Email Marketing

8 Key Tactics for Successful Higher Education Email Marketing

Melissa Rodriguez
Published on Sep 25, 2019

8 Key Tactics for Successful Higher Education Email Marketing

Over the past decade, the growth of online education programs has disrupted the marketing mix for higher education. In the past, educational institutions were regionally bound and, thus, marketing to prospective students was also geographically limited. The most effective methods of advertising to prospective students were direct mail and phone.

In recent years, with the rise of technology and migration to the online space, more educational programs have found their home online. Here, geographic limitations are irrelevant and innovative methods have been introduced to attract students from all over the world.

higher education email marketing

One of these marketing tactics is email marketing. Email marketing is one of the most affordable and effective marketing methods a university can take advantage of. When it comes to return on investment (ROI), for every single dollar that the marketing team spends on email marketing, they see an average return of $44.

If you are part of an institution looking to grow their online reach to prospective and current students, listen up. We’re breaking down 8 key tactics for a successful higher education email marketing campaign.

Table of Contents
1. Outline Your Goals and Objectives
2. Define Your Target Audience of Prospective Students
3. Understand Your Prospects’ Journey and Nurture Them
4. Choose the Right Email Marketing Platform
5. Build an Email Campaign Around Your Prospective Student Segments
6. Combine Higher Education Email Marketing With Other Marketing Efforts
7. Monitor Your Results and Optimize
8. Hire an Agency

1. Outline Your Goals and Objectives

No marketing endeavor is complete without a clear set of goals and objectives to help steer the way for a powerful strategy. Higher education email marketing is no different. Some common goals higher education institutions have include:

  • Increase enrollment rates
  • Spread awareness 
  • Grow profitability 
  • Increase the institution’s revenue 
  • Expand ethnic diversity 

Your objectives will be built upon these goals using measurable actions and benchmarks. For example, I want to increase admission rates by 10% in the next 6 months is a strong objective. Here, we outlined the goal (increase admission rates), the measurable action (10%) and benchmark (timeline of 6 months). 

If you don’t have a clear picture of what you should be directing your email marketing campaign towards, make a list of pain points that your institution has been struggling with. These can include:

  • Low enrollment rates (Solution: Promoting your institution with the right targeting)
  • Lack of diversity in age, gender or ethnicity (Solution: Targeting a more diverse audience in your marketing) 
  • Need for stronger branding (Solution: Increasing marketing budget to ensure a strong branding guide and strategy is in place) 

2. Define Your Target Audience of Prospective Students 

Knowing your audience is a foundational tactic for success in higher education email marketing. Education is a niche industry that requires a high-value investment by consumers, sort of like a home or a car. Because of this, it is something that all prospects will take their time with when deciding where to invest their time and money. 

A higher education institution’s target audience can include any and all of the following:

  • Individuals who left school and are looking to go back
  • Career changers
  • Parents returning to study
  • High school graduates 

These prospects may have already shown interest in your college by filling out a newsletter opt-in form and appearing in your database. 

You can also segment your audience in a number of ways:

  • Enrollment status
  • Major or school
  • Living situation (on-campus vs. off-campus)
  • Home location 
  • Extracurricular interests and social clubs
higher education email marketing

Email drip campaigns are a great way to target specific groups and tailor each stage of the campaign to various segments. Source: Pardot

Whatever your audience, remember that education is one of the most expensive products a customer will consider in their lifetime, often with several years’ time commitment, so it is important to sell them on why your institution is the right choice. 

You will be able to successfully tailor your higher education email marketing campaign to each of these audiences by funneling with proper tactics such as design and copywriting.

3. Understand Your Prospects’ Journey and Nurture Them

Higher education email marketers work with a lot of contact lists:

  • Prospective students
  • Parents
  • Accepted students
  • Enrolled students
  • Graduates
  • Alumni
  • Donors
  • Faculty, staff and the community

What you need to consider before importing any of these lists is how you are going to communicate with them. Every prospect’s journey begins with a show of interest. When it comes to email marketing for educational institutions, you can grow your email list in a number of ways:

  • Include the option to sign up for emails as a form or button on your website.
  • Feature a subscribe link in your email signature. 
  • Promote on social media and blogs.
  • Email pop-ups or lightboxes, which Pacific54 uses for their clients.
higher education email marketing

  This email pop-up from Whole Whale University is an example of an effective way to capture leads straight from your webpage.

