5 Tactics to Boost University Email Open Rates

Tactic #1: Trim the Slackers

Take a good hard look at all of your email subscribers and try to identify those who haven’t opened any emails in the past 6 months. You can either do this analysis within your email program if it allows, or export all of your subscriber data into excel and manipulate it from there. Once you’ve identified your slackers, you can either choose to A) email that group a special message saying “Please reconfirm your subscription to this email list” in an attempt to kickstart some sort of activity, or B) cut them ruthlessly. This particular type of list maintenance should be done at least once per academic year.

Tactic #2: Optimize Your Subject for Mobile

75% of all gmail users read their emails on mobile devices (2). This means that the very first hurdle your email needs to overcome is being readable and understandable within the tight constraints of the subject line that is viewable on a mobile device. In order to optimize your subject lines for display on mobile devices, you need to keep your most important “required to take action” information to under 35 characters in length (3). Now, this may not always be possible, especially as brevity tends to not be the most common attribute in academia. But, try your best. At least in the case of events (live or virtual) prioritize fitting the date, time and location within that “optimized for mobile” range.

Tactic #3: Run “Double-Opens” for Important Emails

This is a highly effective tactic stolen directly from Noah Kagan, founder of AppSumo.

  1. They skimmed your subject and pre-header, and are not interested in your content
  2. The email was sent to SPAM and never seen
  3. They’re interested in your event, and intend to RSVP, but decided to do it “tonight when I get home,” or “later, once I I’m off of the train and get a signal.” And then they forget!

Step 1

5–7 days after sending your first email campaign, and seeing your poor 6% open rate, download the entire report showing all email address and status (who opened versus who didn’t open).

Step 2

Using excel, isolate all of those email addresses of people who were sent the email campaign but never opened it. Save this list of “non-openers” to a new spreadsheet.

Step 3

Import your “non-opener” list into your mail program, and prepare to send the exact same email you sent the first time around, but with one small but essential change: the subject line.

Step 4

Rewrite the email subject line to something completely different. For example, I like to simply flip the order of the subject line elements. It might look like:

Step 5

Send your double-open email! Now, any opens you see will be from the group of folks who might have completely missed or forgotten about your event during your first campaign. Any open rate at all, even percentages in the single digits, are positive win for your campaign.

Tactic #4: Analyze Send Data Over Time

Download all the reports of your last two semesters of email campaigns, and open them all in excel. Then, create a simple line graph showing the send date on the X axis and email open rates on the Y axis.

Tactic #5: Ask Your Audience!

Run an informal focus group of 10–20 people who represent your audience, and ask them questions to explore each of these dimensions of your communications plan. You can start with these as a point of inspiration, and adapt them to suit your individual needs:

  • Frequency: How do you feel about the frequency of our communications? Do you wish you heard about our programs more often? Less often? What do you think?
  • Content: In general, do you feel that the content we are sending out is relevant to you? What events or programs were you most interested in this year? Can you tell me about one or two emails you received and recall what made them memorable?
  • Channels: How do you usually hear about our programs? Do you think it would be helpful if we were more active or less active on certain channels?
  1. http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Email-Statistics-Report-2014-2018-Executive-Summary.pdf
  2. http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/28/gmail-now-has-900m-active-users-75-on-mobile/
  3. http://www.listrak.com/digital-marketing-solutions/mobile/subject-lines-for-mobile-devices.aspx



Senior Director of Digital Communications & Brand Experience at NYU School of Global Public Health / Podcast Producer / Occasional Bowhunter

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Chris Alexander

Chris Alexander

Senior Director of Digital Communications & Brand Experience at NYU School of Global Public Health / Podcast Producer / Occasional Bowhunter