The Bite-Sized Guide to Email Marketing for Higher Education

Melanie Balke
December 5, 2023

I’ve covered the importance of email marketing for countless industries, but what about higher education?

I’m about to show you the ins and outs of utilizing this amazing digital marketing tactic to court prospective students! This versatile marketing strategy has the power to engage students on multiple levels with little more than an automated message. It’s more than a tool to attract prospective students. It’s a multifaceted approach to improving life for every college student.

So, buckle up and keep scrolling to learn more about how this marketing platform can help your institute meet its loftiest goals!

The Benefits of Higher Education Email Marketing

The historical studies building at Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia. Photo from Wikimedia user KLOTZ. Overlaid text reads, “The Perks: Why Use Email Marketing?”

I’ll start with the benefits.

(If you’re a long-time reader, you probably expected this!)

Now, allow me to preface this by saying I’ve discussed the benefits of this marketing channel extensively. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve highlighted the cost-effective nature of email marketing, I’d have a lot of money. I’ve also dedicated multiple blog posts to the overall efficacy of the medium.

Summarily, I won’t bore you with the details of email marketing’s general benefits. Instead, I want to focus on the perks of email marketing for higher education.

The Power of Personalized Emails

I’ll start with personalization.

(Stay tuned; I’ll dig deeper into this topic later!)

This higher education marketers’ most powerful tool. It’s the difference between highly effective targeted messages and generic advertising. Most consumers expect some level of personalization in their email marketing, and that expectation only heightens as the potential investment increases. You must have a compelling call to action; otherwise, you’re getting tossed in the spam folder.

Beyond its impact on your results, personalization tactics — and its cousin, segmentationincrease your efficiency by tailoring otherwise generic emails, easily shaping them into specific campaigns.

An Exercise in Personalized Email Marketing Efforts

Allow me to explain with an example.

I’ll present two short emails. One will be generic, containing little more than the sort of copy-and-paste niceties you’d expect from an old-fashioned mailer. The other will be a targeted campaign with dynamic content. For clarity’s sake, I’ll write the dynamic content in bold italics.

I’ll start with the generic email campaign:

Congratulations on your acceptance to the TEM College of Emails!
This is an awesome achievement. We can’t wait to see you on campus, where you can enjoy the full TEM student experience!
Is there anything wrong with this email?

Not necessarily. However, it lacks personal depth and connection. More importantly, it lacks a sense of belonging. There’s nothing to keep readers interested, increasing the likelihood of this message being lost in the post-high-school-graduation shuffle.

“Personalize: The Power of Email Personalization.” Overlapping leaves covered by informative text describing the benefits of personalized email campaigns.

So, what happens if we personalize it? (And assume that your name is Billy, please.)

Congratulations on your acceptance to the TEM College of Emails, Billy!
This is an awesome achievement. We can’t wait to see you on campus, where you can enjoy the full TEM student experience! The pickleball team is eagerly awaiting your arrival, too.

With just two dynamic content blocks, we’ve changed the entire tone of this email. Now, this is more than a generic acceptance alert. It’s more than a blanket statement for specific audiences. This is an email for Billy, who loves pickleball!

I’ll admit I’ve used more time than you may have anticipated describing such tiny details, but these unique touches are critical to maintaining connections. After an already stressful application process, nobody wants to see dry, formulaic email campaigns.

The Convenience of Email Marketing for Higher Education

This all leads to our next point: convenience.

Again, I want to preface my statements with a warning. I am not suggesting that universities dump those old-fashioned touches that make college acceptance special. Handwritten postcards, snail mail acceptance letters, and individualized experiences remain critical facets of every higher education institution’s outreach. However, these elements can be amplified with email marketing.

With that said, I want to introduce every higher education marketing professional’s new best friend, automated emails. These powerful helpers perform most of the heavy lifting for your admissions officers. (Granted, you must configure them to do so.) Modern email software tackles everything, including scheduling and distribution, ensuring every potential student receives the right message.

It’s not hard to get running, either. All you need is a subscriber list and some ideas. Your email marketing platform handles the rest, distributing regularly scheduled drip campaigns, fundraiser alerts, newsletters, and more!