When you choose opt-in methods rather than involuntarily adding people to your list, your emails seem more like a service than a nuisance. Your recipients will be prospects who have a proven interest in your institution. 

Define Stages of Interest

All higher education marketers need to define the stages of interest that students go through before making an enrollment decision. The data you gather as you interact with prospects, through email CTAs, social media, and by tracking their activity on your website, will inform you of where they are on the buyer’s journey.

The stages range from mild interest to commitment. These can include:

  1. Potential prospects: These are all the contacts that fit your criteria but have not expressed interest in your institution. This is usually a large number, which might have not heard about your university before.
  2. Inquirers who show interest: These individuals are definitely interested but have not made any commitments to pursuing your college. They perhaps follow you on social media, signed up for webinars and newsletters, visited the campus, or attended your college fair.
  3. Submission of application: Individuals who may attend your institution if accepted. Note that just because they applied, does not mean they are choosing your service. Therefore, it is important to target these prospects in your marketing efforts. 
  4. Admitted students: This group has received an acceptance letter but have yet to enroll. 
  5. Enrollees: These contacts have already secured their spot in your upcoming class and are attending your institution. 
  6. Alumni: Graduates from a degree program at your institution. 
higher education email marketing

This email from the University of Tennessee is targeted at incoming Spring enrollees.

Once these phases have been defined, you use an email marketing platform to characterize prospective students and segment them in different categories based on their interest levels.

Nurture: Personalization Is Key

Did you know? 98% of students said they would open an email from a college they were interested in, according to Noel-Levitz. 

Segment your email lists by buyer persona and tailor each prospector journey to each audience. You can set this up in your email marketing program using triggers based on the source. Triggers yield 70.5% more opens than other types of emails.

Here are some examples of the parameters you can set your triggers and sources around:

  • Potential: Standing at the top of your funnel, you have less information about this group. Therefore, use what bit of information you have to help them consider you as a good option. Emphasize location, programs you offer, extracurricular activities, and anything else that makes you stand out.
  • Interested: Depending on how big your list is, you may want to segment based on who has reached out directly and expressed an interest in a particular program. You may be able to create an email template to target these individuals specifically if, say, they were considering your business program. 
  • In the bag: You have some new applicants! Sending a personalized message goes a long way in showing them you value them and are here to address any concerns. The same goes for admitted students and enrollees. 

4. Choose the Right Email Marketing Platform 

Before you get into the actual higher education email marketing, it is important you are using a platform that is user-friendly and is well equipped to help you meet your goals. 

Conduct research on the best email marketing platforms out there. You can also check out platforms that are specially made for email marketing for universities, such as Emma.

 When deciding on a program for email marketing to college students, make sure to note the following:

  • Price
  • Audience limits, if any
  • User-friendliness
  • Templates
  • Ability to integrate with CRMs
  • Ability to track website visitors 
  • Social media integrations
  • Scheduling options 
  • Personalization options 

Here at Pacific54, we use MailChimp or Autopilot for our higher education clients but opt for SendGrid when marketing our own personal brand. What platform you choose when doing email marketing for higher education really depends on which is the best fit for your budget, expertise, business size, and overall marketing goals.  

5. Build an Email Campaign Around Your Prospective Student Segments 

We’re getting to the meat of what will drive your higher education email marketing campaign home. You know your audience and understand their buyer journey. Now the challenge comes with crafting content for your email that will engage and drive results. 

higher education email marketing

Creative Copywriting and Design 

The content of your email should always include the following:

  • A strong subject line: Use emojis, invoke humor, inspire curiosity. 
  • Social media links: Usually located at the bottom of the email.
  • Blog links: Drive traffic to your website using SEO for higher education.
  • Links to apply: If focusing on a specific major or program. 
  • A personalized touch: When applicable, use the prospect’s name. 
  • Call to action: What is the purpose of this email? 

