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 <ucsfchancellor@ucsf.edu>”
  • “Important Update” from “Cheap Online Dealz <joe92934@hotmail.com>”

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

Reference:

  1. Baseline industry email performance averages (http://mailchimp.com/resources/research/email-marketing-benchmarks) for comparison: 18% open rate; 3-6% click through rates, 3% conversion rate (http://www.marketingprofs.com/charts/2013/11664/e-commerce-benchmarks-email-referral-traffic-and-conversion-rates-drop-in-q2).
  2. Slide deck – Email strategy by CTSI to Increase Engagement of UCSF Profiles:
    http://www.slideshare.net/NooshinNavidiLatour/uccsc-2014-vanity-emails-37931690

For additional information or questions, contact Anirvan Chatterjee, Data Strategy at CTSI, (anirvan.chatterjee@ucsf.edu) or Nooshin Latour, Communications & Marketing, (nooshin.latour@ucsf.edu ).

Anatomy of the Winning NSF Industry Survey Email below

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:

Read more of this post

Wanna Play? Computer Gamers Help Push Frontier Of Brain Research

berger-cube_dendrites-1Here is a fascinating NPR news story about using people’s addiction to computer games to advance science.

People can get pretty addicted to computer games. By some estimates, residents of planet Earth spend 3 billion hours per week playing them. Now some scientists are hoping to make use of all that human capital and harness it for a good cause. Read more…

How Social Media Is Changing the Way We Talk About Science

Five Questions With UCSF Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek

Brad Voytek, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, makes use of big data, mapping, and mathematics to discover how brain regions work together and give rise to cognition. In his work as a researcher, science teacher, and outreach advocate, he regularly uses social media such as his blog Oscillatory ThoughtsTwitter, and Quora. In 2006, he split the Time magazine Person of the Year award.

Bradley Voytek

Brad Voytek, PhD

Q: You’re interested in leveraging data to modernize science. Do you see a role for social media in changing research? 

Social media already is changing research. In many ways! First, there’s a direct effect wherein scientists are beginning to use data collected by social media organizations to analyze behavioral patterns, such as a study from 2011 that looked at millions of tweets to analyze fluctuations in mood.

The way we conduct and communicate research is also changing. Since the 1600s, scientists have communicated findings through peer review. But these results are static, and conversations regarding specific study details, methods, etc. were private. Now, scientific publishing organizations like Nature Network or SciVerse and professional sites such as Mendeley and ResearchGate are providing platforms for open communication and ongoing conversations about research projects.

Q: You’re using social media to promote your work. What motivates you to do that, and what do you see as the benefit?

While in a sense the first statement is correct, “promotion” is a loaded term. Science is an opaque process, and scientific publications are jargon-laden, dense documents that are inaccessible to all but the field-specific experts. These publications give an idealized view of the scientific process–from clear hypothesis to statistically significant result. The reality is a world messier and less certain than that, and I use my blog to communicate that.

Having students just jump in and read these artificially-refined and specialized manuscripts and Social media quote_Bradley Voytekexpecting them to learn from it is like trying to teach English by having someone read Shakespeare: it’s technically correct but the end result will be a mess.

I get a sense that many of my blog’s readers are undergraduate and graduate students, and I aim to communicate the real difficulties and uncertainties of science with them. I remember being there feeling confused, and feeling really dumb because I didn’t “get” scientific papers and could never imagine myself coming up with a novel idea, running an experiment to test it, and writing a paper. I remember looking at the CVs of really smart post-docs and professors and seeing page after page of amazing compliments and thinking I was inadequate.

My goal is to demystify the scientific process, to make it more real, to show how hard everything is, but also that it’s doable. I’ve got a whole section of my CV titled “Rejections & Failures” outlining every grant or award I was not given, every paper not published. I believe that listing those failures shows fledgling scientists that the process is hard, but not because it requires super-intelligence, but rather super-diligence.

Q: You recently made an offer on Twitter inviting people to ask you questions about neuroscience. Can you tell us about that?

This exemplifies another reason I blog, use Twitter, etc. When teaching, I took to heart the idea that if you can’t explain something clearly, then you truly have not internalized it and don’t really understand it.

Social media is a way for me to continue sharpening my understanding of difficult concepts. The time investment isn’t important to me–my job is to learn and discover, and this is another aspect of that. And if in the process I make something more clear and accessible to a possible future scientist, all the better. No scientist achieved their breakthroughs because they communicated less.

As for the offer on Twitter, I got quite a number of excellent questions, but a few stood out that really made me think. Specifically, there were three that are directly relevant to my research and that got me digging around the literature some more to figure out the answer. The questions essentially boiled down to two ideas: First, how plastic is a mature brain? And second, how many neurons can you lose before you (or someone else) notices?

