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Improving emails to students

Student Affairs Fundraising and Communications
July 2, 2021 Mike Piacentino University of Miami

As an extension of research conducted by NASPA’s Research and Policy Institute investigating how student affairs divisions use email to communicate with students, the University of Miami’s Student Affairs Communications and Marketing office set out to better understand students’ thoughts and behaviors towards their school email.

The office held 5 focus groups with a total of 25 undergraduate and graduate students, reviewed analytics from a weekly newsletter to all undergraduate students, and reviewed myriad online sources. While the results are specific to feedback and insights from University of Miami students, these and other best practices are likely effective for any institution to consider. 

The findings from this year-long research project indicate that emails to students should be:

Delivered in a consistent and coordinated manner campus-wide.

Students described feeling “bombarded” by emails that lacked coordination across the university. They appreciate when high-priority emails (especially those that require action) are intentionally scheduled over a week or month. Therefore, effort should be made to coordinate and/or centralize the distribution of emails to students campus-wide.

Students also said that they sometimes receive the same information from various university entities, but that these repetitive messages often don’t acknowledge the source nor provide context to why it is being sent again.

If messages are worth repeating across multiple emails, consider how the main ideas can be succinctly summarized and contextualized to the audience and then linked to more complete information.

Visually attractive and functional on a range of devices, intentional in their use of imagery, and styled to make content easy to read.

Students reported that emails are often too long, calling them “walls of text” that are laborious to read, especially on their phones. In addition to trimming down text as much as possible, consider how to intentionally (and accessibly) use:

    • bold and/or colored text to identify key topics
    • section headers and horizontal rules to break up content
    • icons or buttons to clearly identify action items

Regarding the use of photos, students gave mixed reviews. Some said that photos add visual interest to an otherwise “boring” email—especially if the photo is of themselves or a friend—while others said that photos add unnecessary fluff. When using images or graphics, evaluate whether they add to or distract from the central message.

Sent from departments or individuals that students recognize; avoid using the same email address for different purposes.

Students said overwhelmingly that the primary determinant of whether they open an email is the sender. However, upon more questioning, it was determined that consistency is often the more important factor.

Students like being able to instantly identify what might be included within an email based solely on the sender. Institutions/units that rely too heavily on a singular email address for various newsletters, notifications, and personal correspondence risk confusing students about what to expect when they open their inboxes. 

For example, all University of Miami undergraduate students receive a weekly email of upcoming events called “Ibis News” from [email protected]. Since students know that the only email they receive from [email protected] is this event listing, they look forward to receiving it and know what to expect upon opening it.

Concise and written in a way that makes the message feel personalized to the recipient.

In addition to using the styling tips highlighted above, students appreciate when written content is as streamlined as possible.

Using second-person and the active voice (i.e. write “you should” instead of “students are encouraged to”) as well as plain language helps to keep written content to a minimum while not diminishing the message.

Although subject lines are less important than the email’s sender, aim to communicate the message of the email within the subject’s first three to five words. Additionally, students suggested that emails requiring action use intentional action verbs in the subject, keeping more creative/intriguing subject lines for emails about programs, services, and resources. 

Integrated with social media content, digital signage, and more to cross-promote messaging across multiple channels.

While students agreed that email is the guaranteed way to deliver a message, there is no certainty that students read the message. To ensure your message is widely available, look holistically at the communications strategy and consider how social media, digital signage, and other channels can work in tandem with emails. As an added benefit, considering these other channels may also cut down on the number of emails sent to students.

Delivered only to students who absolutely need to receive the message or who opted to receive communications from the sender.

Students generally understood the need to be automatically subscribed to all-student listservs and academic-focused lists, but there was a general sense that students were added to niche listservs without their knowledge and were unable to unsubscribe. In addition to following your institution’s guidelines regarding listservs and email distribution lists, consider how you can more intentionally segment your audience and craft targeted messages to specific groups of students.