HTML’s Not Set in Stone: How to Transform Your Email Marketing

Jennifer Doak-Mathewson (@jpdoak) is the associate director of digital engagement. Anthony LaRosa is the digital engagement specialist at the UConn Foundation.

While much has been made of email’s impending demise, it’s still a major part of most institutions’ marketing toolboxes. It is still effective, both in cost and time, and can be a great way to personalize your school to alumni, donors and friends.

But because it’s taken a backseat to social media and other tactics, it’s often on autopilot. We send out email because we have to, or someone wants us to, or because certain segments respond better to it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is still room to improve your email marketing so that it’s effective, engaging—and, dare we say, fun. Here’s how.

The Backstory

After integrating alumni relations efforts into the UConn Foundation, we merged into one external relations department with a digital engagement team—responsible for email marketing, social media and website management.

We knew we had been duplicating efforts—and, as is so often the case with small web teams, merely treading water rather than being proactive with email marketing strategy. Performance, as a result, wasn’t great.

So we took a step back, reviewed our analytics and made a few changes.

Where We Were

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Before we consolidated communications efforts, other departments dictated the strategy and content of emails. They’d send us the stuff, we’d put the email together, go through a bunch of edits and hit publish.

oldemaildesign_uconnfoundationSound familiar? The problem with this approach is that email becomes detached from overall communications. Our emails tended to be text-heavy, with formal language and inconsistent images (as you can see to the left)—and there were a lot of them. Our Connecticut alumni received dozens and dozens of one-off emails about game watches and networking events, with nary a thought given to their already bulging inboxes.

In other words: It was about us—our deadlines, our priorities—and not about THEM.

The Plan

Our team first met in August 2015 to tackle email strategy, gathering performance data to understand what we were doing well and what we could be doing better. After investigating our data from the 2014-2015 fiscal year, as well as comparing this information to baseline industry open and click-through rates (from M+R and MailChimp), we came to the conclusion that there was room for improvement.

Here’s what we did.

Reduced one-off emails in favor of weekly or monthly updates. Because we were sending messages too frequently to the same audiences, we saw email fatigue—resulting in lower engagement as the emails piled up. Instead of sending an email every time we had an event, we consolidated events into updates for audiences both in-state and across the country. As a bonus, our alumni can now see a fuller range of offerings just for them.

Focused more on list segmentation. Our data showed that emails with more targeted audiences performed far better than widespread, untargeted emails—especially in Connecticut.

newvisualemaildesign_uconnfoundationOverhauled our email design. Our alumni view the foundation as being part of UConn—but our emails didn’t show it. The emails did not reinforce the university’s colors or visual identity. Nor did they render well on mobile devices.

So we completely threw out those email templates, aligning instead with the UConn brand, with usability and mobile-friendliness in mind. We structured our content in 600-pixel tables, kept fonts larger than 14pt, put images front and center and used a LOT of Flag Blue (the official blue of UConn).

(Credit for this overhaul goes to Anthony, our prodigiously skilled digital engagement specialist, who designed the much nicer email you see at left.)

Took a machete to the content and clarified calls to action. Our old emails had lengthy paragraphs, used formal language for things like game watches and beer tastings, and you needed opera glasses to view them on your mobile device. There was lots of room for improvement.

We left enough text to get the point across, linking to more information if needed. We gave our events, programs and campaigns the attention they deserved—with interesting, engaging language, action photos and large, clear calls to action.

Communicated regularly with staff about the forthcoming changes. We started with senior managers, outlining these changes right off the bat. This new approach needed a new process—people would no longer have absolute control over when and what they sent. But, armed with data and solid reasoning, we got approval for a new approach and set about communicating it to the departments that were most affected. Once we were ready to test out templates, we shared them with these people to get their feedback.


It didn’t take too long before our changes went from being new to the new standard. We fully transitioned to our updated designs and strategy by September 2015.

As a whole, these efforts have resulted in an overall 2 percent increase in open rates, more than a 2 percent increase in click-throughs and a small decrease in our unsubscribe percentage.

Our staff, and many staff members from departments across the university, have also expressed their enjoyment of our new style and strategy. Most were genuinely relieved to not have to worry about email content in addition to all the intricacies involved in event planning, and as soon as they saw the emails on their phone we heard lots of positive feedback.


If you’re thinking about updating your own email designs and strategies, here are some tips to help you begin the process.

  • Unify your department’s look with the rest of your institution. Get a sense of how other departments are crafting their emails. Bookmark any branding resources you might get (if you aren’t in charge of them yourself). Although you may not be able to control what everyone is sending, you can at least reinforce a central brand and style that immediately identifies your email as being from your institution.
  • Think mobile. Always test emails on both computers and mobile devices, and find what works for you, your email platform and your audience. Always keep the user’s experience in mind, and remember that the portion of your audience that checks email from a phone will only increase.
  • Narrow your segment, increase your engagement. Segment your sends whenever possible—by gift amount, location, previous event attendance or age—and see what works for you. The more you can deliver content based on an individual’s interests, the better your emails will perform.
  • Check your location affinity. We found that the farther away from campus you go, the broader the alumni affinity. In other words, Connecticut alumni want content based on school, college or type of event—but alumni in California are just happy to hear from UConn.
  • Create repeatable, sustainable templates. Don’t get in the habit of creating new templates for every email you send. Find the most common email types and craft templates that can easily be changed with new graphics or text. Some great places to start are event invitations, “thanks for attending” emails and monthly newsletters.
  • Make ’em count: consolidate and send less. Over time, your one-off emails will fatigue your audience, and they’ll ignore you or, worse, unsubscribe. Consolidate events in the same area, tighten the language and provide clear calls to action. The objective of your email is to have your audience open it and engage, not to assault them with monstrously long walls of text.

No Day But Today: Get Started!

You do not necessarily need to form a committee to start experimenting with new email styles. Start drafting new templates and testing the content with a few frequent email requesters at your institution. Find out what they like and what they do not like. After you send a newly designed message, make sure to check how your audience responds and keep adapting your results.

So shake things up a bit. Look at your data and come up with the right plan to deliver your content in a visually appealing and operationally efficient way.

2 responses to “HTML’s Not Set in Stone: How to Transform Your Email Marketing

  1. It is always good to take a step back and look at all of your communication vehicles. I’m impressed that you started this project in August and were able to being implementing in late September. That’s warp-speed in higher ed!

    • Definitely! We set aside a two-hour meeting to just look at stats, since it’s really hard to make time otherwise. And honestly, we were pretty surprised too! It helped to have supportive leadership in on it from the beginning.

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