The 7 Keys to Maximizing Email Survey Response Rates

Lessons learned after achieving a high email survey response rate for a recent NSF Grant Study on UCSF Profiles.  Brought to you by Anirvan Chatterjee & Nooshin Latour

Your recipients don’t care about your email

The average office worker may get over 100 emails per day. Swiftly deleting or ignoring unwanted email can be the only way to stay afloat. These seven best practices will help ensure your email gets opened, read, and acted on — and not ignored or deleted.

We believe that our email marketing tactics and using customized data to drive up survey responses is widely applicable across research studies that can utilize targeted user data to increase study participation.

1. Don’t use Outlook — here’s what to use instead

We send normal email from our personal email accounts (e.g. Outlook), but when every response matters, it’s critical to use an email service provider like ExactTarget or MailChimp instead. These cheap or free services allow you to:

  1. measure how many sent emails have been delivered
  2. measure how many delivered emails have been opened
  3. measure how many opened emails have been acted upon (had links clicked on)

Email service providers also let you compose email that looks good on smartphones, tablets, and computers, and helps ensure your mail doesn’t get flagged as spam.

2. You live or die by your subject line

Most recipients will decide to open or delete/ignore your email based on a quick glance at the subject line. How can you write a subject that compels a user to open the email?1

In his article “The Three Key Elements of Irresistible Email Subject Lines,” Brian Clark recommends the “Four U” approach to writing headlines:

  1. Useful: Is the promised message valuable to the reader?
  2. Ultra-specific: Does the reader know what’s being promised?
  3. Unique: Is the promised message compelling and remarkable?
  4. Urgent: Does the reader feel the need to read now?

Mailchimp gives examples of several effective subject lines (70-93% open rates):

  • Preliminary Floor Plans for Southern Village Neighborhood Circle Members
  • MotorCycling Magazine Reader Survey
  • Inside Football: Summer Training Camp Preview Issue

…and several bad subject lines (0-12% open rates):

  • Final reminder for complimentary entry to attend the West Freelands BCI Cluster Conference 2006
  • Help Baylor create the ideal college experience
  • Don’t Let 2006 Slip Away Without a Tax Deductible Donation To the Children & Families of Omire

Not sure which subject line to use? You can do an A/B test to see — see #7!

3. Can the sender be trusted?

Which email are you more likely to open?

  • “Important Update” from “UCSF Chancellor <>”
  • “Important Update” from “Cheap Online Dealz <>”

If you’re sending email from an email service provider like ExactTarget or MailChimp, you can easily change your email’s “From:” line to whichever name elicits the most interest or trust among recipients. (Send email only from addresses that you have permission to use.)

Not sure which email address to send from? You can do an A/B test to see — see #7!

4. Was your email opened?

If your subject and From: lines were effective, recipients are more likely to open your email. Email service providers (step #1) measure your email’s open rate — a lower bound for the proportion of recipients who actually opened and read your email.

Higher e-mail open rates are associated with higher survey response rates.

MailChimp offers a list of open and click rates for email sent from across a wide range of industries, including:

  • Health and Fitness Industry
    • 24% open the emails, 3.6% click a link
  • Medical, Dental, and Healthcare Industry
    • 23% open the emails, 3.1% click a link

5. Get to the point with concise, scannable text

Imagine your recipient reading your email while standing in the checkout line — busy, distracted, and reading on a small screen. How do you ensure your email doesn’t get ignored or deleted?2

  1. Put the important ideas first
    can readers identify the main message and what you want them to do after reading the subject and first several sentences?
  2. The shorter your email, the more likely it will be read
    keep in mind that smartphones show much less text than Outlook / webmail screens
  3. Skip the jargon, and write like a human
    write more like the way you’d speak to a neighbor or family member
  4. Paragraphs and bullets help with readability
    breaking text into simple chunks makes it easier to understand and scan
  5. Visually emphasize what’s important
    use bolding judiciously to emphasize the most critical phrases in your email
  6. Deemphasize the boilerplate
    put boilerplate as far down as possible, so your main message comes first

6. What’s your call to action?

Your email has a tactical purpose, e.g. getting users to click a link to a survey. That’s your call to action.