Ultimately I wrote a blog post on what I’d found and rolled some of that writing and those ideas into peer-reviewed papers I’m still working on. This kind of challenge, discussion, and ideation exchange is extremely valuable for me, and it’s part of the reason that I make offers such as the one on Twitter or use Q&A sites such as Quora.

Quora is a particularly interesting example. It’s a site populated by very intelligent people, but given the kinds of neuroscience-related questions that appear there, it’s clear that there are still some pervasive misconceptions about how the brain works. On a site such as that, the feedback and discussions seem to flow a bit more easily than they do on my own personal blog, but they’re not limited in scope as on Twitter. It’s a nicer platform for the level of discussion I’m seeking.

It also doesn’t hurt my motivation when I get comments from people such as, “I’m a grown man with a family and a career and [Brad] made me want to become a neuroscientist!” or “I accidentally started liking science stuff thanks to you!”

Q: Lots of scientists are not using social media. When asked why, many say they don’t think people will care about their scientific work. What do you think about that perspective?

People who say such things underestimate the interest level and intelligence of the non-scientist public. When I hear this, in my head it translates to either, “I don’t care about what I’m doing,” or, “I’m not confident enough in what I’m doing to explain it to anyone who may ask really simple questions that undermine what I do.” The former is fine; not everyone needs to “love” their job or work to be excellent at it. The latter is emblematic of unclear thinking.

Q: What tips can you give researchers who are thinking about using social media but don’t know where to start?

Generally the tips I’ve seen from a lot of bloggers are “write consistently” and “be engaging”, but that’s like saying to be a good scientist you need to “work harder and be smarter”: technically true but not very useful. I wish I had some magic formula for how to be successful at using social media for science, but I don’t have such a thing.

Broadly speaking, knowing how to communicate complex ideas effectively is critical, but just as important is knowing how to network, how to spread your ideas, and how to write something other people want to read. You’ve got maybe a few seconds to capture peoples’ attention online, and getting them to read a 1000-2000 word article is hard. Time and attention are premium commodities in people’s lives, and what you’re asking them to do is sacrifice that commodity to you. You have to keep that in mind. When you write, don’t think “this will only be read by a half dozen of my friends who read my blog.” Instead, think, “this might get picked up and read by tens of thousands of people. Is this worth the time of thousands of people?”

I find social media helpful to clarify my thinking, but other people may have other methods of accomplishing the same result. The only remaining advice I have is to seriously consider the reasons for not using social media: are you not blogging/tweeting/whatever because you honestly think it’s a waste of time and can see no return-on-investment for you? Or, are you not doing it because simplifying your ideas is too challenging?

This Q&A is part of “Digital Media & Science: A Perspectives Series from CTSI at UCSF” and was originally published on the UCSF CTSI website. This series explores how digital media and communications can be used to advance science and support academia.

Related posts by Bradley Voytek

Brad is also interested in leveraging data to modernize research. He’s one of the creators of brainSCANr, an online resource that uses existing publication data to show the probability of relationships between neuroscience topics and ultimately support the discovery of novel research ideas. He is also a fan of zombies, and has devoted some of his time to mapping brain damage that would be caused by zombification.


Oh that Facebook…Can social media be used for clinical trial recruitment?

Social Media is all a buzz right now and everyone from industry giants, mom and pop shops, non-profit community organizations, and even the U.S government are trying to figure out how to use it to their advantage. Some organizations find social media platforms wildly successful, while others can’t quite hit their mark. Just days before Facebook opened on NASDAQ, General Motors Co. decided to stop their advertising on Facebook. Were their ads ineffective, or was GM not correctly seeing the potential power of the social network to build brand loyalty? Should we care?

For many organizations that are looking for quick short-term returns on their investment dollars in the pay-per-click advertising might be disappointed with the results. As the article points out, the value of the social media user is that they become an advocate of the brand. Many are wondering if this is a sign of things to come for the advertising in the Facebook social media world; since it remains to be seen whether this virtual user engagement correlates with a return on investment (ROI). Is it possible to accurately define or measure ROI in social media?

One of the great powers of social media is creating a community and buzz through social connectedness—a virtual word of mouth system. Your social reach is indicative of a classic Wayne’s World 2 scene, “You know how these things start… one guy tells another guy something, then he tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and they tell their friends, and so on”.  If you witness a friend “like” a page or event, they are giving their social network a thumbs-up that they interested in a particular company, product, event, etc.—hey, and you might too. Conceivably your “friends” are more likely to share similar interests…or least be curious enough to check it out.

