Using Email to Reach Alumni? Best Practices for Effective Outreach

Michael Ellison (@cinsight_edu) is the president of Alumni Monitor.

Institutions have innumerable options for reaching alumni online. Social communities from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and beyond offer quick-fire ways to transmit news and ideas. Despite this, most institutions continue to use the first (and in many ways, still primary) digital messaging tool, email, as a key way to reach alumni.

Email is used for fundraising, career development, newsletters, engagement and a variety of other messages with specific goals. This deluge of email can make it difficult for alumni to focus on and respond to the messages your institution wants to share.

How can an institution make the most impact in alumni inboxes? There are almost as many strategies to cut through the noise  as there are schools in the United States. This email best practices report reviewed more than 500 emails across more than two dozen schools to uncover the email design elements and formatting choices that create emails that alumni are inspired to read and act upon, not ones that are just tolerated (or worse, ignored). With that in mind, here are three best practices for email creation.

Spend Time on the Subject and From Headers

The most effective email subjects are those that:

  • Are specific about what the email contains
  • Are short (8 words or less)
  • Convey a sense of urgency

Email subject lines that are unclear, too long or simply bland do a disservice to the message a school or alumni association is attempting to convey in its email marketing.

A great example of a well-designed email header, including the subject line, is this one from the Columbia College Alumni Association. Succinct and to the point, recipients immediately know who sent the email and what content they can expect to find upon opening it—namely, the July 2015 Columbia College Alumni Newsletter.

Columbia College Email

Include Effective Graphics 

While many institutions clearly put time into the design of their emails’ headers or footers, many more emails than we expected had amateurish graphics that looked like they had been hastily thrown together. Bad graphics can take readers out of the moment and overshadow the message of a given email, possibly even undermining the reader’s interest in their school or alumni association. And, effective images and layout can drive home points to readers in a way that mere text cannot.

One great example of this is an infographic that Lehigh University used as a part of its fundraising efforts in 2015. The image was embedded within the email itself. Both the infographic—entitled Why YOU Matter—and its integration into the email are clean and professionally done. The infographic maps out how and where donations will be used, and explains that an extra $50 from 44 alums is enough to create a work-study position for a Lehigh student.

Lehigh University--Why You MatterThis approach to providing information about the uses for funds raised helps address a poignant finding from the 2015 Alumni Engagement & Giving Survey: 24 percent of respondents cited transparency as an area for improvement—suggesting that focusing on it could improve alumni relations and increase donations. While not every email from an institution to its alumni needs a high-intensity infographic like the one from Lehigh, well-designed images and emails can truly capture readers’ attention and make them take notice of the message.

Remember Your Audience

Davidson College has an ongoing—and well-deserved—reputation for alumni giving participation. In this recent email with the subject line “Young Alumni, Let’s Do This,” the school plays up a competition between classes as a part of its fundraising campaign. Focusing on recent alumni, the email compares class donation participation from the 2005 to 2014 classes and asks a simple question: How does your class stack up? The goal of the email is to drive alumni participation toward 60 percent for each class, and the email does an effective job using imagery rather than words. It reaches out to young alumni by targeting a specific segment and sticks with themes likely to connect with that demographic.

Finally, the email includes an easy-to-locate, distinctive “Make a Donation” button. This button helps focus alumni attention on the “next step” and is also a nice example of how the right graphics can create impact.

Davidson College--The Fund for Davidson




One response to “Using Email to Reach Alumni? Best Practices for Effective Outreach

  1. SUPER interested in the email report this article mentions early on. However, the link is broken…is there a way to get to it?

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