You can probably imagine some of the perks, but I’ll still highlight a few, namely:

  • Availability: Automated campaigns pair well with segmentation and personalization. Your target audience can be anyone, including current students! This can help you retain students and empower enrolled students to perform their best. Moreover, automated drip campaigns are a handy way to keep everyone up to date on campus events.
  • Increased Outreach: With proper email list segmentation, you can easily deliver lead magnets to prospective students. These downloadable pamphlets can be easily shared and circulated, further bolstering your existing marketing efforts.
  • Reduced Overhead: Email automation can pare down your recruitment efforts’ manpower needs. Of its many capabilities, its most remarkable is on-demand conversational marketing. In other words, a properly configured email flow can easily respond to common questions, freeing admissions staff to tackle larger issues.

Deliver On-Demand Access to Information

Finally, I can’t forget the accessibility of modern email marketing.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a dentist, a doctor, or one of many higher education institutions. Your emails will always be available. They’ll remain in students’ inboxes until they’re ready to view them, providing consistent branding as needed.

Over half (58%, to be precise) of Gen Z students surveyed reported checking their emails at least once daily. And that’s not just for higher ed hopefuls. I’m also including high school students.

Today’s unprecedented connectivity may be a controversial topic, but it’s clearly here to stay. It’s why so many email strategy guides are pivoting to embrace mobile-friendly designs and functionality. And it’s why now is the time to integrate email marketing into your marketing strategies.

More About Personalization in Higher Education Email Marketing

A large library in a hexagonal panopticon layout. “Personalization: Helpful Tips and Expert Tricks.”

Now, having spoken of the benefits, I want to round back to personalization.

This is a huge deal in university email marketing. There’s nothing more important to prospective students than feeling heard and seen. In fact, the modern prospective student places high value on sharing the same social goals as their chosen institution.

Beyond that connection, higher education institutions must consider how their email marketing strategies emphasize important topics. More precisely, email marketing efforts must pinpoint a student’s “must-have” factors. In addition to shared goals, a 2022 Statista survey placed a student’s field of study (68%) and the college’s reputation (62%) among the most important pain points for prospective students.

In fewer words, I’m saying that your email marketing campaigns must deliver relevant content.

But what does that mean?

The Enrollment Process as Audience Groups

Just as different departments have different specialties, every student has a unique journey. You wouldn’t send enrolled students welcome emails; likewise, your new students don’t want updates meant for alums.

In a way, the enrollment process can be broken into pieces, much like a sales funnel, and those pieces form groups of students. From beginning to end, most higher ed institutions have a process that looks a bit like this:

  1. Interest: Prospective students learn of a program. This phase is tricky, as they may hear about you through social media campaigns or personal connections.
  2. Application: Now, prospective students apply to your program. Your email marketing strategy should pivot from introductory niceties to hard-hitting facts. Regale them with tales of your institution’s reputation and weight!
  3. Evaluation: Some may consider this an extension of the “application” phase, and the strategic requirements are similar. At this point, students are accepted or waitlisted. Their focus remains on each possibility.
  4. Enrollment: The shortest phase of the journey follows a student’s final decision. Congratulate your new students and reassure them about the thrilling years to come.
  5. Learning and Loyalty: Once accepted, your current students must be entertained and educated. Use your email software to inform students about events and meetings. This is another pivot for your marketing team; your focus should now be student retention and satisfaction.
  6. Graduate: Finally, the longest phase is reserved for alums. Your former university students remain important parts of your higher education family and are often generous donors. Include them within your higher education email marketing strategy to amplify your impact and reach.

In-Depth Personalization

These are your general segmentation groups, but you can get more specific.

The most effective email strategies play upon the audience’s needs. Similarly, your plan must wow potential students with relevant information and remarkable experiences. Higher-ed marketing is a huge industry, and it’s your job to stand out from the crowd.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do so with segmentation.

There are, of course, your general segments. These include age groups, demographics, and geographic location. However, I want to discuss some in-depth segments unique to higher education email marketing.

