At least some of the conventional wisdom appears to be right: Staffers check their email early and try to get through their must-reads before the day gets busy. They say that email received at odd hours or even after the initial in-box onslaught is less likely to be read. And they say they triage ruthlessly by subject line.
Communications staffers say their early-morning reading tends to focus on tip sheets sent by news outlets, but that they might open a newsletter from an advocacy group if it addresses a hot topic — particularly one on which their boss is focused. "Definitely it's the subject I'm looking for," says one House Democratic communications director. "If it's related to issues my boss is active on, I'll read it, regardless of where it's coming from."
Policy staffers look mainly for material relevant to their policy areas, but they sometimes browse newsletters that cover general political news as well. One Senate GOP policy staffer says he tries to skim relevant newsletters upon waking at 5 a.m., and continues to monitor them at the gym or during his commute. His list of must-reads includes newsletters from outside interest groups that are important in his boss's state, and those from Washington think tanks or advocacy organizations that are likely to touch on issues his boss will need to address. Beyond that, "unless it's breaking news on something that I recognize is a hot-button issue of the day, then I probably don't even open it," he says. A House GOP policy aide agrees that the morning, in his case between 8 and 9, is his best window for reading email newsletters, which he scans during his commute.
So sending an email with a carefully crafted subject line , before it is buried under 499 others, is a good start — but making sure that a newsletter is well timed and well pitched isn't necessarily enough. National Journal asked MailChimp, a mass-email marketing service, to run an optimization algorithm on the 3,798 @mail.senate.gov and @mail.house.gov addresses in its data set to see when staffers are most engaged with their mail. (MailChimp considers a recipient to be "engaged" with an email when he or she clicks on a link within it, regardless of when the message was originally opened.) The company found that a large number of its emails hit Hill in-boxes between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on weekdays, and engagement is high during that time — but it found that engagement spikes again at around 2 p.m.
Afternoon is also when those National Journal surveyed said they were most likely to use their computers to check in on social media and other websites, which suggests that staffers find time to sit and focus after lunch. But that isn't the only reason they might reengage at their desks with a newsletter they opened — and abandoned — earlier that morning.