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Launching an Alpha Service

Marcel Saulnier and Jennifer Hollington are ADMs at Health Canada. Marcel oversaw the development and launch of the “Get Updates on COVID-19” email notification service as part of the COVID-19 Task Force. Jennifer’s communications team has taken over the service as it becomes part of Health Canada’s communications function.

The “Get Updates on COVID-19” email notification service was built during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Canada to help provide subscribers with timely and authoritative information right in their inboxes. Since launching on April 2, 2020, 780,000 notifications have been sent through the service to just over 51,000 subscribers. The principles and ethos established through the development phase will continue to guide the service as it is embedded into Health Canada’s communications team.

Minimum Viable Service

The first version of the service went live based on early assumptions about numbers of subscribers, system load and the minimum viable product—without planning all the features envisioned for future iterations. It was important to get the service launched and working for people in Canada in a matter of days.

  • Initially, the team decided to postpone building a fully integrated backend for the service. A person had to manually complete many parts of the process to send notifications, functions which have since been automated. This improves the security posture of the service by reducing the chance of human error, and making messages easier to send.
  • In week six, the team added a feedback mechanism. While the responses have been positive (82% of users find the service informative and 66% of users subscribe because they want trusted information), the feedback forms provide a new set of analytics to consider. This information helps to inform decisions about the service, such as improvements to the sign-up process, prioritizing topics (the click-through rate varies from an average of 11% to a high of 30%), and optimizing the frequency of messages.
  • Equally important were the things the team opted not to do, such as adding buttons to allow users to choose topics or frequency of messages. These would have added complexity to the service, without necessarily improving the experience for users.

These fixes and upgrades will be integrated into future versions and uses of the service. The foundation of the service, built with existing products, has helped pave the way for others who are replicating it.

Go live sooner

The service went live a month before the news release and promotion campaign. This soft launch period provided an opportunity to stress test and improve the service, and build a base of subscribers before the official announcement. Launching early meant maximizing the impact of notifications during the early days of the outbreak, when people were looking for information.

The analytics show that the news release and subsequent promotion activities did not have a dramatic effect on subscriptions. Most people are finding the service through links on high-traffic Government of Canada websites. Analytics show that 40% of visits to the subscription page come from web pages other than Health Canada’s, with the highest coming from the Canada Revenue Agency.


Two months after the launch, a focus on users remains the defining element of the service. This has governed the approach to choosing and writing content.

  • The content is driven by data analytics from top searches, key questions from the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 1-833 information line and the most up-to-date government content. Average government email campaigns have click-through rates under 4%, and some of the service’s messages have had up to 30%. Analytics and feedback show which messages resonate. The content of the notifications is constantly being adjusted to focus on the topics that matter most to subscribers.

  • The emails are simple and accessible, and are written at a grade 8 level. They are based on guidelines that ensure clarity and reliability. The focus is on key messages and behaviours, which are gathered from behavioural insights experts.

When “Get Updates on COVID-19” went live, the team launched with the simplest version of the email service. People needed information, so launching an early iteration served people’s needs better than waiting for all the bells and whistles to be ready. Launching as an alpha is not a typical approach for the Government, but it allows room for testing and improvement through feedback and incorporating best practices. The team has published a record of the iterations and decisions made alongside the code for the tools that make up the service. The service is listed on Open Call, a catalogue of free digital tools to address common COVID-19 challenges. The intention is to help others learn from the process, whether it be for replicating a similar service, or to help shape their own approach to doing things digitally.