Robly Logo

Email Marketing for Higher Education – Best Practices

Transform your higher education email strategy and drive real results! This comprehensive guide explores list-building tactics, crafting compelling subject lines and content, student journey personalization, automation strategies, and the importance of data-driven measurement.
Share this:

Email marketing can present unique challenges for higher education institutions. They need to find ways to stand out in crowded inboxes, connect with diverse audiences at different stages, and personalize their messages while working within resource constraints. Despite these obstacles, a well-executed email strategy can drive student recruitment, increase campus engagement, and foster lasting alumni relationships.

To achieve these goals, it’s crucial for institutions to understand the best practices for higher education email marketing. By doing so, they can unlock the full potential of email and achieve their communication objectives. In this guide, we’ll cover essential strategies to improve your higher education email marketing. 

We’ll discuss how to segment your audience for targeted messaging and explore ways to personalize your emails for stronger connections. You’ll learn tips for writing compelling subject lines that boost open rates and how to develop content that resonates with your specific audiences. 

The challenges and opportunities in higher education email marketing

Communicating with a diverse audience (prospective students, current students of various levels, alumni, and faculty) means tailoring messaging carefully. Strict privacy regulations and potential budget limitations are also limitations to navigate. Email offers unparalleled reach for sharing campus news, promoting events, and driving student applications. Its potential for personalization is immense, allowing institutions to cultivate strong relationships throughout the student journey and beyond.

The power of effective email strategy to boost student recruitment, engagement, and alum relations

A strategic email approach empowers higher education institutions to achieve critical goals. Carefully crafted email marketing campaigns can significantly improve student recruitment, help foster a vibrant campus community, and build a network of committed alums. You can achieve this by prioritizing quality list-building, sending targeted content, and employing data-informed tactics to enhance your campaigns.

Building and Segmenting Your Email List

A robust and well-segmented email list lays the foundation for successful higher education email marketing. This section explores effective lead-generation strategies and the importance of tailoring your messaging to specific audience segments for maximum impact.

Lead Generation Options: Signup forms, events, gated content, social media

  • Signup Forms: Prominently placed on websites and landing pages, signup forms offer a clear path for interested individuals to join your email list. Optimize forms for simplicity, minimizing the required fields.
  •  Events: Campus tours, open houses, webinars, and virtual events are prime opportunities to collect email addresses. Offer value in exchange for signup (e.g., event recordings, exclusive content).
  •  Gated Content: Offer valuable resources like whitepapers, research reports, or program guides in exchange for an email subscription. Ensure the content is genuinely helpful and relevant to your target audience.
  •  Social Media: Promote email signup directly on social platforms. Leverage targeted social ads to reach specific demographics and interest groups pertinent to your institution.

Segmenting for Success: Demographics, interests, stage in the student journey (prospective, current, alums)

  • Demographics: Basic data like age, location, and program of interest (for current/prospective students) can inform content personalization.
  •  Interests: Options for subscribers to self-identify areas of interest (e.g., specific majors, athletics, extracurricular activities) make a great offer.
  •  Journey stage: Prospective students have vastly different needs than current students or alums. Segmenting along this journey allows for highly targeted messaging (e.g., application deadlines vs. campus events vs. donation appeals).

Here are a few specific segmentation criteria that can be particularly valuable to higher education institutions:

  • Academic Interests: Segmenting by primary, degree level (undergraduate, graduate, others), or specific areas of study allows for highly relevant content such as program updates, research opportunities, and career resources.
  •  Financial Aid Status: Understanding a student’s eligibility or scholarship status can guide messaging around financial support options, deadlines, and available resources.
  •  Geographic Location: Target communications based on a student’s home region or potential relocation interests are essential for attracting out-of-state or international students.
  •  Extracurricular Involvement: Segmenting based on a student’s participation in clubs, sports teams, or student organizations enables the promotion of relevant events, volunteer opportunities, and potential leadership roles.
  •  Engagement Level: Track how subscribers interact with emails (opens, clicks, website visits) to identify highly engaged individuals who might be open to becoming student ambassadors or providing testimonials.
  •  Donor History: For alum segmentation, track past donations, major gifts, and recurring giving patterns to allow for tailored appeals and recognition.

