Emails Impact Enrollment
Increased investment in lead generation services naturally results in a higher volume of inquiry. These inquiries express interest through a variety of channels - the website often serving as their very first touchpoint. Over the months that follow, these students will also watch their email inboxes flood with automated messages.
Websites, social media, and email campaigns, although essential components to a successful communications strategy, are fundamentally designed for mass communication. We can always use them to be more targeted, but they can only be as personal as is the data we collect and store on students. Meanwhile, students in today's digital age expect more than this. They demand direct, personalized responses to inquiries that they feel are unique to their own circumstances.
Our admissions team needed to find a solution to this. Without one, we risked losing the attention of a prospect pool for which we invested in so heavily.
No matter how much time and resources we put into targeted content on our website, social media, and email campaigns, we could not slow down the volume of direct emails flooding our own inbox. Redirecting these students back to those mass communication platforms for their answers was not an option.
This is where our story began. We have not only been successful, we have become masters at email writing.
Enrollment managers across higher education are under increasing pressure to bring a larger, more widely diverse student body to campus. In turn, we continue to search for the latest, most innovative, and farthest-reaching communication technologies to engage these students. However, outside the buzz around social media, texting, video conferencing, and virtual reality, we ignore the most important communication tool of them all - direct email.
An Undeniable Preference for Email
In the age of millennials and smartphones, email is thriving. By the end of 2019, it is projected that the number of worldwide email users will increase to over 2.9 billion. This has important implications for marketing professionals across all service industries, including higher education.
According to a recent report by Chegg Enrollment Services, 65% of teens prefer to communicate with colleges via email when using their smartphones. Compare that to their preference for messaging apps (1%), social media (2%), live chat (3%), and text (9%). Although they do turn to these tools when connecting with friends, they do not necessarily want college reps invading those spaces.
Preference for email does not appear to correlate with a student's geographic location either. Last year, that was our experience with the high volume of emails exchanged between our admissions team and fall 2018 applicants. Looking at the pool of applicants engaging with us, there was a clear preference for email, regardless of location:
- 70% of applicants were in-state.
- 60% of this group engaged with us via email.
- 30% of applicants were out-of-state and international.
- 50% of this group engaged with us via email.
Despite the fact that our local, in-state applicants have direct access to our counselors and campus resources, their preference for email was just as strong as those further afield.
Meanwhile, as we continued to invest more into lead generation services across the state, country, and globe, our email volume continued to grow exponentially.
Prioritizing Email in our Marketing Mix
It was for these reasons that we realized the importance of email several years ago, and we decided to make it a priority for both resource allocation and training. The resulting impact on enrollment has been significant, coinciding with a three-year trend of record enrollment growth ever since.
Most importantly, we made email writing an essential part of our admissions counselor training and development. To give you a better idea, go back, read a few of your own email responses to inquiries, and ask yourself if they deliver on these aims:
- Clearly address every reason why the student sent you an email.
- Provide specific details that are relevant to and supportive of those reasons.
- Maintain a balance between content and context that fosters understanding.
- Focus on one idea per paragraph and conclude with next steps.
- Provide a timely response that is free of grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.
Today, our admissions team is confident that we can deliver as we continue to improve our overall lead conversation rates. Rather than place blame on the quality of leads and the services we invest in, we instead look internally for ways to improve upon the email responses we write.
The Art of Email Writing
To accomplish excellent email writing, we used one of the best books ever written on the subject: The Art of Email Writing by Phillip Vassallo. The book helped us incorporate and improve upon a wide range of qualitative email writing metrics. The following advice comes from this - the essential elements of great email writing that we learned and achieved over the past few years:
Purpose: Great email writing begins with an understanding of why a student sent an email in the first place. We have a tendency to speed read emails and, in doing so, completely miss their main purpose. When responding to an email, begin with an understanding of purpose and provide clear statements directly relevant to that purpose.
Imagine a student writes for help in understanding what Early Action is and how it affects merit-based scholarships. A good example of addressing this purpose would simply go like this:
- "Thank you for contacting us regarding our Early Action deadline and its impact on merit-based scholarship consideration."
