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How one advising leader saw a 600% increase in student responses

February 14, 2017

Advisors are used to students ignoring their emails. Like other university staff, they work hard to get students important information, but all too often students’ replies to their outreach are few and far between.

Viewed another way, though, this shouldn’t be a surprise. There’s a science as well as an art to getting people to respond to emails. It’s called email marketing, and the halls of academia aren’t exactly teeming with email marketing experts.

Words surrounding email performance—words like “open rates,” “clickthrough rates,” and “conversion rates”—are not part of most academics’ vocabulary. What can we really expect university staff to know (or embrace) about email strategy?

To solve student communication challenges, think like a digital marketing expert

Inundated with a flood of emails from the moment they set foot on campus, many students begin to treat university communications as spam. But given the reach and ease of email as a communication channel, universities are not prepared to abandon it—nor should they.

Last year, my team and I set out to learn how institutions could cut through inbox noise to reach more students by evolving their communication strategies. One thing we found was that a number of out-of-industry best practices for email could be powerful when translated to higher education.

For example, in the world of digital marketing, a well-crafted subject line is essential to positive email performance. A web and mobile analytics company called Mixpanel analyzed the performance of nearly 86,000 subject lines across 1.7 billion email sends. Starting with a benchmark open rate of 13.5%, they found that short subject lines (30 characters or fewer) performed better overall. Subject lines that posed a question also performed better, as did emails that began with “How to,” which increased open rate by 7.5 percentage points.

At EAB, our in-house web team has guidelines dictating highly effective subject line options. Emails tend to be more successful when the subject line is catchy, direct, urgent, conversational, mysterious, or when it poses a question. For example, one of our highest-performing emails ever had the mysterious subject line “We’ve missed you,” inviting long-absent users to “come back” and log in to the SSC platform.

Texas Wesleyan University finds proof in the power of a subject line

When Michael Anne Greer saw this research debut at CONNECTED in November 2016, she was inspired to try out these tactics herself. Michael is the Senior Director of Academic Advising and Student Success at Texas Wesleyan University. Each semester, her department conducts a survey of all undergraduate students. Initially, she sent an email requesting that students complete the survey with the subject line “Your opinion counts”—one her department had used in the past. The email yielded a lackluster 53 responses—a 2.23% response rate.

Inspired by our research, she switched out the subject line for something more intriguing: “You’ve been selected for participation.” Michael hoped that students would be hooked by the mysterious subject line, and therefore be more likely to read the email and engage with the survey.

This second email yielded 391 responses, a 23.86% response rate. That is a 20.63 percentage point increase in response rate, or a 638% increase in raw responses! Michael attributes this impressive increase to the change in subject line alone since she didn’t change the copy or timing of the email.

Opening an email is good—acting on it is better

Revising your subject line is only the first step in crafting more effective student outreach, since the objective is often getting a student to act. Through exploration of out-of-industry best practices, Royall & Company’s insight from 10+ years of recruitment communications data, and our own member interviews, we identified dozens of email best practices to get from “open” to “action”—including message copy that is student-centered and jargon-free with clear and urgent calls to action.

Messages that appeal to student psychology have also been proven to improve the decisions students make. One school we profiled saw a 72% increase in students re-filing FAFSA by the priority deadline after creating an email intervention based on principles of behavioral economics.

Additionally, there is a role that university leadership can play in coordinating various departments to cut back on the number of emails that reach students’ inboxes in the first place. Michigan State University confirmed that they had a major problem with student over-contact when they underwent campus-wide process mapping exercise last year. They found that 12 divisions on campus sent more than 400 emails every academic year—not counting emails from students groups or those that leaders in the room didn’t know about. To solve this, MSU compiled and archived messages to help administrators understand the scope of the issue and cut down on redundant messages. The IT department is now working to create and roll out agreed-upon guidelines.

All of this just goes to show that, while breaking through the digital communication barrier to reach students can seem challenging, it is achievable with the right strategies.

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