Important Considerations

  • Privacy: Always adhere to privacy regulations and offer clear options for subscribers to manage preferences or opt out.
  •  Refinement: It’s better to start with a few critical segmentation criteria and add more complexity as you gather data and insights.

Crafting Compelling Subject Lines and Content

First impressions are everything in the inbox and compelling subject lines are crucial to grabbing attention, while carefully crafted content keeps readers engaged. This section offers actionable tips for creating emails that resonate with a higher education audience.

Subject Line Do’s & Don’ts: Length, personalization, urgency, testing

Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when writing subject lines for your higher education email marketing campaigns.

  • Do: Keep it concise (50 characters or less is ideal for mobile displays). Frontload essential information and use action-oriented verbs.
  •  Do: Leverage personalization where possible (name, program interest, location) to boost open rates significantly.
  •  Do: Use time-sensitive language (“Apply by [deadline],” “Time-limited Offer”) to create a sense of urgency.
  •  Don’t: Overuse exclamation points, spammy words, or ALL CAPS. These can trigger spam filters and damage trust.
  •  Don’t: Neglect A/B testing. Experiment with different subject line variations to optimize open rates.

Content that Resonates: Student stories, campus updates, timely offers, value-driven newsletters

The content within your emails is just as important as a strong subject line. To keep your audience interested, the information needs to feel relevant, timely, and provide genuine value beyond pushing admissions or donations. By focusing on the right mix of content, you’ll transform your emails into something your audience looks forward to receiving.

Here are some of the most effective content types for higher education email marketing. Remember, the best approach will often combine several of these ideas to provide a well-rounded email experience.

  • Student Stories: Spotlight student achievements, internships, or study abroad experiences to build community and inspire prospective students.
  •  Campus Updates: Keep students informed about events, deadlines, policy changes, and exciting campus developments.
  •  Timely Offers: Promote scholarships, early-bird discounts, or limited-time programs.
  •  Value-Driven Newsletters: Deliver a curated mix of helpful information, resources, and a spotlight on student success.
  • Alumni Profiles: These offer social proof and inspire prospective students. Highlight diverse experiences and career paths to appeal to a broad audience.
  •  Virtual Events and Webinars: Webinars on admissions processes, financial aid, or specific programs are invaluable to prospective students, while virtual alum panels provide networking and career support.
  •  Interactive Content: Quizzes (e.g., “Which Major is Right for You?”), polls and surveys engage subscribers and can gather valuable data for segmentation.
  •  Personalized “Next Steps” Emails: Using data (course registration, interaction history), sending emails with tailored action items or resources based on the student’s journey feels timely and helpful.
  •  “Behind-the-Scenes” Looks: Sharing photos or videos highlighting unique research, events, or campus life builds excitement and shows a side of the institution beyond just promotional material.
  •  Seasonal Content: Promote relevant offers, tips, or celebratory messages related to holidays, back-to-school, or graduation.

Important Note:

The most effective content balances providing value and promoting your institution. Highlight programs within alum profiles or offer a relevant resource alongside event announcements. Guide prospective students through a series of emails based on their level of interest.

Visuals Matter: Imagery, video, and branding in higher ed emails

how your emails look matters just as much as the written content. Imagery and video have the power to grab attention, evoke emotion, and make your institution stand out in a potential student’s inbox. Leveraging a combination of professional photography, user-generated content, and strong branding helps your higher education emails tell a compelling story.

Here are some strategies to incorporate visuals effectively in your email marketing. Remember, always think about how the visuals complement your written message and align with your institution’s overall image.

  • Imagery: Complement high-quality professional photos with snapshots of everyday campus life captured by students to provide a more relatable and authentic perspective.
  •  Video: Encourage students to submit short videos sharing their experiences, campus tours, or showcasing their talents. User-generated videos offer a fresh take on traditional promotional videos.
  •  Branding: Maintain consistent use of your institution’s logo, fonts, and colors to reinforce brand recognition and trust.
  •  Social Contests: Launch photo or video contests centered around a campus theme (e.g., “Show Us Your Study Spot,” “Best Dorm Room”). Use winning entries in emails.
  •  Authenticity: While a polished feel is essential in your higher ed emails, sprinkling in student-generated content adds a layer of sincerity and shows prospective students what life is truly like on campus.
  •  Permissions & Credit: Always obtain explicit permissions from students before using their work, and ensure they’re properly credited.

