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For many university marketers, email is one of our most important channels. Perhaps that’s why we often seek external advice on ways to improve our campaigns. In many cases, however, these recommendations are framed toward meeting the demands of FMCG brands—those primarily using email as a short-term activation and promotion channel to achieve a quick uptick in clicks and sales lift.

Across all categories, the average open rate is 24 percent and the average click rate is six percent. If we drill down to our category, MDR Education reported a 17.38 percent open rate and 3.38 percent click rate. And like social media, email platforms (or CRMs) provide a myriad of data points, within the intermediate, to measure and test our efforts.

But how strongly does our industry’s click-through rate (CTR) correlate with real marketing and recruitment objectives? Moreover, how well does the advice align with buying behaviors in high-involvement categories?

Like those outside our industry, we are quick to push a prospect from email to whatever content we want them to view. In theory, it may make sense, but in reality, there’s a good chance we’re limiting the potential of email.

So, if we can’t offer flash sales on tuition, discounts for the first 100 to sign up for a campus tour or have new and interesting ways to shrink the buying cycle, our campaigns should not be designed and measured under similar assumptions. We can and should optimize for a better experience for those who open instead of optimizing for a click-through.

The Challenge

Each cycle, I try to find one small way to challenge a convention. I felt that email, in high-involvement categories, should be viewed as a long-term brand-building endeavor. I decided to design our emails for those who opened them and not simply to drive a specific behavior exhibited by a much smaller percentage. Each email would be an exercise in creativity and not psychology. My objectives were to tell a complete and visually interesting story within the bounds of the email box. There was no emphasis placed on a button or use of copy tricks to encourage a click. I wanted emails to be the vehicle for the story not simply the transport. 

The Test 

I selected a campaign from our last recruitment cycle and redesigned it under this new strategy. The messaging and the content—the complete story—could all be found within the email and spanning three to four screen lengths, in some cases.

The campaign was a total of two emails, and each email was segmented based on expressed academic interest. For example, a student who expressed interest in public health was delivered the first email three days into the campaign. The content was based on the college in which public health was housed. The second email was sent 10 days into the campaign, and included a profile of a public health student. This was markedly different than the previous campaign, which offered no more than a few key messages and a button to click. 

The Results

There were a couple of issues when comparing the two campaigns. First, last year’s campaign was not segmented. Second, I believe the recipient was well aware that the second email would be specific to their expressed academic interest. And while this does present an empirical problem, I would argue that there were results, outside of the obvious KPIs, that I found more surprising. 

Total opens were double and in some cases triple the amount of unique opens. Outside of our “You’re In” email, this was not the norm. Further, instead of open rates decreasing over the course of the recruitment cycle, as I saw last cycle, subsequent email open rates increased over the current recruitment cycle. Finally, click rates didn’t take a plunge. Returning to the public health emails, the first email had a 3.8 percent CTR and the second a 5 percent CTR, compared to a 5 percent CTR last cycle. 

The Takeaways

I am not quick to say I’ve found gold, as media environments and consumption-related behavior cannot often be recreated and this was a small test. But I do believe the results—the increased open rate over the duration of the campaign—are a sign of added value, interest and brand affinity. The outcomes unlocked new ways of seeing the potential in a specific and often less emphasized channel. And, working backwards from our actual marketing objectives (applications and deposits), the long-term potential of email became clearer. 

When I removed the need to fit our emails into a vendor inspired set of best practices, the content improved. Due to the abundance of advice, it’s easy to overthink meaningless metrics and setting aside creativity for an A/B test-driven subhead.

My advice, then? Look beyond the category for inspiration. Sites like and media brands like the History Channel, the Monocle and airbnb offer a variety of styles and designs that helped me to see new ways of crafting emails. While advertising isn’t a choice, per se, opening an email is. Why not create an experience – not another click – for those who make that decision?

Christopher Huebner is assistant director for online presence at the University of South Carolina.


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