THOUGHT LEADERSHIP FOR HIGHER EDUCATION SINCE 2001: Reach out to us.
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Push. Pull. Push. Pull. When it comes to building a relationship with your audience-whether prospective students, alumni, prospective donors, or others-it’s critical that you balance “pull” technologies (your website) with “push” technologies (email).

The challenge is to create good, compelling broadcast email that makes your message clear and drives the recipient to action. And that’s tough. We offer three principles for effective email.

1. Above all else, DON’T be a spammer!

Don’t even pretend to be one. What does that mean?

First, use good lists. This isn’t likely a problem for colleges, which tend to operate from existing lists of alumni/donors and interested prospectives, but don’t even be tempted to buy unqualified lists from spammish sources.

Second, don’t include words that make your email look like spam. Lots of spam filters now use content-based filtering to look for suspicious language. We’d offer you a dozen examples, but then this email would wind up in the spam box-instead, visit this list. You’ll be surprised-there are quite a few that aren’t immediately obvious and get used by legit emailers all the time.

Third, make it personal in every way. The FROM should be a human, not a department or institution. (Or, even better: “John Smith, State U Alumni Director.”) Address the recipient by name in the body of the email (as in: “Dear Rick”)—don’t put the name in the subject line, a common spammer trick. And most important: personalize the email itself with content that matters to the recipient and a personal tone of voice. Remember: institutions don’t speak, people do.

Fourth, don’t send over-designed HTML email. If you do send HTML email, keep it simple: a little typography, a little highlight color (never spammy red), and a graphic or two. Too many tables, menus, graphics, and font tags will make your email look spammish to humans and to automated spam filters.

Fifth, use an email service provider. Besides making your life easier and simplifying data-collection about your email traffic, an ESP will help ensure that your email gets to the inbox. Good ESPs have relationships with the major email services, and many participate in the Bonded Sender Program (a surefire way into the inbox). The worst-case scenario? Your broadcast email gets flagged as spam and the big email systems block all inbound email from your college. It’s happened before: don’t let it happen to you!

Sixth, unsubscribe means unsubscribe. Really. People have legitimate reasons for unsubscribing; in fact, an unsubscribe often is followed by a re-subscribe with another address. Don’t keep people on the list with the idea that “just one more email and they’ll see the value of our message.”

2. Test your broadcast emails.

Email is cheap, instant, and easy to track. That makes it light-years better than printed direct mail when it comes to researching effective messages. Test small sample sizes, and when you find the best one, send it to your big list.

The Howard Dean campaign used this to marvelous effect. I happened to be signed up on the Dean email list with three separate addresses. Back when Bill Bradley endorsed him, I received the same message three times—with three very different subject lines:

  • Breathing New Life into Our Democracy
  • The Best Thing to Happen to Democracy in Decades
  • Why I Joined

    Test your subject lines to see which generate the most opened messages. Then, test your content to see which generates the most clicks or the most money raised. You can have real results in a matter of days—and it doesn’t cost a dime.

    3. Don’t send single asks—launch an email “campaign.”

    Raising money by email isn’t a one-shot deal. You’ve got to design a campaign built around multiple asks that are varied and diverse.

    As certified-smart-guy Vinay Bhagat, the founder of Convio, recently told us: “You’ve got to design a campaign that’s effective for your audience, test specific messages on sub-samples, and then measure results across the entire campaign, not on an email-by-email basis.”

    For example, Bhagat says, “If an organization’s first email targets 1,000 people and generates 50 responses (i.e., a 5 percent response rate), then the next email should be sent to the 950 people who did not respond. Continuing to ask the 50 respondents to take action when they’ve already done so runs the risk of annoying and alienating people who have already provided support.”

Michael Stoner

AUTHOR - Michael Stoner

Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person? Find me on

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