  1. Make your call to action incredibly obvious
    use returns, bolding, color, buttons, etc. to make your call to action stand out
  2. Repeat your call to action several times
    reader may not see it the first time, so offer many opportunities to do the right thing
  3. Eliminate distractions
    g. if your email is full of extraneous links, those compete with your main message
  4. Consider the reader’s motivations and incentives
    why should busy readers take action? are they helping researchers understand a disease? fulfilling a prior commitment? eligible for a prize?

A clear call to action is critical. Here are three different internal UCSF administrative emails we sent — each with similar open rates, but very different click/action rates:

  • Survey of 2,300 UCSF researchers about their industry contacts:
    • 41+% opened the email, 31% completed survey
    • we had short text, strong incentives, and sent a reminder email to users who didn’t complete the survey the first time around
  • Informational email to UCSF Profiles owners about their profile pages
    • 46+% opened the email, 14% clicked a link to see their profile pages
    • link is prominent, but users may not have had a strong incentive to click it
  • Email from UCTV to UCSF Profiles users about videos being added to their profiles
    • 39+% opened the email, 13% clicked a link
    • main link is to individual’s UCSF Profiles page, secondary link to login page

7. Test before you send

  • Proofread the email before you send
    Have a colleague read for accuracy, and someone outside the field read for tone
  • A/B test to optimize your emails
    Send alternate subject lines to a subset of users, and use the most effective one (platforms like ExactTarget and MailChimp make this incredibly easy)
  • Don’t forget to proofread on a smartphone
  • Test your links


  1. Baseline industry email performance averages ( for comparison: 18% open rate; 3-6% click through rates, 3% conversion rate (
  2. Slide deck – Email strategy by CTSI to Increase Engagement of UCSF Profiles:

For additional information or questions, contact Anirvan Chatterjee, Data Strategy at CTSI, ( or Nooshin Latour, Communications & Marketing, ( ).

Anatomy of the Winning NSF Industry Survey Email below

SEO for Research Networking: How to boost Profiles/VIVO traffic by an order of magnitude

"Redwoods" by Michael Balint (cc-by)

The UCSF Profiles team has increased site usage by over an order of magnitude since the site’s big campus-wide launch in 2010. This “growth hacking” cheat sheet distills the key lessons learned during that period, and can be applied to almost any research networking platform, including VIVO, Profiles, and home-grown solutions.

1. Measure Everything

  • Install Google Analytics
    • Set it up on every page of the site
  • Learn how to use it
  • Segment on-campus vs. off-campus use
    • Find your “service provider” name(s) at Audience > Technology > Network
    • Create an advanced segment that includes only your service provider(s), and one that excludes it/them
    • Use these two segments to analyze everything (internal and external visitors are totally different, and need to always be analyzed separately)
  • Register with Google Webmaster Tools
    • Go to
    • Follow the directions to register your site
    • See how your site’s indexed on Google, and check for issues
  • Check the Recommendations for RNS Usage Tracking

2. Ignore Your Homepage, Focus on Profile Pages

  • On a mature search-optimized RNS like UCSF Profiles, only 2.6% of visits start on the homepage
  • If you’re successful with steps 3-4, traffic directly to profile pages will skyrocket, and dominate traffic. That means you need to focus most of your attention on the care, feeding, and design of profile pages, vs. the home page.

3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

  • Make sure search engines can see your pages
    • Tweak your robots.txt so search engines can see all your pages (
    • Create a dynamically-generated sitemap of all your profile pages (
    • Mention your sitemap in your robots.txt file, and then register it with Google Webmaster Tools
    • Wait a day, use Google Webmaster Tools to validate that your sitemap works
  • Improve the copy on your profile page titles and descriptions
    • Make the page <title> on profile pages short and globally unique
    • Make <meta name=”description”> on profile pages readable and descriptive
      (e.g. “Jane Doe’s profile, publications, research topics, and co-authors”)

4. Add extra professional metadata

  • Follow the directions at and to add people-oriented HTML metadata to your profile pages
  • Use to test your syntax
  • OPTIONAL: Use “pretty” URLs — and include names if possible (e.g.
    • Pretty URLs should be the “real” final URL, not just a redirect
    • All old or alternative profile URLs should do a 301 redirect to the pretty URL
  • OPTIONAL: Prevent indexing of multiple versions of your page
    • If you have multiple versions of your page getting indexed (e.g. /url/ vs. /url/?a=b), tell search engines which version is the main one by using the rel=canonical canonical link element

5. Get Inbound Links

  • Get webmasters to link to your homepage from campus resource guides, etc.
  • Get webmasters to link to individual profiles from departmental faculty profiles, news stories, campus directory, etc.
  • Encourage reuse of your data via APIs, and ask for a link back as attribution (downstream users save time and money; you get links back in return)
  • All these new links may not send traffic, but will help SEO.