Not sure what kind of content your higher education email marketing campaigns should focus on? Here are common types of emails that colleges and universities send to prospects:

  • Promoting webinars 
  • Reminders about information sessions
  • New content such as blog posts
  • Videos (by faculty or promotional)
  • Unique call to action buttons (enroll, schedule a tour, etc.)
  • Institutional news (rankings, changes in administration, etc.)

Show off your school spirit! Most universities have a branding guide that is used across all marketing materials, one area that they often neglect is their email marketing campaigns. It is vital that a university maintains a consistent look across all materials, emails, and departments.

Design is an important component of any email marketing strategy. Conduct research on attractive and practical email marking templates or hire an agency like Pacific54 to create your vision from scratch. Email marketing platforms like MailChimp allow you to code your own design, meaning you have control of every detail in creating the perfect template that you can use for multiple campaigns.  

Things that often fall through the cracks in university email marketing include:

  • Logo use
  • Color schemes
  • Fonts and font color
  • Consistent photography and iconography

Look at Other University Emails for Inspiration 

A strong email will stand out from the crowd, be personalized, and include links to guide the user to other channels of your brand. If you’re on the hunt for higher education email marketing templates, look no further. We’ve narrowed down a few real-life examples that pass with flying colors. 

higher education email marketing

This email targeted at students and alumni at Syracuse University is effective in calling attention to the purpose of the blast (to promote a hashtag) and a cause: fundraising. Visually, the use of orange calls the eyes to the hashtag right away. The copy appeals to emotion and inspires.


higher education email marketing

We love this email by Arizona State University for a number of reasons. The gif format makes for an eye-catching visual element that prompts the reader to pay attention. The use of yellow is their school color and also calls the eye. As for the content, creativity is what makes this email template stand out. The subject and content appeal to the readers’ interests and is interactive with sprinkles of humor throughout.

6. Combine Higher Education Email Marketing With Other Marketing Efforts

You can optimize the effectiveness of your higher education email marketing strategy in partnership with other marketing efforts, such as pay-per-click advertising and social media.

Use Paid Search to Fuel Your Email List and Test Your Content

Paid search is the perfect way to juice up your funnel with brand new, qualified prospects. With the powerful use of pay-per-click (PPC), you can display your ads to searchers who are actively looking for your products and services. From there, obtaining email details can be done by:

  • Setting up an email address form as your primary conversion goal
  • Capture the buyer’s email address during the purchasing process.
  • Including a secondary call to action on your landing page to fill out their email. 

You can also test the effectiveness of your higher education email marketing content using PPC. CTAs are the most crucial component in driving email conversions, and Google and Facebook Ads allows you to A/B test CTAs to see which garnered more results. You can also do this for images, another powerful component of any content marketing piece.  

Integrate Your Email Marketing With Social Media 

Higher education email marketing naturally leads users to want to explore other marketing channels. As an established institution, your social media presence is most likely strong and worth taking advantage of. Promote signing up for your newsletter to your social media audience.

Be sure they are aware of the perks of signing up, including:

  • Being informed on school-wide updates
  • Educational resources such as blogs
  • Any promotional incentives (raffles, freebies, etc.)

You can also integrate your social media campaign with your higher education email marketing. For example, if you are promoting a hashtag and want it to trend, sending out an email blast to your lists is an effective way to raise awareness and drive results. 

7. Monitor Your Results and Optimize 

After every email sent, it is important to analyze the results to see what can be improved upon. Key performance indicators include:

  • How many people opened the email.
  • How many clicked on an active link within the email.
  • How many responded to the email.
  • How many people unsubscribed.

Luckily, there are services specifically dedicated to breaking down the numbers. Using Google Analytics and/or your marketing platform analytics will help give you the full picture so that you can adjust accordingly. 

Wield the Power of Google Analytics

Measure results with “beyond the click tracking” that occurs once the visitor has clicked through from your email to your website. You achieve this using UTM variables -- parameters you can add to the end of your links in email campaigns so Google Analytics knows where the traffic is being directed from (the source).

