How Your Higher Ed Email Marketing Can Thrive in a Post-Pandemic World

In higher education marketing, personalization is no longer optional. As prospective students grow increasingly tired of virtual communications, any effort to reach them has to include highly targeted, personalized outreach that specifically speaks to their needs and preferences.

That can be difficult to achieve. After all, higher ed marketing is often driven by inertia, a desire to stick with the status quo in the face of shrinking budgets.

Enter: email marketing. A long-standing favorite tool of admissions offices, it provides a way into your prospects’ inboxes but, if done wrong, won’t cut into their short attention spans. After all, the average person now receives more than 125 emails every single day.

And yet, email marketing remains undoubtedly powerful. When done right, it can nudge both prospects and their families in the right direction, prompting them to request more info, visit, apply, and even submit an application to their admissions department.

This is the time to embrace email marketing and get it right. Let’s dig in.

Email Marketing in Higher Ed

The Enduring Power of Email Marketing in Higher Ed

Don’t make the assumption that Gen Z is too young to use email. In fact, the opposite is the case. One study into Gen Z’s email habits included a few fascinating findings:

  • The majority of Gen Z started using email when they were 10 years old or younger.
  • A full quarter, 25% of Gen Z, check their email when they first wake up every morning.

It doesn’t end there, either. Nine out of ten U.S. citizens under the age of 24 use email at least once a week. Meanwhile, some studies show email marketing to be 40x more effective than Facebook and Twitter combined. It’s a good thing, then, that 98% of high school students are willing to share their email address with colleges.

None of that may come as a surprise to you. After all, email marketing has been a staple of admissions recruitment for at least a decade. The key, though, is not just jumping into the deep and starting to blast emails out; instead, it’s all about doing it right.

The End of the List Buy Email Blast

Every admissions office has been there. You buy a list of SAT test takers, and send an e-blast to every one of them to introduce your school and prompt them to apply or visit campus.

It’s an easy way to do email marketing, but it also doesn’t typically work. The average open rate for purchased lists is just under 10%. Compare that to our most recent email campaign partnership with Stetson University’s College of Law, which received an open rate of just under 50%.

When digging deeper into the preferences and expectations of Gen Z, that makes intuitive sense. More than any generation before them, they thrive on personalization. Personalized emails are 26% more likely to be open, resulting in an average 14% increase in click-through rates and 10% increase in conversions.

Sending emails to purchased lists of test takers is not inherently bad. Sending a single email to your entire list without considering the uniqueness of each recipient, though, can be. Modern higher ed email marketing has to be more than simply pushing out your broad message at all costs. Its power is only unlocked by leveraging its unique features for Gen Z.

10 Email Marketing Best Practices to Reach and Engage Your Audience

“Email done right” means different things to different people. In higher education, of course, it’s much easier to nail down a few specific best practices designed to optimize your results and turn your emails into a viable marketing and recruitment driver. We’ve outlined some of the most important best practices below:

1. Always Segment Your Lists

Segmentation is the absolute key to higher ed email success. Through effective CRM management, you can separate your prospects into segments focusing on anything from their interests to their location and field of study. Each segment can then receive more personalized, custom email messages and message flows relevant specifically for them.

The ideal scenario is never sending out an email that goes to your entire prospect pool. Every email sent should be segmented on at least one variable to be as relevant as possible.

2. Personalize When Relevant

Segmentation is in itself a type of personalization. But you can also get less subtle. Depending on how your email platform connects into your admissions CRM, dynamically insert anything from a student’s first name to their intended major or start term.

The key here is relevance. You can go overboard on your dynamic personalization inserts, making the email seem less authentic. Insert custom fields only where it adds to the conversational tone and messaging relevance of the email.

3. Keep Your Focus Singular

You want your students to apply, but they might need to visit first. Or maybe you want to tell them about all of your visit options, with a virtual tour promotion as a nice throw-in.

In reality, each potential focus area and call to action you add to an email can distract your audience. Psychology researchers have found that too many options can actually paralyze the audience, making them less likely to choose any of them.

Fortunately, once you know about this issue, it’s easy to circumvent. For each email you send, set a specific and singular goal. Then, make sure that every part of your message works towards that goal, whether it be applying or registering for a fall open house.

Fortunately, once you know about this issue, it’s easy to circumvent. For each email you send, set a specific and singular goal. Then, make sure that every part of your message works towards that goal, whether it be applying or registering for a fall open house.

