Commentary | Hyde Park: Introducing SSMU to the wild world of email

As I write this, I’m sitting on the National Mall in D.C., surrounded by countless young Americans, and the techie in me knows that this assembly was made possible by the Obama campaign’s astute use of technology to mobilize enthusiasm by the millions. The most prominent, simple, and sophisticated of these tools is email.

In contrast to the way that President Obama was so deftly able to do, SSMU faces a perennial problem of finding itself unable to engage large-scale grassroots involvement, most prominently displayed during past failed General Assemblies (GAs). Certainly, many student politicos are interested in emulating President Obama, but the most important lesson that student politicos should learn from the campaign is not in rhetoric, but in the use of technology to interact with and energize constituents.

SSMU spends many thousands of dollars every year on advertising costs, most often when it advertises various events like GAs and SnowAP in full- and half-page ads in The Daily. I would know; I myself last year spent over $5,000 advertising on its behalf on three different General Assemblies in three papers. And that money didn’t even get us full, sustained quorum at any of the three (GAs). SSMU would have been better off not advertising at all, and paying individual students $10 each to attend. We would have saved money and made quorum.

The unfortunate thing is that the single most effective tool SSMU has at its disposal generates $0 per year, and is thus wildly ineffective: listservs. This misuse results in emails that are overloaded with too much information, leading many students, constrained for time and attention, to ignore the emails, and then complain when they belatedly find out about things they would have been interested in.

SSMU, and every other faculty I’ve encountered, sends its listserv emails with zero targetting from the “Compose” function of Outlook. This is an extraordinarily wasteful and poorly executed method of sending out emails. There is no more efficient means of reaching 20,000 undergraduates, and their various sub-divisions, than email. The problem is getting people the content they want and implementing stronger micro-targetting.

As it is, SSMU cannot even track any usage data that would improve its email system. Nor does SSMU effectively utilize its listserv for its various political mobilizations, besides the simple announcement emails or Facebook messages. The listserv could be used for the distribution of petitions or letter-writing campaigns to administrators and provincial leaders. Email can be used as a two-way street, to engage students rather than just broadcasting to them.

Last year, SSMU hired a communications coordinator to work on this front, but it has been mostly a band-aid on what is not just a staff problem, but also an “equipment” problem. An improved email system should allow students to choose what they’re interested in; some interested in mobilization and protests might not be interested in SnowAP, or vice-versa.

This is not to target this year’s SSMU executive, nor the faculty association executives who are similarly constrained. This problem is a sum of the inertia and lack of commitment to forward progress on technology at SSMU and faculty associations in the executives year after year.

The best way to communicate with students is to tell them about the things they care about. The current method of sending out book-length emails is broken, and SSMU should fix it.

Yahel Carmon was the Technology and Online Assistant for J Street, and is the founder of Overheard at McGill as well as the forthcoming McGillBlogs.com. He is taking a year off from McGill, though he loved being the Speaker of SSMU Council last year. Contribute to the downfall of snail mail at yahel.carmon@mail.mcgill.ca.


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