But how can this be applied to academic and clinical research realm—and should it? By creating a community around a specific disease or research area, you can create a group who has common interests and build loyalty within that group—that is if you can foster trust among your group members as a credible, reliable and useful resource. For instance, if you are a group member or follower of a specific group related to diabetes treatments and you see a fellow member of that group “likes” a diabetes clinical trial, then you might be more inclined to also check out that clinical trial.

The use of social media in clinical trial recruitment is a tricky area that still is trying to find guidance. In recent blog post by Rebar Interactive, brings this issue to light and raises  A Social Media Question IRBs Must Ask about how to appropriately use the power of social media to raise awareness of clinical trial opportunities; all the while, being mindful of patient privacy. This can be counterproductive in a virtual environment and age where absolute privacy may be disintegrating, with each allow access button we click.

The FDA still has not released official regulation on what is/isn’t allowed in recruitment via social media mediums. As a result, social media for clinical trial recruitment is such a gray area which is constantly evolving in its application. Although times are changing, IRBs shy away from encouraging the use of social media in patient recruitment because of the uncertainty in how to regulate it. In the meantime, you don’t want to be left outside the social circle, so here is a helpful resource to help navigate the unregulated waters: Patient Recruitment, Regulatory & IRB Considerations for Social Media

“From Twitter To Tenure”: MD Shares How Twitter Can Be A Valuable Tool For Academics

Credit: Jason Archer, http://www.academictechnology.org

There is still considerable resistance to embracing social media tools for academic purposes, but if you are reading this blog post on FutureDocs by Vineet Arora, MD,  you are probably willing to consider their positive effects. And the list of academic tweeters is growing.

Vineet shares the various ways social media has impacted her academic career including finding grant opportunities, disseminating research results, and being found as an expert for media interviews and lectures. Here is her list:

  • Media interviews – I was interviewed by Dr Pauline Chen through the New York Times who located me through – you guessed it Twitter!  She actually approached me for the interview by direct messaging me through Twitter.  She was following me and noticed my interests in handoffs on my Google profile which is linked to my Twitter account.  She was also very encouraging when I started the blog which was exciting!
  • Workshop presentations– I presented a workshop on social media in medical education (#SMIME as we like to call it), at 2 major medical meetings with 3 others (including @MotherInMed who encouraged me to start a blog and also is my copresenter at SGIM).  The idea was borne on Twitter…and the first time I actually met one of the workshop presenters (who I knew on Twitter) was at the workshop.
  • Acquired new skills  – My workshop co-presenter who I only knew through Twitter ended up being Carrie Saarinen, an instructional technologist (a very cool job and every school needs one!).  She is an amazing resource and taught me how to do a wiki.  After my period of ‘lurking’, I started my own ‘course’ wiki  dedicated to helping students do research and scholarly work which we are launching in a week.
  • Lecture invitations – Several of my lecture invitations come through social media.  Most notably, I was invited to speak for an AMSA webinar on handoffs and also speak to the Committee of Interns and Residents on teaching trainees about cost conscious medicine.  Both invitations started with a reference to finding me through Twitter or the blog.
  • Committee invitations – I am now on the SGIM communications task force as a result of my interest in social media.  Our most recent effort was a piece about‘tweeting the meeting’ with @medrants and an older piece focused on the top Twitter Myths and Tips.
  • Grant opportunities – I recently submitted a grant with an organization that I learned of on Twitter – Initially, I had contacted Neel Shah from Costs of Careasking him if they had a curriculum on healthcare costs.  They did not, but were interested in writing a grant to develop a curriculum so they brought my team on board and we submitted together (fingers crossed).
  • Dissemination – One of the defining features of scholarship (the currency of promotion in academic medical centers) is that it has to be shared.   Well, social media is one of the most powerful ways to share information.   In a recent example, we entered a social media contest media video contest on the media sharing site Slideshare.  Using social media, we were able to obtain the most number of ‘shares’ on Facebook on Twitter which led to the most number of views and ultimately won ‘Best Professional Video.’  To date, this video, has received over 13,000 views, which I was able to highlight as a form of ‘dissemination’ in a recent meeting with our Chairman about medical education scholarship.    While digital scholarship is still under investigation with vocal critics and enthusiasticproponents debating the value of digital scholarship in academia, digital scholarship does appear to have a place for spreading nontraditional media that cannot be shared via peer review.

Further reading:

How social proof works

We trust products and ideas that other people trust. Aileen Lee breaks down how social proof works in a guest piece on TechCrunch, breaking down the following categories:

Expert social proof

doctors for medicare

Celebrity social proof

Yao Ming

Individual user feedback social proof

Critical reviews (365:009)

Aggregate popularity social proof

Too many served

Friends’ recommendation social proof

Facebook hopes social proof with motivate users to clean their database

Read more:

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