the nature of your company, its employees and its strategy. International law firm White & Case has around 6,000 employees in 28 countries. The company is over halfway through a five-year plan to achieve ‘profitable growth’. To amplify and explain that strategy, global internal communications director Madeleine Malik created a slick quarterly newsletter called The Reporter Quarterly. It supplements the company’s more news-focused e-newsletter, The Reporter Daily.

“Given the nature of our workforce and the subject matter, it is very important that the tone is highbrow. So articles are 700 words long and often include embedded video,” says Malik.

“All our people speak English, although many are overseas nationals. So, we treat the reader as clever but not as a native English speaker. We write in English and the language is then moderated.” Stories are simplified with box-outs and graphics.

Meanwhile, the Post Office’s newsletter for female counter staff delivers human interest stories in the form of a women’s gossip magazine. And it’s worth noting that every expert I spoke to for this piece said that, no matter the type of company or reader, human-interest stories are always the most read.

LOOKING GOOD

Then there’s the question of design best practice. Out-of-the-box templates for e-newsletters may limit creativity.

“To deliver the optimal user experience, it’s best to create bespoke, locked­down templates so all messaging is on brand in terms of layout, colours and corporate fonts,” advises Trina O’Rourke, team lead for customer success at internal comms software provider Poppulo.

THINK TECHNICALLY

There’s a technical side to this, O’Rourke adds: “That means understanding everything from the devices that employees are using, such as desktops, tablets and mobiles, through to the email server being delivered to.

“‘Mobile-first’ design makes for cleaner rendering if a higher percentage of your recipients will be opening the newsletter on mobile. ‘Mobile-friendly’ design is more versatile if you have a blended audience, split across desktop and mobile,” she says. Whichever route you choose, it’s vital that you test the template before use, warns O’Rourke. Email test platforms such as Litmus can be used to ensure your newsletter looks good across all email clients and device types.

ENSURE READER COMPATIBILITY

The same goes for mailing strategy. To get the best response to an e-newsletter, you need to understand recipients’ technology and environment and how they like to digest content.

If you are creating anything more than a basic, one-size-fits-all email, you also need to consider what kind of additional data you have about your readers so that the mail-out can be automatically segmented.

“Obviously you need recipients’ email addresses, but other valuable data points include site, location, country and business units,” says O’Rourke. Systems like Poppulo allow you to sync directly to your company’s active directory or HR data sources.

MEASURES OF SUCCESS

The only way to know if your e-newsletter is successful is to have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve with it in the first place. Here the difference between outputs and outcomes is as important as it is in external comms.

White & Case’s Malik uses surveys and direct feedback from employees, mixed with digital tracking, to gauge reaction to the newsletter. She knows that 74.3% of respondents read every issue of The Reporter Quarterly and that 91.4% say it gives them a better understanding of the wider business and strategy. She uses Google Analytics to spot highly read stories, plan future content and see what works well.

However, you need to know not just what readers say, but also what the effect has been on their behaviour and attitude. “You should know what you think success looks like,” says Miller. “One important question to ask is: ‘What do I want people to say, think or feel as a result of the newsletter?'”

She suggests conducting annual surveys that ask staff questions such as ‘Do you trust what you read?’ and ‘How proud do you feel of your company?’ You can either run your own surveys and interviews or you can track employee sentiment on Workplace by Facebook or Glassdoor.

It’s worth doing this because an effective e-newsletter can change company culture. At GSK, Moore concludes, ‘Timely, consolidated and relevant content is a worthy aspiration. But, if we really want to help move the needle culturally to achieve our company’s objectives, we also have a big role to play in encouraging two­way engagement and straight-talking conversation among our employees. Ultimately, Your GSK News was created to reduce reliance on email.’

Alex Benady is a freelance business journalist and e-newsletter enthusiast


A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q1 2019.

Photo by MARVIN TOLENTINO on Unsplash

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