We’re at a university where an employee receives 27 bulk emails from the organization (the untargeted and unpersonalized emails sent to a large list of recipients) —  each of them contains over 8 messages on average. That means an employee receives over 250 unique pieces of content per week from central units (e.g. president office, provost office) — not from their students and their peers, but from the communicators in central units. By inputting a mailing list and pressing a button, a communicator could send an email to over 20,000 employees (see figure 1).

Figure 1. We found that the burden of being aware was put collectively on recipients.

The current organizational bulk email system is not an effective system. For one, these bulk emails are not free — imagine that each employee spent 2 min reading a bulk email, with average rates, this email will cost 20,000 * 2 min * 0.5 $/min = $20,000 to the university.  But of course, this cost isn’t paid by the sender, it is absorbed by all the departments where staff work.  So the sender thinks the message is free, yet each department and unit has its employees’ time taken away bit by bit by these messages.

For another, these bulk emails are not being remembered. Through a survey with 11 real bulk messages sent in the last two weeks and 11 fake bulk messages, we found that the real bulk messages only had about a 22% gain over messages that were not sent to them (38% of the real messages were recognized while 16% of the fake messages were also claimed “seen” on average). 

So we carried out a study to examine current practices and experiences of the stakeholders of this system. We conducted artifact walkthroughs with six communicators and nine recipients within our university. We also interviewed two of the managers of those recipients. Specifically, in these artifact walkthroughs, the recipients walk the interviewer through the previous email messages they received; the communicators walk us through the previous email messages they sent out.

We found that:

First, recipients are burdened, they feel the responsibility of awareness was shifted to them by those bulk messages.

Second, naturally, stakeholders have different preferences. The leaders and managers think that employees should know what’s going on in the university – however, the employees feel that most of these messages are too high-level to be relevant.

However, on another side, communicators have to send these emails even when they know that their recipients will dislike them — they have their own difficulties. 

First, they have clients–organizational leaders–who want everyone to know their messages.

What’s more – communicators lack tools, they have very limited tools for targeting/personalizing emails; e.g., they could only target people by job code — however, a general title like program associate tells you nothing about this employee’s job content.

Most important, the system appears to work because these emails have good open rates. Open rates are nearly the only metric in the current bulk email tech platform because it is easier to get than end-to-end metrics like recognition rate or reading time. However, most of our recipients read the first line, then close the email — simply because they can’t get enough information from the subject line. In other words, we should not confuse a message that people open with one that actually contains content they find useful.

Figure 2. Summarization of our findings.

To summarize, none of the stakeholders has a global view of the system and sees the costs of the current bulk email system to the organization (see figure 2).  We’re working on a following-up project to provide possible solutions to improve this system.

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