Additional Tips:

  • Create a Hashtag: Establish a hashtag for students to use when sharing their photos/videos on social media, making content easily discoverable.
  •  Encourage Storytelling: Give students prompts to inspire more authentic visuals (e.g., “Share a moment that made you feel part of the [university] community.”)

The Student Journey: Targeted Email Campaigns

Segmenting your email campaigns to align with the different stages of the student journey ensures you deliver the most relevant, timely information to each audience. This section explores targeted email strategies for nurturing prospective students, engaging current ones, and maintaining solid connections with alumni.

Welcome Series for Newcomers: Introductions, orientation info

  • Warm Welcome: The first email sets the tone. Congratulate new subscribers to join the community and provide an overview of what to expect from your emails.
  •  Essential Resources: Send emails highlighting critical orientation information, important dates, academic support, and how to access essential campus services.
  •  Campus Culture: Share a glimpse into student life, clubs, and community events to build excitement and a sense of belonging.

Nurturing Prospective Students: Program highlights, virtual events

  • Personalized Programs: If subscribers have indicated areas of interest, send targeted emails highlighting relevant programs, faculty spotlights, or research opportunities.
  •  Virtual Events: Promote webinars, open houses, and virtual campus tours. Provide easy ways to register and follow up with recordings or additional information for attendees.
  •  Financial Aid Reminders: Email timely reminders about application deadlines, scholarship opportunities, or financial aid workshops.

Current Student Engagement: Campus life, resources, deadlines

Email is an essential tool for keeping your current students connected to campus life and informed about all the resources available to them. A regular newsletter remains a highly effective way to deliver important updates about events, approaching deadlines, and critical changes to campus policies or services. By routinely highlighting these updates, you ensure your students are always in the loop.

Additionally, use your emails to shine a spotlight on valuable yet underutilized resources on your campus. Periodically feature services like career counseling, mental health support, or academic advising. Promote opportunities for students to give back and get involved in the community – highlight volunteerism, student organizations, or peer mentorship programs. By fostering a sense of community and belonging through your emails, you’ll help your students feel connected and supported throughout their academic journey.

Alumni Relations: Networking opportunities, donation drives

Maintaining a strong relationship with your alumni is vital for securing donations, building a strong reputation, and creating valuable connections for current students. Email marketing offers a direct way to support your alumni by sharing relevant career resources, such as job postings, networking events, and mentorship programs from fellow alums.

Promote opportunities for continued learning through webinars and professional development, and highlight inspiring alumni achievements to build community. Encourage continued engagement through surveys and various avenues for giving back, fostering a lasting connection between alums and your institution.

Automation and Personalization

Automation and personalization are essential tools for higher education marketers. They enable the delivery of timely and relevant messages at scale while still providing a tailored experience for each subscriber. This section explores how to balance automation with a personalized touch.

Triggered Emails: Birthdays, course signups, milestones

Make your students feel special by automating personalized touches! Celebrate birthdays with thoughtful greetings, streamline course signups with timely confirmations, and acknowledge significant milestones to show your support.

  • Birthday Celebrations: Simple birthday emails with a special offer or personalized message build goodwill.
  •  Course Signups: Confirm course registrations and provide additional resources (e.g., syllabi, getting started guides).
  •  Milestones: Acknowledge program completion, application milestones, or significant achievements to make students feel recognized.

Leveraging Data: Personalize based on behavior and preferences

Track website activity and preferences to send emails that feel tailor-made for each recipient. Give subscribers control with preference centers to ensure your communication feels relevant.

  • Behavior-Based: Send emails triggered by website visits, specific content downloads, or event attendance to show subscribers you pay attention to their interests.
  •  Preference Center: Allow subscribers to manage preferences (content types, frequency) for a more tailored experience.
  •  Dynamic Content: Use data to personalize subject lines, featured programs, or calls-to-action within emails.

