12 Strategies for Smarter Search Emails

If you’ve ever put together an undergraduate search email campaign, you know that there are a surprising number of factors that make the simple request for a hand-raise more complex than meets the eye. Good email campaigns require planning around content, calendaring, segmentation and deliverability—especially when recipients weren’t aware of your existence until your name popped up in their inboxes. When it’s done right, search emails can be the high-volume/low-cost collateral that build your incoming class.

We took a look at a number of search email campaigns that Liaison’s undergraduate clients ran in 2014 and 2015 to develop some easy-to-deploy strategies driving the best campaign performance. With millions of emails sent, we had a lion’s share of data points to comb through—from obvious elements including messaging and design to finer details like link volume and use of variables. Here’s what we found:

    1. More Them, Less You – First Name Increases Open Rate
      One of the most common observations across clients was that the open rate for emails featuring a student’s first name in the subject line were markedly higher than those without, and using the first name as the first word of the subject line were higher still.
    2. Seriously, Less You – Trim Length for Better Response
      Excessive length in any area of a search email—long subject lines, long content blocks, even long From: labels—reduced open rate and click through significantly. Save the meatier content for nurture after students have inquired and instead aim to pique interest swiftly and make inquiry convenient.
    3. Variable Data Has Risks and Rewards
      Some of our highest and lowest performing emails featured significant messaging addressing variable data and student segmentation. ‘Safe’ variables—those in typically high performing emails—included name and information based on location and projected entry year. Location-based incentives like in-state grants are considered safe because the information is most likely accurate and absolute. Riskier variables—gender, major, athletic interest—are usually sourced from information supplied by the student, which may or may not be reliable or indicate a high level of interest. This is less of a concern for a school with a specific, well-established focus, such as engineering or health sciences. Still, caution is key when using data that you haven’t received directly from your prospects.
    4. Avoid the three C’s – Careers, Community and Cash
      A number of words appearing in subject lines reduce open rate across the board—‘Community’, ‘Value’, ‘Campus’, ‘Career’, ‘Salary’, ‘Financial Aid’ being the main culprits. The common thread is that these are soft, general pitches and don’t inspire immediate excitement. Search emails are being sent to 16- and 17-year old students, and while they may have a pragmatic interest in value or career prospects, that pragmatism isn’t great at motivating inquiry. More immediate alternatives that performed much better include ‘Tuition-break’, ‘Scholarship’ and ‘High-Paying’. Curiously, ‘Grand’ works better than ‘K’ when mentioning thousands of dollars (5 Grand in scholarships vs. 5K in scholarships, e.g.).
    5. When Everything is Bolded, Nothing is
      Excessive in-line formatting—bolding, italicizing, resizing—is tempting to help call out marquee content. It’s also a strain on the eye and makes the email less attractive, especially since you don’t know how the email will be rendered on the student’s device. Heavily-bolded emails that shared a subject line with less stylized emails presented lower click-thru and greater instances of opt-outs. Instead of bold, see what can be trimmed to help the content stand out on its own.
    6. Links are the New Bold
      Links are a style element in addition to being a functional element. Using too many links can be hard to look at and reduce the value of each link’s addition. We find the greatest prevalence of link clicks are in emails with three links that aren’t cluttered into the copy—the first instance of your institution’s name, a stand alone “Click here to…” line, and the URL of the link destination.
    7. All Roads Lead to Home – The Inquiry Form
      There is no other goal in search than to drive students to inquire. So, all links in the email should go to one place—the inquiry form. Emails that link to other places show low conversion rates when compared with inquiry-form-only emails. Save social media, home pages, and the like until after you’ve captured inquiry.
    8. To Template or Not to Template
      Use graphic templates for institutional emails and blank templates for personal emails. We suggest that the first contact email (which has almost invariably the highest open rate in the campaign) come from the institution with an attractive, branded template, and the second email come from either the Director of Admission or a counselor in plain text.
    9. Use the From: Label Intentionally
      The From: label serves two purposes—it tells the recipient who sent the email, and it excuses you from putting your school name in the subject line and eating up valuable real estate. We see a huge spike in open rates when the From: label is a person’s name, and the content makes a personal connection, but the strategy should work in coordination with institutional emails to better differentiate tone. When the From: Label is the school name, it should be left out of the subject line completely.
    10. Save Your Best for the Second Email
      By nature of being the first email from your institution, your first search email will typically have the most opens and clicks regardless of quality of content. Save your most compelling and high-performing content for the second email, when the recipient pool has been refined to non-opt-out, non-inquiry students who have seen your first email but didn’t feel compelled to act.
    11. Preserve Sender Health by Limiting Your Outreach Volume
      Purchased names will produce the highest volume of official opt-outs in your database, and will also produce the highest volume of SPAM complaints. Make it easy for students to opt-out, rather than flag you as a spammer, to maintain your integrity as an email sender.
    12. Aim for October
      When scheduling a campaign, focus on the end date. The time of year it starts and how much time passes between emails is less important than when the campaign ends. The last email should be sent in the middle of October and should transition to a visit invitation as the call to action.