Have questions? Suggestions? Leave a comment below, or contact Anirvan Chatterjee directly.

Photo credit: Michael Balint, used under Creative Commons attribution license

2013 CTSI Retreat: Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 3

A few distinct themes emerged from #CTSI2013 tweets during the two lively panel sessions at the 7th Annual CTSI Retreat:

Themes from the 2nd Panel:
(UCSF Leaders addressed how ‘Big Tent’ proposed initiatives align with/and complement UCSF strategies)
-“Speed Dating” to promote networking among research scientists
-Big Data at UCSF & beyond
-Other ‘Big Tent’ proposal topics

Find below curated tweets by themes.

See Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 1 for visualizations and retreat tweets from ‘Setting the Stage’
Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 2 for tweets during the first panel with industry and academic leaders.

2nd Panel: UCSF Leadership Perspective with Deans from all Five Schools

“Speed Dating” for Scientists – To Drive Novel Translational Research Connections

Big Data at UCSF?

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2013 CTSI Retreat: Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 2

A few distinct themes emerged from #CTSI2013 tweets during the two lively panel sessions at the 7th Annual CTSI Retreat:

Themes from the 1st Panel:
-Getting out of research and academic silos
-Community & #CitizenScience
-Industry Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Academia
-CTSA Consortium, National Issues

Find below curated tweets by themes.

See Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 1 for visualizations and retreat tweets from ‘Setting the Stage’
& Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 3 for tweets during the second panel with UCSF Leadership.

1st Panel: Leveraging CTSI, UCSF and CTSA consortium to radically transform research

Getting out of the Silo

Community & #CitizenScience

Read more of this post

2013 CTSI Retreat: Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 1

The 7th Annual CTSI Retreat focused on a selection of 10 open proposals among 23 offered through The Big Tent: CTSI 2016 NIH Renewal Proposal Launchpad.

Attendees and external audiences joined the conversation online via #CTSI2013. A steady flow of tweets came in throughout the day from 27 unique contributors (up from 16 last year) who shared insights, thought-provoking questions and engaged with one another (99,085 impacts!).

See Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 2 & Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 3 for themes that emerged from #CTSI2013  tweets during the two panel sessions.

Ready & Raring: #CTSI2013 Retreat

2016-2021: Opportunities & Challenges w/ CTSI Director Clay Johnston

Continue onto Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 2 & Big Twitter at The Big Tent, Part 3

Healthy Communities Data Summit

The Healthy Communities Data Summit held at UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus, organized by Health 2.0, the Foundation for Healthcare Innovation and sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation, attracted a mix of civic leaders, medical/health professionals, academics, hackers and communicators – all eager to gain a better understanding and share the innovative uses of open health data.

Key topics from the event included cooperation and trust building between government, community and enterprise players, along with high impact applications by making health data accessible to the public (See tweets below).

As a communicator, I took a particular interest in the “A Better Pie Chart & Beyond: The Evolution of Visualization & Analysis” panel. Wess Grubbs, founder of Pitch Interactive, emphasized the human element behind all this data, and reminded users to prioritize the narrative when communicating health data. Although data is lifted from its silos and becomes easily accessible through visualizations, it should tell a complete story – not just grab for views, or “instant gratification.”

Here’s an event summary from the California HealthCare Foundation’s California Healthline.

CTSA 2013 Annual Face to Face: The Power of Storytelling

Hosted by: University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center (HSC) in cooperation with UNM’s Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC)

This year’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) communications key function committee (CKFC) Annual Face to Face  focused on the critical role of storytelling to lift research of out its silos to a wider audience.

Richard Larson, MD, PhD, UNM HSC Vice Chancellor for Research compared communicators to ambassadors of information – after all, “research ignored is research wasted.”

Purpose/Objectives of the Annual F2F:

  • Increase understanding and support of NCATS and NIH priorities
  • Improve awareness of CTSA value, dissemination of key information, and collaboration among key stakeholders across the consortium
  • Inspire CKFC members through new connections, skill building, clear direction, and storytelling

Here’s a selection of tweets by CTSA communicators during the two-day conference:

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