July 31

Email Marketing Best Practices for Higher Education


As higher ed marketers, we can get caught up in the buzz about the next big thing, whether it’s a new platform, a new app, or a new technology. However, one of the first big things, email, is still vital and worthy of significant attention.

Across the digital marketing world, email remains perhaps the cheapest, most efficient, and most effective channel. It definitely still works in higher ed.

A recent Campaign Monitor study found that the education sector has the highest average open and click-to-open rates of any industry.

Moreover, students themselves report email as the second most helpful channel (behind a college’s website) in helping them decide to which schools they’ll apply. 

Here are some things to keep in mind to get the most out of this strategic marketing channel.

Start with an Engaged Audience

Your emails will perform best when the people to whom you send them want to receive them. 

That sounds obvious and one application of this principle is well known: buying lists of emails to market to prospective students isn’t a great idea. Even leaving ethical and legal considerations aside, the response rates are very poor. We can all relate. Unsolicited emails are rarely welcome.

But even when students opt-in to your list, you need to think carefully about why they are doing so and focus your efforts strategically if you want to maximize engagement. 

Consider the method of using gated content to collect contact information. This can be effective, but you should try to create content that funnels prospects your way who are likely to want to engage with your school in particular. 

I recently heard of a creative, offline form of “gated content.” A school was collecting contact information for students at summer camps in exchange for a gift, usually a free school t-shirt. I wonder how many of those students had any real interest in the school itself as opposed to just wanting a free shirt.

Compare that with requesting a name and email address to view a sample lecture from a program at your school. This will result in a pool of strong prospects whom you know are interested in the kind of program you offer. 

Even if the second type of gated content gives you just a fraction of the prospects of the first, you will have much better engagement and better results. Plus, you’ll be able to send more targeted email content since you have more information about the student’s interests. 

Offer Value, Not Just Promotion

Once you have a well-qualified list of prospects, what should you send them? It’s simple. Send them what you would want to receive if you were in their shoes. 

The more you know about your audience, the easier this is to do, but even general information about prospective students will put you on the right track. We know students have several common questions, like:

  • What is this going to cost?
  • How can I afford it?
  • Do they have the program I want?
  • Is the atmosphere right? Will I fit at this school?

You can offer value by answering their questions or pointing them to resources that can do so. Focus on making your emails something those who receive them will want to read.

As Jay Baer, author of Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype, writes:

“Stop trying to be amazing and start being useful. I don’t mean this in a Trojan-horse, ‘infomercial that pretends to be useful but is actually a sales pitch’ way. I mean a genuine, ‘How can we actually help you?’ way.”

When you do that, you’ll gain two benefits. One, your emails will be read instead of deleted. Two, you’ll build trust. They will see you as a helpful, supportive guide rather than a nagging salesperson. 

Don’t Send Everyone the Same Emails

Hubspot reports that the best ways to improve email effectiveness are segmentation and personalization. 

Segmentation involves grouping email recipients according to a common trait, like a program of interest or year in high school. 

Personalization means incorporating information about the user into an email in a dynamic way. The most common example is the user’s name, but it could also include things like the major the student is interested in, the state in which the student lives, or even a birthday. 

Used together, these are powerful tools that let you make the content of your emails much more relevant — and therefore more useful and interesting.

If you worry this might feel creepy or intrusive, don’t. Customizing the content of emails in this way is common practice and more than 68% of prospective students say they expect this

It probably goes without saying, but a key to pulling off this kind of customization efficiently is a good CRM, like Slate, Hubspot, Element 451, or Salesforce, that allows you to collect, organize, and deploy data in email automations. 

Try a More Personal Approach

One aspect of making your email communication more personal is customization. Another thing to think about is the way the tone, design, and sender affect the feel of the message. 

Perhaps most email correspondence from colleges and universities is styled like a webpage might be, with graphics, imagery, and well-laid-out design. There is nothing wrong with this and it certainly has a place. 

However, recognize that this sort of email signals right away that it is a mass email sent to a wide audience and probably contains a marketing message. We’re all programmed to tune out these kinds of emails that clutter our inboxes daily. 

What can you do instead? It can be very effective to use simple text and a specific sender to make the email feel like personal correspondence. After all, whenever we get a real email from a real person, that’s what they look like. Your friend’s email doesn’t have graphics or a complex header and footer. 

This format coupled with the customization techniques we described in the last section helps to create emails that feel much more personal and authentic — and are therefore more likely to be read. 

Engage Their Parents

When my son, Ben, was investigating and applying to colleges a few years ago, one of the schools copied his mother and me on some of the emails they sent to him. At the time, it was an unusual approach but it got us as parents a lot more involved in the discussion about that school and ultimately played an important role in his decision about where to study. 

Finding ways to engage with prospects’ parents is a very smart idea. The reason? Parents have a significant influence on their kids when it comes to their choice of a college or university. A study conducted by Salesforce and Volt found students ranked their parents or guardians as the most useful source of information they relied upon when deciding upon a school.   

Nailing the Content

Most of what I’ve covered so far is on the level of strategy. In this last section, I want to briefly outline some of the best practices that can help you when it comes to actually writing your emails. 

Write a Good Subject Line

The most important factor that determines whether your email gets opened is the sender. If an email is from my good friend, I’m opening it. Second to that, however, is the subject line. It’s your chance to arouse interest and communicate value. Consider using an AI tool like ChatGPT to help you come up with ideas. 

Use Short Paragraphs

Make your text easy to read and easy to scan. Keep in mind that most of your readers will be on mobile devices. Break up your paragraphs into bites of two to three sentences each.

Tell a Story

We all love narratives. Use stories if possible in your emails to increase engagement and connect with prospects on an emotional level. 

Target One Action

You should have a specific goal in mind for each email. Construct the text to drive toward that goal and then use a clear call to action to encourage readers to take the next step.

Having too many calls to action creates distraction and dilutes the effectiveness of your message. 

Note, however, that your goal may not need a call to action. Thinking back to what I said about value, don’t be afraid to send an email in which you simply give and don’t ask.

In other words, be willing to provide value without worrying about getting a return with each and every email. Do this and students will see that you genuinely want to be helpful and are not always trying to close a sale. 

Use Video

As appropriate, consider adding video. People love to consume video content and it can significantly raise open rates. I like to include something like “(video)” in the subject line to let the reader know it’s in there.

One Step at a Time

As I said at the outset, email is one of your most important marketing channels and it is worth your time investment to make sure you are maximizing engagement. 

Trying to implement everything we talked about here, however, might feel a bit overwhelming. My advice? Pick one area where you think you have room for improvement and start there. Then continue optimizing as you have capacity. Trust me, every hour you spend improving your email marketing will be time well invested. 

If you realize you could use some outside support to bring your email marketing efforts up to where they ought to be, let’s connect to talk about how my team and I might be able to help. 

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