This past week, Today@Brown celebrated its two-year anniversary of bringing campus news to the Brown community in the form of a daily email.
What began as an attempt to correct problems caused by Morning Mail — the University’s previous daily distributor of campus news — has become a staple for many students, faculty and staff. In spring 2019, the average daily open rate for Today@Brown was 59 percent, with a 71 percent open rate among undergraduates, and 63 and 43 percent open rates among staff and faculty, respectively. The open rate for undergraduates increased 7 percent from last year, according to Joel Pattison, director of web and digital communication strategy.
As its readership has grown, Today@Brown has divided into 18 personalized segments sent to 20,000 students, faculty and staff every day, according to Brian Clark, assistant vice president for news and editorial development. For example, there are distinct versions of the digest for students of different class years that deliver events, faculty studies and University announcements, among other information relevant on campus.
In the past two years, Today@Brown has significantly reduced “the flood of email that was hitting inboxes across campus” and undermining people’s ability to effectively communicate information, Clark said. From 2016 to 2019, there has been a 73 percent reduction in emails sent from all-campus listservs, and a 94 percent reduction in traffic from the all-undergraduate list — a sign that the daily digest has effectively streamlined communication on campus, according to Pattison.
The digital platform will continue to change to address new community concerns, Pattison said. For example, the University aims to integrate Today@Brown with Events@Brown — the University’s daily event calendar — by the beginning of the spring semester, he added.
The vision for Today@Brown arose in May 2015, when several administrators asked Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt to fix Brown’s “email problem,” Cliatt said. A student could open their email on the first day of classes and “see anywhere from 100 to 500 emails just sitting there,” which would range from invitations to student-run events to warnings about pertinent deadlines, she added.
Cliatt found that because there was no curation process for Morning Mail, the digest had become overcrowded, disorganized and inefficient. This made Morning Mail “such a difficult medium for passing along information that people weren’t reading it,” Cliatt said. Once community members saw the disorganization of the daily email, they stopped trusting it and turned to campus listservs instead, which flooded the inboxes of the Brown community every day, she added.
The inefficient distribution process risked disproportionately affecting those with fewer resources of their own to navigate college. “For students who do not come from an advantaged background, email being a barrier to access important information was a serious concern,” Cliatt said.
In the summer of 2016, Cliatt and then-CIO Ravi Pendse assembled a team that included Pattison, Deputy CIO John Spadaro and Associate Director of Integration and Identity Services Chris Keith of CIS, and Clark, whose staff now curates Today@Brown. The team set out to address the daily flood of emails and develop a structure for information flow that included personalization for different segments of campus. After over a year of surveying the community for input, building the product’s roadmap for release and constructing the digital platform, the team was ready to launch Today@Brown.
Today@Brown is “just tremendously more user friendly” than Morning Mail was, Clark said. “I think it’s more digestible and scannable, and it gives people the ability to choose what they want to focus on.”
Today@Brown is “definitely useful,” said Leena Surapaneni ’21. Although as a junior she feels “pretty much settled” in her daily routine, during her first year at Brown she found Today@Brown particularly helpful in finding activities and groups on campus.
Natalie Andrews ’20 did not read Morning Mail frequently, and said she does not read Today@Brown any more often. “I really should read (Today@Brown)” since it contains information on interesting events, she wrote in a statement to The Herald.
Since Today@Brown’s release, the University has been contacted by “major universities in New York, Washington, D.C. and Indiana inquiring about Today@Brown as a solution” to their own internal communications issues, Cliatt wrote in an email to The Herald. “To be a part of a community is to share information,” Cliatt said. “It should be a basic principle … that any member of the community can go and reliably find information that is necessary for their life” as a student, she added.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that “in the summer of 2016, Cliatt assembled a team that included Pattison and Clark” that led to Today@Brown. It is more accurate to say that Cliatt and then-CIO Ravi Pendse assembled that team, which included Pattison, Deputy CIO John Spadaro and Associate Director of Integration and Identity Services Chris Keith of CIS.” The article has been updated to reflect that change.