By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Students continue to tell us that email is their preferred method of communication with colleges and universities during the college search process.
How do you think those same students (and their parents) would describe the emails that make up your school’s enrollment communications plan? What about the ones that you send yourself? Does it all look and sound like what they’re receiving from other colleges and universities – a lot of similar subject lines, facts and figures; a lot of robotic language with confusing words that comes across as purely transactional; and a message that pushes them to take action on something whether they’re ready or not?
That’s the feedback students consistently give Tudor Collegiate Strategies in our ongoing focus group surveys. They also continue to go to places like Reddit and say things like, “I have gotten two hundred emails from colleges in the past week. Yeah, you heard me. 200 EMAILS IN ONE WEEK. How do I make the college thirst stop?”
With the added stress and uncertainty because of COVID-19, having personalized and engaging emails that tell a better story and help your college or university to be more relational and less transactional has never been more important.
Today I’m going to walk you through how to do that.
Let’s start with the number one thing I want you to remember. First and foremost, students at all stages (and their parents) want emails that feel more personal. They want a message that is empathetic and sounds and looks like it was written for them. And they want that message to not only inform/educate them, but also connect the dots and help them understand how your college or university is different, why your student experience is better, or why they should take the next step in the process with your school.
In addition to increased personalization which I’ll expand on below, here are some strategies and guidelines that will help you improve open rates, increase engagement, and deliver more effective emails:
- Who the email comes from is critical. As I’ve outlined in previous articles, students have made it abundantly clear that when they start their college search, the first person they want to hear from is their admissions counselor – not a Director, VP, faculty member or current student. In their mind this seems logical and makes sense. The only time this changes is if the student is being recruited to play a sport at your college or university. In that situation the primary contact person should be a coach. Whenever students see an email from the Office of Admissions it screams mass and impersonal. Oftentimes they skip over it or immediately hit delete.
- Don’t “Cc” parents on student messages. Parents want to feel like a valued partner in this process and part of doing that effectively is having a separate message or track of messages for them.
- Your subject line. A big trend in 2020 is to repeatedly combine the college’s name and the student’s first name in the subject line. This isn’t wrong but it definitely won’t help you stand out from the other emails in their Inbox, and you shouldn’t be reusing the same subject line in multiple emails or multiple times in a year. Instead, consider using a subject line that’s clearly helpful (Ex. Fitting in when you go to college). Or use something that feels personal (Ex. Our students give you their point of view). You could ask a question (Ex. Is this how you feel <Name>?) You could say something that sounds exciting or interesting (Ex. Really cool story). Or you could even use something that creates curiosity and seems out of place (Ex. Don’t leave me hangin!) Students tell us that examples like those get their attention, as do words like important, urgent, deadline, and scholarship when they see it in a subject line.
- The email template you use. The fancier and busier it is, the more it feels like a mass message. Consider using a picture at the top that ties in with your message/value points in the body of your email. Have nothing down either side, your message in the middle, and at the bottom have the admissions counselor’s picture and contact information.
- How you begin your email. If you start any email with “Dear,” please stop immediately. It’s outdated language that screams mass message and is impersonal. Start your email to a prospective student with either “Hi <Name> or Hey <Name>. If your message is for a parent you can simply start with their first name.
- The body of your email. As I’ve explained before, one of your foundational goals with a lot of the emails you send should be creating opportunities for engagement, not just pushing them to a link. To do this successfully the language you use needs to be more conversational and less formal. It should sound like you’re having a conversation with the reader, not speaking at them. It’s okay to occasionally start a sentence with the word “and” or “but,” or to have a run-on-sentence. Students also prefer emails that are shorter and more direct. There’s no need for a lot of fluff at the beginning or the end of your message. Use a sentence or two as an introduction or as a way to explain why you’re sending them this email, then dive right in to the core of your message. Limit your message to one main point or idea, not a laundry list of bullet points. And, be sure to connect the dots for the reader so they understand why what you’re sharing is important, and/or why they should do whatever it is you’re asking of them. One more thing – in unique situations like COVID-19 it’s important to acknowledge what we’re dealing with and recognize the added challenges.
- Incorporate more storytelling. Emotions and feelings are what this generation uses to help them make decisions. Consistently incorporate sights, sounds, and/or feelings into your storytelling. Stories validate and influence! Incorporating direct quotes from current students into your message is extremely effective. For example, if you want to show how your professors care and what makes your academic environment so special, ask your current students to talk about their classes and interactions with their professors. You can (but don’t have to) mention the student’s name. Simply say, “I was talking to a couple of our freshmen students about this and here’s what they told me:” Along with that, don’t over edit those student quotes other than correcting any grammar mistakes. Sounding wordy is okay because authenticity is important.
- Don’t incorporate multiple links. Just like when they see Office of Admissions as the sender or “Dear” at the beginning of an email, using multiple hyperlinks makes your message feel less personal and more salesy. Limit your email to one link if it’s needed, and simply copy and paste the link instead of using a hyperlink. While that might make you cringe, it’s part of the bigger overall strategy of personalization, and continues to be an effective tactic for our clients.
- How you end your email. Avoid using the word sincerely. It’s not wrong, but if the rest of your email is written in a conversational tone, using that is too formal. A simple “Thanks” or “Thank you” is sufficient. Your email should have one clear call to action, and it shouldn’t be the same “visit, apply, or deposit” every single time. When you use the same transactional CTA’s it often comes across as pushy and disingenuous. Instead, I encourage you to ask the student or parent a question that ties in with the body of your email. For example, if your email is about dorms and campus life, your CTA could be, “Let me ask <Name>, are you more excited or nervous to live away from home? Reply back or message me and let me know how you’re feeling.” Whatever question you choose, make it something that’s easy for them to answer (i.e. something they don’t have to think long and hard about). The result will be useful, usable information for you, and the opportunity to cultivate your relationship with them.
- Consistency is key. Consistently following these guidelines and making them habits is often the hardest part. When you’re consistent, it helps create connections and build trust, it shows how much you care, and in many cases that consistency also helps to generate action (and generate it faster)
Finally, let’s talk about the the frequency of your emails. In our ongoing survey research, we ask students, “In terms of communication, tell us how often throughout your college search process you wanted colleges to contact you in each of the forms below.” One of those forms is email, and the options that students can choose are once a day, once a week, 2-4 times per week, once per month, and never. Between January of 2019 and March of 2020, nearly 4,800 students responded and told us the following:
23.3% said they wanted an email once per month
53.0% said they wanted an email once per week
15.4% said they wanted an email more than once per week
6.8% said they wanted an email once a day
1.5% said they never wanted an email during their college search process
My recommendation is to send no more than 3-4 emails in any given month. Before you hit send, always ask yourself, is what you’re sending going to be helpful and/or provide value, or is it just going to clutter up their Inbox.
I really hope you’ll take some or all of these strategies and guidelines I’ve given you and incorporate them into your upcoming emails. Doing so will help you be more personal and relational, as well as generate engagement and action.
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