Balancing Automation with Authenticity: Avoid overly robotic communication

Automation is powerful, but don’t forget the human touch! Keep automated messages feeling genuine by segmenting carefully and using a friendly tone. Balance triggered content with thoughtful curation to build authentic connections.

  • Segmentation: The more finely you segment, the less generic automated emails will feel.
  •  Tone: In automated emails, strive for a conversational, helpful tone rather than overly mechanical messaging.
  •  Avoid Overdoing: Be judicious with trigger-based emails. Balance them with curated content to avoid bombarding subscribers.

Some Automation Examples to Get You Going:

Here are some specific data points higher education institutions can leverage for enhanced personalization within their email marketing:

  • Declared Major / Program Interest: Target content and communications based on a student’s chosen academic path.
  •  Stage in Application Process: Tailor messaging based on whether a student is inquiring, has applied, or has been accepted.
  •  Geographic Location: Personalize invitations to local events, highlight alums in the same region, or offer resources relevant to relocation needs.
  •  Financial Aid Status: Provide targeted information about scholarships, grants, and financial aid packages based on eligibility.
  •  Course Enrolment History: Recommend relevant future courses, cross-promote related programs, or identify potential academic advising needs.
  •  Engagement with Campus Resources: Suggest additional support services based on using tutoring centers, the library, or counseling services.
  •  Alums Giving History: Tailor donation appeals based on past giving behavior and capacity.

How to Collect the Needed Data

  • Web forms and Surveys: Incorporate fields for interests and relevant information in signup forms, student portals, or preference centers.
  •  CRM Integration: Sync your email marketing platform with your student information system (SIS) or alums database.
  •  Behavioral Tracking: Monitor website activity, email opens, clicks, and interactions with specific content.

Important Note: Always prioritize privacy and transparency. Offer clear opt-out options and explain how the data benefits the subscriber.

Measuring Success: Key Metrics

To understand if your email campaigns are reaching their potential, you need to track the right metrics. Think of these metrics as a way to “listen” to how your audience interacts with your emails. The insights you gain will empower you to tell a compelling story about your email marketing efforts and continually improve your strategy.

Beyond Clicks…It’s About Action

While open rates are a good starting point, true engagement comes down to whether your emails inspire people to take action. Track your click-through rate (CTR) to see if your content is enticing enough to drive clicks. Most importantly, define clear goals for each campaign and track conversions. Are your emails boosting applications, event sign-ups, or content downloads?

Follow the Click

Email’s power extends to driving valuable traffic to your website. Track where subscribers land after clicking through from your emails – it gives you clues about their interests and how well your website aligns with your email messaging.

Data-Driven Improvement

Metrics become your superpower for iterating and improving your email strategy. Regular A/B testing of subject lines, content, and calls to action helps you pin down what resonates best with your audience. Analyze your metrics for specific segments – what motivates prospective students might differ greatly from what engages alumni.

Key Considerations

  • Tech Tools: Make sure your email platform seamlessly integrates with your analytics tools for rich insights.
  • The Long Game: While some results are immediate, certain metrics, like alumni giving, require tracking trends over time.

Putting it all together

The best practices in this guide can help higher education institutions leverage the power of email to achieve significant goals. Remember the key takeaways:

  • Build Targeted Lists: Strategic lead generation and thoughtful segmentation are the foundation of success.
  •  Craft Compelling Content: Provide value and personalize whenever possible to stand out in a crowded inbox.
  •  Embrace the Student Journey: Tailor your campaigns to each stage, from prospective students to established alum.
  •  Automate Strategically: Balance personalization and efficiency with well-planned triggered campaigns.
  •  Measure & Optimize: Data-driven decisions lead to continuous improvement in your email marketing results.

The landscape of higher education email marketing will evolve as technology does. Artificial intelligence is vital to hyper-personalization, analyzing student data to predict content preferences, optimizing subject lines for maximum engagement, and even providing 24/7 support through integrated chatbots. By staying ahead of these trends, institutions can foster stronger relationships and drive lasting engagement.

Table of Contents

Start a free trial

See why thousands of small businesses, charities and non-profits trust Robly with their email marketing needs.