4. Pay Attention to the Sender

It’s tempting to send emails that appear in your students’ inboxes as coming from the [University] Admissions Office. After all, we’re talking about automated emails, not individual notes from counselors.

However, customizing the sender can make a significant difference in grabbing your prospects’ attention in a crowded inbox.

When you can, attach a name your prospects might have already seen elsewhere, like the admissions counselor for the prospects’ recruitment territory.

5. Match Send Times With Other Efforts

Email marketing doesn’t exist in isolation, and should never be treated as such.
Your audience will receive your emails in the context of every other communication they see from your institution and others including direct mail, social media posts, phone calls, and more.

Email marketing leaders are able to adjust their strategy to that fact. They plan their message as part of a larger strategy, sent intentionally at a time when audiences have enough context to recognize the subject line (or sender).

A visit-focused email, for instance, might make sense following up a postcard introducing your visit options, which you can then follow up with social media posts on the same topic. The more integrated your email into your larger communication flow, the better.

6. Design Your Emails for Mobile Devices

It comes as no surprise to most that Gen Z is mobile first. An astonishing 98% of them own a smartphone, and another 55% use it for more than 5 hours per day.

In other words, they’re not using their desktop browser to check their email. Your messages need to adjust, with mobile optimization in every way.

That includes not just adjusting the layout to the screen, but also keeping your paragraphs short and images relevant. Most email marketing platforms now have a testing tool specifically for mobile friendliness, which should become a crucial (and natural) part of the build.

7. Optimize Your Landing Pages

No email is just about the message itself. Ideally, you want your prospects to engage, click, and convert. Whether that’s visiting your virtual tour or applying for a scholarship, follow-through is key.

That follow-through, in turn, is only possible through a focused effort to align your individual emails and landing pages. Language, visuals, and overarching message should always be consistent. Whether you’re linking to your general admissions pages or custom landing pages, designing the email and web pages together can go a long way towards getting conversions.

8. Use Compelling, But Honest, Subject Lines

The subject line can make or break your individual emails. If it’s not compelling, recipients won’t even open the message. But if it goes too far in selling your audience without an appropriate follow-through in the message itself, your institution will lose credibility.

Walking that line can be difficult, but has a direct correlation with email marketing success. Some subject line best practices include:

  • Describe the benefit your audience will get from opening the email and following through.
  • Use an action verb related to the action you want your audience to take in the email.
  • Personalize where relevant, such as merging in your recipient’s first name.
  • When the email offer is limited by time or another variable, like an admissions deadline or scholarship criteria, mention it.

The tricky part: shorter subject lines perform better. Keeping it short while still getting the above information across, though, can go a long way.

9. Test When You Can

Not sure about subject lines, images, or any other piece of your email? A/B testing is a great solution. Send two slightly different versions of the same message to two equal, randomly split segments of your audience to see which outperforms the other.

The key to successful A/B testing is keeping it simple. Only test one variable at a time, then take that learning into the next test on a different variable. Over time, you can optimize your messages to achieve the results you’re looking for.

10. Leverage Automation at Strategic Points in the Student Journey

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of email automation. You can’t always send ‘push’ emails manually or on specific calendar days. Instead, different automation flows can help you send the right messages at the right time, as prospects go through the student journey.

We’ve seen a wide range of automation flows set up successfully in higher education marketing:

  • A post-inquiry flow that shares relevant information about the university and the subjects (academic and student life-related) each inquiry is interested in.
  • A visit confirmation flow, letting your audience know about the event’s agenda along with directions and other relevant information.
  • A post-visit flow, surveying your audience on what worked and didn’t work during the event.
  • A post-application flow, including relevant follow-ups that merge in any missing pieces to complete the application.
  • A post-admit flow, inviting students to connect with current students at your school to learn more about you from their peers.

Of course, these are just a few of the many examples. In a post-pandemic world, with limited resources despite increased student expectations, these automations can go a long way towards delivering relevant messages at relevant points with minimum time and budget investment.

Ready to Integrate Your Email Marketing Into a Larger Post-COVID Recruitment Strategy?

Email marketing can still be successful, even and especially as Gen Z has become more cynical towards digital channels as a mass means of communication. But it can never live in isolation. As our case study with Stetson University School of Law shows, integrating email into a larger recruitment strategy resulted not just in improved email metrics, but a corresponding increase in conversions and contacts in the process.

Getting to that point is not simple, but it’s far from impossible. Ready to learn how you can build an email strategy that’s integrated enough to thrive? Contact us to learn more about a potential partnership, or download our eBook for a broader discussion on marketing designed to succeed in a post-pandemic world.