5 Tactics to Boost University Email Open Rates

By 2018, the average inbox will get slammed with an average of 97 emails per day (1). For most college students, add to this a mix student club announcements, academic advising updates, financial aid notifications, or homework reminders from professors. And if you’re an active social media user (like most students are), you may have status or account notifications from multiple channels and apps. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Snapchat, oh my!

The email inbox of a college freshman is a noisy, chaotic battlefield of dozens of different messages clawing for attention. And now it’s your job to cut through the noise and seize those precious 6 seconds of attention your beautifully crafted email deserves — and it all starts with the open rate.

So what exactly is the email “open rate”?

An email open rate is a basic metric that allows administrators to measure the performance of an email campaign. As the name suggests, the open rate tells you the percentage of your recipient group who opened your email versus those who deleted the email or simply glanced at the subject line and moved on with their busy day.

The importance of open rates is a hotly debated topic among marketers who often look to more advanced metrics to measure a campaign’s effectiveness in achieving a clearly defined goal, such as downloads, website visits or event RSVP’s. So to get a more holistic understanding of campaign performance, the open rate should really be just one piece in a larger information puzzle.

But for most university administrators running basic email campaigns on popular platforms such as MailChimp, paying attention to open rates is a fantastic place to start.

Why is your open rate important?

In order to better understand just how important your open rate is, it helps to take a look your open rate’s impact on university communications during any given semester. Let’s take a look at a quick hypothetical example to better illustrated this.

Let’s say you during the Fall semester, from September to December, you send one email blast each week. Perhaps it’s a newsletter highlighting upcoming events, student reminders or campus news. 5,000 recipients are on your list, which may represent one or more audiences like students, staff or faculty.

Now let’s run a quick calculation to find the total quantity of email we’re dealing with:

3 months X 4 weeks per month X 1 email per week = 12 email blasts

12 email blasts X 5,000 recipients = 60,000 emails sent each semester

This means open rates for this example would look like the following:

Open rate Emails opened

5% → 3,000

10% → 6,000

15% → 9,000

20% → 12,000

25% → 15,000

30% → 18,000

35% → 21,000

40% → 24,000

As you can see, with an open rate, even a small increase by just a few percentage points, translates into your message being seen by hundreds or even thousands more students, staff and faculty!

So what can you do to increase your open rate? I’m glad you asked!

Here are 5 tactics that, depending on your situation, may significantly help give your open rate a boost.

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.

Let’s say you send an email blast announcing an upcoming lecture by a distinguished astronomer, and with several space headlines popping up in current events, you think this should be a home-run. You expect a solid open rate, somewhere in the 25%-30% range. But you send the email, and only get 6% open rate.


Now there are many unknown reasons why this could have happened. But what we do know, and can list, are the main reasons why someone would not open your email:

The double-open tactic helps to target group #3, who you might otherwise miss due to normal human procrastination and forgetfulness.

Here’s what you do:

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:

1st email:

May 14, 6PM — Prof. Johnson on Innovations in Modern Astronomy

2nd email:

Innovations in Modern Astronomy w/ Prof Johnson — May 14, 6PM

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.

When you chart this across the full academic year, you can begin to spot the times of year that are more successful or less successful for engaging with your audiences. Pay attention to the highest peaks and lowest valleys, and ask yourself “What else was going on during these times?”

Think: Did you happen to send an email campaign on Yom Kippur, or during the start of finals, or the day before faculty grade reports were due? What other reasons could there be for a distraction or change in email behavior?

Make note of your graph’s areas of weakness, and apply your learnings from the analysis the next time around.



And now, the final tactic which I think is the most effective and no one really wants to hear…

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?

If your audience is undergraduate students, post an invitation on all of your social media channels for students who write in to “apply” for the focus group (don’t let it become a free for all). Ask students to email in and write 2 sentences about why they’d like to be in the focus group. Order 5 large pizzas, gather your pens a notepads and switch on your listening mode! If you ask the right questions, the number of valuable insights that emerge from a 60 minute focus group conversation will likely outperform any other survey method.

In summary, if one or more of the tactics above can help you boost your open rates by a few percentage points, that can equal significant numbers over the course of an academic year. So decide what might work best for you, given your email goals, and start experimenting!


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

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