Updated and adapted from a Daily Briefing article originally written by Staff Writer Julia Haskins in 2016.
When it comes to communicating with students, email is a tried-and-true method for relaying information quickly and easily to the campus community. But as higher education leaders have learned, email comes with numerous challenges, said EAB Director Lindsay Miars at the CONNECTED conference in 2016.
“In many ways, email is still our best bet,” Miars said. “Our recommendation for email is to evolve your email strategy to make this channel more effective rather than abandoning it.”
Miars recommended four updates that can rescue your emails from students’ slush piles.
1: Coordinate email timing across your institution
Students are bombarded with email from all sides. A 2016 survey from Bowling Green State University found:
– 72% of students treat emails from student groups like spam;
– More than 50% of students don’t always read emails from their institution or academic department; and
– Nearly 40% of students don’t always read emails from their advisors.
“One missed communication can result in a downward spiral that leads to academic consequences,” Miars said. “By ignoring critical messages, students on campus are failing to register for courses, declare their major on time, pay tuition, and submit other crucial administrative paperwork.”
Michigan State University (MSU) got a wake-up call when it realized that 12 divisions across campus sent more than 400 emails in one year—not counting emails from student groups or those that senior leaders didn’t know about. To combat the flood, MSU compiled and archived messages to help administrators understand the scope of the issue and cut down on redundant messages.
Cutting back on some of the noise can help ensure that students pay more attention to each message. “There are times when a message is truly critical for a student to see, and university-level coordination can help to elevate those messages through signal value,” Miars said.
2: Review what’s working
Making email more effective depends on the cooperation of all institutional stakeholders. However, frontline staff tend to be constrained by three major barriers:
– Lack of formal training or resources to support an institution’s email strategy;
– Lack of access to email metrics; and
– Failure to prioritize email strategy.
“These barriers exacerbate and reinforce one another, creating a culture of ineffective outreach,” Miars said.
Central Michigan University has worked to overcome these obstacles by sharing communications resources and tracking data. Success coaches in the Office of Student Success record all student outreach attempts—and their results—in a shared document. This information has helped administrators determine which strategies are working and which ones need tweaking.
3: Write student-centered messages
Students are more likely to understand and act on emails that are tailored to their communication style. “Frontline staff are sending lengthy, formal emails to students accustomed to tweets,” Miars pointed out.
A student outreach specialist at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said the agency keeps the state legislature’s definition of “plain language” in mind when sending student emails. Text must be “written in a clear and coherent manner using words with common and everyday meanings,” according to the guidelines.
Miars described effective email language as “clear and direct,” and encouraged email writers to use the word “you” and include “action verbs that convey a sense of urgency.” As for content, Miars recommended “focusing on the student and their ambitions rather than focusing on general information or policies.” She said that this approach “appeals more directly to the student’s motivation.”
4: Use a little psychology
Students want to succeed, but psychological and structural barriers get in the way of taking all the necessary steps to navigate their academic career. Recognizing and removing these obstacles can help students stay on track.
“Coordination and better emails are necessary,” Miars said, but “we can go a step further by centering student psychology in message architecture to get more students to act.” Emails can be structured to “nudge” toward improved behavior, whether that means signing up for classes or seeking academic counseling.
Arizona State University partnered with ideas42, a behavioral economics lab, to address students’ failure to refile FAFSA after their first year. Researchers discovered that many students didn’t know they had to reapply for FAFSA, while others missed the priority deadline. Students were also overwhelmed by the many steps in the process.
So ideas42 created a series of straightforward, behavior-centered messages designed to reduce barriers to reapplying for FAFSA. It worked: The FAFSA submission rate increased by 72% among the group in which both students and parents received emails.
(Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 3/2/2016; Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/20/2016).