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Cleaning up customer inboxes: Business and Finance communications

In the same way the Enterprise Marketing Hub advances the ASU brand across the university community, the Business and Finance communications group serves all areas of the Office of the Executive Vice President, Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer — from parking, facilities and ground maintenance to purchasing, mail services, police and emergency management.

The team provides standardization for and compliance with all university guidelines and policies. It is also in charge of final review and approval for three primary functions: the cfo.asu.edu website; Knowledge Base articles for student-facing components such as card services or parking and transit; and mass communications sent to its constituents.

Due to the office’s high volume of email distribution (upwards of 40,000-70,000 recipients per week), Business and Finance became one of ASU’s early adopters of Salesforce, officially moving away from its previous service as of July 2015.

“There was some level of belief that if the CFO’s office began to use the system, it would help acculturate the ASU community to adopting Salesforce because they would start seeing our organizational messages coming through it,” explains Aaron Bryant, marketing communications manager for Business and Finance. “We were using a third-party system that others around campus were using, so we served as a good test case in converting over and how that process might work for them.”

Having migrated from a system that provided limited metrics, the group’s primary goal was to obtain and provide more analytics in more places, leveraging the university-wide Salesforce implementation as a way to consolidate the units of Business and Finance into a single system with a single workflow process and a single method for analytics.

“Doing so has given us a lot more data, which has been very beneficial for us,” says Bryant. “Before we were looking at email analytics through several different email subgroups, not all of which were trackable. We weren’t getting the benefit of understanding the whole picture.”

Learning more about specific audiences — when they open emails, what they open, what the design has to be in order for them to take action — has been helpful in identifying times of day to deliver messages, days of week to deliver messages and how to best organize content. By creating a richer data set to review, Business and Finance has enhanced open and click rates. Gaining access to more robust data has not only been helpful for increasing the responsiveness of constituents; it has also resulted in lightening their customers’ email load.

“Organizationally, we have cleaned up more than 11,000 employee inboxes with Salesforce,” Bryant says. “We actually implemented very few new operational filters for decision-making about sending messages during the transition, which sped up the adoption process because individual units didn’t feel like we were imposing new restrictions. But when they sent a message and we gave them data demonstrating it was less effective than they believed it to be, it made it much easier for us to recommend changes or eliminate the message altogether.”

Prior to implementing Salesforce, the Business and Finance communications team could still manage lists and standardize messages, but the process was much more tedious. The group credits the customer relationship management tool’s user-friendliness with helping them build simple and professional messages quickly.

“Salesforce is a more intuitive system for non-technical individuals,” says Bryant. “We’ve had some staff changes, but with Salesforce it has been easy to train up new people. Our previous system had a much larger learning curve for basic operations.”

The process thus far has been seamless, so much so that the team is already looking ahead toward implementing more advanced functionalities, including automated components such as file transfer protocol (FTP) and application programming interface (API) data connections that can replace the administrative tasks of manually loading and managing distribution lists.

“Right now we use a lot of staff resources to extract and manipulate data before it can become a distribution list,” explains Bryant. “We’ve already estimated that once these FTP and API components are fully implemented, we can save as much as half of a full-time employee’s time.”

The team also hopes to begin the automation process for some of its more routine messaging, such as cyclical communications that are sent out at the beginning of the semester, end of the semester, during holiday breaks and when preparing for commencement. The ultimate goal is to get to a place where those communications can be written far in advance and set up to send automatically from updated distribution lists on a specific date — without human intervention.

Finally, Business and Finance is also looking into incorporating multi-stage messaging with the Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s Journey Builder.

“We’ll send out a message that starts the process for new employee training, for example,” says Bryant. “Once you complete one component, the feedback loop in Salesforce sends the next message and moves you along a journey, particularly with new hires to make sure they have completed all the steps in the onboarding process. Everyone receives the messages in the same order, with the same information.”

Whether saving time for staff members or for email recipients, it all comes back to slimming down the number of messages and enhancing the quality and effectiveness of what is sent.

“All of our efforts are geared toward delivering only the messages people need, and our data will tell us what they are most interested in,” he says. “Of course, we do have operational messages they may not be interested in, but they still need the information. In those cases, we need to find ways to enhance open rates so we know that knowledge is being absorbed. We don’t have a lot of great end tracking mechanisms to work with. Ticket sales help athletics, alumni memberships help the Alumni Association and recruitment can measure success by how many students apply. We don’t have a lot of end measures in many of the things we do, so we really have to have great process measures to help us determine whether we are being effective at communicating important information the ASU community needs to know. That’s what Salesforce helps us with, is tracking all of those process measures.”

As with the adoption of any new technology, there are always small adjustments to be made post-launch to make the process even better. Overall, however, Bryant says his team is very happy with how the Salesforce transition has been handled. There are few changes he would make, though he does have some suggestions for how others can ensure the same result.

“I would pay attention to some of the details in the template design and styles to make sure they align with how you’re using whatever system you are currently using, to make sure you work out those little issues in advance of your complete rollout,” he says. “Perhaps even have a staged rollout phase to a couple units in your department first. For us, it was easier to roll everyone out at the same time. But if I were to go back and do it, I probably would have tested a couple of cycles of high-volume emails just to find a few of those little quirks that can be corrected so that you don’t have that pressure when sending out an urgent message.”

Regardless, the ability to streamline mass messages affecting more than 40 percent of those employed at ASU into a single point of distribution is no small feat. The benefits can be measured both numerically — through open and click rates — and in ways that are harder to quantify, such as the collective sigh of relief from inboxes (and inbox owners) across campus.