I’ve already covered the student enrollment process, so I won’t restate those six entries. Instead, allow me to offer additional ways to optimize your impact on prospective students. Consider these email segmentation ideas as you contemplate your institution’s email marketing strategy:

  • Activities: Are students interested in a specific on-campus perk? This category is similar to interests, yet wholly different. Use your university email marketing to highlight the unique features of your campus. These email campaigns may be based on physical activities (e.g., nearby hiking trails and sporting clubs), intellectual pursuits (e.g., chess and trivia teams), or regular campus club events (e.g., movie nights, trips, and outings).
  • Choice: How high are you on a student’s list? This metric is hard to gauge, but it’s an invaluable resource. Targeting eager prospective students is always easier than wooing those on-the-fence applicants.
  • Goals: What do students want from your institution? These segments may be generally based on the student’s intended major (e.g., art history, biochemistry, or political science) or their “dream” career (e.g., lawyer, researcher, or teacher).
  • Interests: What do students like? These may be based on sports (e.g., lacrosse, pickleball, or soccer), clubs (e.g., anime, gaming, or theater), or social interest groups (e.g., political organizations, philosophical groups, and on-campus “movements”).
  • Scholarships: Have students received specific scholarships? Consider grouping your email marketing campaigns together for financial aid recipients. This will give new students some familiar faces on campus. This practice will also save your admissions team some time!

A Word of Caution

Now, these groups are beneficial. They’ve been effectively utilized by well-known institutions — such as Arizona State University — to manage an overwhelmingly massive university email marketing strategy. They’re instrumental pieces of a well-composed and impeccably planned email marketing campaign, but there’s danger in familiarity.

There’s a fine line between effective personalization and becoming an unwelcome guest in a student’s inbox. Like any other industry, higher ed email marketing is subject to modern privacy concerns. These worries plague consumers and marketers alike. You worry about lost reputation and punishments from your email provider. Meanwhile, recipients worry about data leaks and the ever-thinning line between public and private life.

This is an unavoidable consequence of using email marketing software, but it shouldn’t prevent you from doing so! Abiding by email marketing best practices ensures near-universal safety from reprisal. However, you can also consider a few tips from the pros:

  • Always Obtain Consent: Active consent protects your institution from future legal action. This is particularly important for recruiting high school graduates, as some students will be below the age of legal adulthood.
  • Consider Double Opt-In: Ask for confirmation from potential students before enrolling them in your email program. This may cause a slight dip in your subscription rates, but it improves the quality and reliability of your subscriber list.
  • Monitor Results: Sometimes, you must do your own cleaning. Consider implementing automatic unsubscribe flows for inactive email recipients. You’ll spot these subscribers easily when you check your metrics. Look for low click-through rates and poor conversions.
  • Process Requests Quickly: Your email marketing tool probably handles unsubscribe requests, but it never hurts to double-check! Otherwise, you’ll want to find a way to ensure your email marketing software has a way to handle these requests.

Let Us Tackle Your Email Marketing Campaigns

Overlapping leaves. “Let Us Help! Relax and Let Us Handle Your University Email Marketing!”

That’s a lot of information, but it’s essential knowledge! Think of this post as your basic syllabus for higher education email marketing. These are guidelines; in truth, I’ve barely scratched the surface! I didn’t even address the importance of your subject line, nor did I elaborate upon the complexities of mobile device compatibility.

Unfortunately, many higher education institutions are overloaded! There’s too much to do and not enough time. Ultimately, email marketing falls by the wayside. It’s a huge loss for everyone, including higher education marketing professionals.

However, there’s an easier way to handle your higher education email marketing.

My team of experts at The Email Marketers is ready to tackle your email marketing needs! We’ll optimize your results and ensure every email marketing campaign shines. You’ll gain all the perks of a superior email marketing strategy and avoid the steep learning curve of email marketing software.

And all it takes is a click!

Schedule a free strategy session today to see how The Email Marketers can make your email campaigns remarkable! If you need even more proof, don’t be afraid to look through the rest of my blog; it’s packed with tips and tricks to improve your email marketing campaigns.