Here’s what it would look like without and with UTM tracking: 

higher education email marketing

Notice the longer URL for the second form. The source is an email announcement, the medium is an email, and the email marketing platform name is Canvas. It is important to consider a visitor tracking option when deciding which program is best for you. Knowing how effective your campaign is will help you modify future emails in terms of content, targeting, etc. 

Other methods for measuring email marketing success with Google Analytics include creating an advanced segment and reviewing reports.

Check Out Your Internal Dashboard Analytics 

Many email marketing platforms have a reporting section that focuses on the actions taken from the emails themselves. How many subscribers did you gain? How many people opened the email? Who clicked on what link? How many times?

Here’s an example of an internal dashboard analytics section for MailChimp, which breaks down campaigns over a 12-month period for a general overview. Notice how the audience we are looking at is taken from a particular source (the website contact form).

higher education email marketing

These KPIs will let you know if you are on the right track with your higher education email marketing campaign. For example, if you see that an email blast meant to target prospective students had a low open rate, perhaps your list isn’t as refined as you initially thought. Recall that when it comes to targeting with emails, specificity is key. 

Check out how in-depth these reports can get below:

higher education email marketing

Good Results v. Bad Results

Need help determining whether your higher education email marketing campaign was successful by industry standards? First, consider your initial goals: 

  • Increase admission rates
  • Spread awareness 
  • Grow profitability 
  • Increase the institution’s revenue 
  • Expand ethnic diversity 

Did we make progress in any of these areas? Consult university departments for data on admissions and revenue. Goals are measured in the long-term, so do not be discouraged if you are not seeing tangible results in the first few months of email marketing. 

Looking at the numbers will provide a concrete idea of the direction of your email marketing campaign. Here are some examples of average education email marketing statistics

  • Open rate: 21.80%
  • Unsubscribe rate: 0.20%
  • Click rate: 6%

If your email marketing reports fall somewhere along these lines, you are running a solid campaign that will get you results. 

8. Let Pacific54 Take Care of It

Need more tips? The team of marketing professionals at Pacific54 is determined to get you the results you want out of your higher education email marketing strategy. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or require more guidance in your email marketing efforts and beyond, contact us today for a consultation. 


If you implement these tactics you’ll be on your way achieving a powerful and effective higher education email marketing strategy: 

  • Outline Goals and Objectives: Make note of pain points and areas of improvement in your institution and set measurable goals and objectives for you to achieve. 
  • Define Your Target Audience: Conduct research and become familiar with who you are sending these emails out to. How can you segment to get as specific as possible?
  • Nurture Your Leads: Segment based on the buyer journey and use your email marketing platform to create drip automation based on different sources. 
  • Choose a Competent Email Marketing Platform: You’re only as good as your tools. Make sure your email platform is equipped to handle everything you want to achieve, including features like email drips, automation, and reporting. 
  • Build an Email Campaign Around Your Target Audience: Now that you know your audience, design your email in a way that would appeal to them. Higher education email marketing is heavy on school spirit and campus life. 
  • Combine Your Marketing Efforts: Use social media and Google Ads to promote your emails and vice versa. 
  • Monitor Your Results: Google Analytics and your email marketing platform’s internal dashboard will offer in-depth analytics so you can adjust your efforts accordingly.
  • Hire an Agency: Outsource to an experienced team who does this for a living!


3 Responses to “8 Key Tactics for Successful Higher Education Email Marketing”

  • Stephanie Clinger says:

    Great thank you so much. I did not know what to do on this. I may have to decide to hire an agency.

  • Lillian M. says:

    Building an email campaign is not as easy as it looks. Honestly, if I could do it all over again, I just would’ve paid someone to do it for me with all the time it actually took me. Now, I have an assistant who worries about it but I used to do it all myself and it was exhausting yet rewarding.

  • Haley N. says:

    As a student, I can say that nothing is more frustrating than getting a ton of useless emails from schools that only say “come visit!” I would rather read about the statistics of your school and facts about it that convince me that I want to go there. the first way just shows me you might not have that much to offer.

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