Email marketing for #highered: 3 issues to keep in mind

May 13th, 2013 Karine Joly 1 Comment

In higher ed, we like to think that we’re special, that what applies to other industries doesn’t work for us.

Sometimes it’s the case.
Sometimes it isn’t.

Higher ed has always had a love-hate relationship with email marketing. We use and abuse it without always understanding its core strengths, limits and associated risks.

Greg Rubenstein, AT Still UniversityGreg Rubenstein, Web Properties Director at A.T. University used to work for WestStar TalkRadio Network where he sent millions of email marketing messages.

A few weeks ago Greg took the 8-week online course on Social Media Marketing for Higher Ed I teach at Higher Ed Experts. While the focus of my course is social media marketing, we have a class discussion about the social media vs. email issue at some point in the course.

Greg shared with his classmates the few following very good tips on how to adjust email marketing best practices to a higher ed audience (shared again today with his permission):

The 1st issue is audience: faculty/staff versus students

Our student population is entirely graduate level. A fairly substantial percentage is seeking post-professional degrees, and another large segment are pursuing a master – or doctorate-level degree via online education.

These students do not open email.

Even communication that’s highly-targeted and of particular importance, such as commencement instructions sent only to a particular class, will have open rates indicating universal disinterest.

Faculty and staff are better about reading email, with open and click-through rates (CTR) being fairly predictable.

A message from the President’s Office, or a call-to-action (CTA) that’s easy or very focused, will produce acceptable results. Generic monthly “newsletters,” such as mass email sent from one department to everyone, returns about the same results as sending to students.

The 2nd issue is content

Don’t send an email because you haven’t done so in “a while.”

Don’t assume someone’s interested in what you have to say.

Don’t assume that just because you hit delete on all those other messages, recipients of your emails won’t do the same.

Everyone is busy. That’s the universal truth in all walks of life. People will only pay attention when doing so is either required or it’s in their personal interest. For communication via email to be successful, the content has to be relevant, written to a professional standard and be presented in a layout that makes comprehension easy.

The last issue is context

To get an email message read, it first has to make it to the recipient’s inbox. It then has to be opened. Once opened, it must be inviting enough to warrant further reading. Finally, CTAs must work as expected—links must be where the reader expects, and function as anticipated.

The university environment is somewhat of a captured audience, and email delivery inside the institution hopefully isn’t ever a problem. Getting messages to external audiences (not using the university’s .edu domain) faces the same hurdles as all other commercial email delivery. Whether sending internally or externally, making sure of Can-Spam compliance is a basic requirement.

Email subject line selection is both art and science. Writing good subject lines is critical not only for enticing the recipient to open the email, but in making sure the message arrives at all. There are many resources on the subject — do a Google search, and MailChimp has some good rules-of-thumb.

Message format, along with the look and feel, will make the difference between opened and deleted or obtaining a click-through. If any text in your message is in, or part of, an image, you are losing clicks. The only exception is wordmarks/text used as design elements. Making best-practice email messages requires more work than just sending an image, but the difference in results is worth the effort.

Test before you send

My final suggestion is to test before you hit send button.

This time.
Next time.
Every time.

Best practice testing is minimally viewing the message as a test sent in the major freemail clients—gmail, yahoo, hotmail/live, icloud, etc., as well as in the “big four” browsers: Chrome, Firefox, IE and Safari.