It sounds redundant, but it is important. Give the student confidence that you understand his or her inquiry and purpose for sending you an email.
Then, go straight into the action needed to address that purpose:
- "Please submit your application by the November 1st deadline along with official transcripts, test scores, and recommendation letters for Early Action consideration."
Failing to address the purpose of the email will only create frustration and, as a result, more emails.
Once you have clearly addressed purpose with a supporting "to have that, you need to do this" statement, you are ready for the next paragraph.
Details: From your vantage point, you are the content expert. The student is relying on you for personal understanding to reach a desired goal. In addition to content, they may also need context to aid in that understanding. After reinforcing purpose, the following paragraph(s) need to provide these supporting details.
For example, when providing content regarding how the Early Action process works, support it with the context around why:
- "We are unable to review applications for Early Action beyond this deadline because we are required to make decisions within a few weeks."
- "Students who apply by this deadline are statistically more likely to enroll. We therefore give Early Action applicants preference when making scholarship decisions."
- "If you cannot meet this deadline, or if denied Early Action admissions, do not worry. We will consider you for Regular Decision, and you will receive admissions and scholarship consideration earlier than most students will."
Stick to one main idea per paragraph, and the amount of content and context you provide depends on the student. The original inquiry and any prior email exchanges with the student are a good place to start.
Once you have achieved an appropriate amount of relevant detail to support understanding, you are ready for the final step.
Follow-Through: Never leave a student hanging. End your emails with purposeful next steps that get them closer to their goal. This should provide logical next steps in a final, separate paragraph that tie into the original purpose statement.
For example, the Early Action inquiry response would follow-through like this:
- "With only three weeks remaining, please continue to work towards the November 1st Early Action deadline."
- "I see that you have submitted your transcripts, but we are still awaiting your completed application and test scores."
- "You can click here to login and view the status of your application. Please reach out if you have additional questions or need assistance."
Without a follow-through, you risk delaying action, creating more email, or losing the student. All the work you put into identifying purpose and providing details would have gone to waste. Don't simply assume that the student knows what to do next. Get them there faster by ending with a follow-through.
Mastery of Email is Achievable
For the past three years, we have been responding to more than 26,000 email inquiries annually with a staff of eight talented recruiters. Our average overall response time has been 24 hours, and we have mastered the art of writing with purpose, details, and follow-through.
Subsequently, our fall 2018 undergraduate enrollment figure marks a 16% increase since the fall of 2014. Furthermore, the size of the freshmen class has increased by 34% since the fall of 2014. Many factors contributed to this, but we received no shortage of compliments from students on how helpful our admissions team was during the process.
- 26,000+ email inquiries annually
- <24 hour response time
- 8 staff members
- 16% increase in undergrad enrollment
Our story does not suggest, however, that other communication tools are unimportant. Students will seek out various social media and other channels to better connect with your campus and visualize themselves as a part of its community. They are also more likely to visit your website and explore before jumping into your email inbox.
However, if a student is interested and needs your guidance moving forward, they will likely connect with you via email.
Ignoring this will be at your own peril.
Our journey to better email writing did begin with improving the content of our website and targeted email automation campaigns. In addition, we improved our ability to personalize mass communications through better data management with a Slate Technolutions CRM.
No one wants to spend an entire day answering basic email inquires like "how do I send a transcript." If this is the case, you may need to reevaluate the integrity of your data and how it is used for website and mass communications. For more advice, refer to this excellent Starfruit story by Julian Rosser at Massey University. We followed the very same model to build critical support around our mastery of email writing.
Limited staff, time, and resources will always be a challenge. Like anything, the more you practice and prioritize email writing, the more efficient and effective you will become. Otherwise, your investment in lead generating services may only be adding to the seemingly insurmountable volume of spam that students receive daily.
If you are not ready, equipped, and prepared to provide high quality responses to email inquiries, you really have only two viable options: prioritize email writing or reduce the number of leads you generate. For the student, your emails are not only an essential part of their decision-making process; they are a sample of how supportive your institution will be to their future academic and career goals.