The Red Phone

How do you reach your customers when it really matters?

The original "Red Phone" on the President's desk was built following the Cuban Missile Crisis. It took U.S. decoders 12 hours to decipher Khrushchev's initial settlement message, during which time Moscow grew impatient at the perceived rebuff and issued even more stern demands. Some thought the entire ordeal could have been parried through clear and immediate communication, so the Red Phone connecting the U.S. and Soviet heads of state was conceived and built.

I'm sure all your email messages are important, and you'd like them attended to in less than 12 hours as well. But some -- conveying a deadline, a member benefit, urgent news or an important announcement that impacts your customers' relationship with you -- are more important than others. If you don't yet have a strategy for escalating your most important missives, it's time to build a Red Phone of your own.

Metaphors aside, here are some elements that should be part of your Red Phone strategy:



- A unique sender: Dedicate a unique "from" name for all your critical messages, and only your critical messages. An actual person's name is preferable to a generic sender (like "") since personal appeals break through better than corporate announcements.

- A recurring subject line prefix: If you had a friend going through litigation and his cell phone rang, you'd know his lawyer was calling him if the ringtone you heard was the theme from "Law & Order." That's what you're hoping to achieve with a subject line prefix (such as "Red Phone: 30% discount ends today"); you want the first words your subscribers see to immediately telegraph the message's importance. Keep the prefix short, allowing for all of the message's specific subject line to be visible in your subscribers' email clients. And consider also something unique to your company. Messages labeled with the ubiquitous "Urgent" rarely are.

- A channel outside of email: It may be that your Red Phone isn't the inbox, but is instead a fax, SMS, RSS feed or Twitter. If you go this route, use your email channel to construct your Red Phone, alerting your subscribers to its presence, collecting fax or mobile numbers as required, and letting them know via email when the Red Phone will ring (for example, "This is the last notification on this promotion you'll receive from us via email. For a final last-minute reminder, subscribe to our Red Phone service").

The cornerstone of any successful Red Phone strategy is mutual understanding: both you and your subscribers need to know that your Red Phone is seldom used, and only when the message is important. This takes time, and possibly some sacrifice. You may find that your subscribers have to miss out on an opportunity communicated through the Red Phone in order to realize the channel's value to them. Stand firm; remember that sending and resending an "urgent" message because it didn't elicit your desired response is the very practice that predicated the need for a Red Phone in the first place.

Once your Red Phone is built, your entire organization needs to respect it. You must vigilantly defend whatever content and frequency parameters you put in place, fully expecting that the more successful your Red Phone is at getting attention, the more coveted it will be by others in your organization for their own purposes. This ongoing discipline is critical to building the Red Phone into a valuable long-term communications asset. If the President's wife had called him on the Red Phone each time she wanted to see if she left her sunglasses in the Oval Office, he might have been a little slower to reach for it when it mattered.

2 comments about "The Red Phone".
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  1. David Shor from Prove, August 29, 2009 at 10:18 p.m.

    A useful email about email, but I actually learned a detail about the Cuban Missile Crisis that I did not know--I knew that the US ignored the second message from Moscow that the Politburo forced Kruschev to write--but I just thought that we deliberately ignored the second message and acted as if we only received the first. Didn't realize that the decoding time was the problem.

    So, thanks for the email notes and for the new info!

    David Shor

  2. Mike May from Huge, August 31, 2009 at 9:20 a.m.

    Thanks for the comment, David. Watch for another esoteric metaphor in my column next month, where I compare some list hygiene practices to the search for the next Mersenne Prime number using a pocket calculator.

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