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Why Email Still Works for Alumni Relations & Development

95% of your target demographic uses email

September 17, 2019

You’ve heard the marketing experts moaning that Millennials don’t use email and, in response, you may have given up on fundraising emails in favor of Instagram messages or Snapchat ads.

However, we’re here to debunk the rumor that email is dead—and to offer pro bono advice on how to increase the success of your alumni email campaigns.

Reality #1: Millennials do use email.

The marketing experts were wrong: A 2017 study by Adobe concluded that Millennials are “obsessed” with email, adding that “younger people are even more likely than other age groups to bring their email obsessions into every part of their day.”

However, 34% of Millennials are annoyed by emails that are irrelevant to them, and open less than one-third of marketing emails reports Forbes. These facts should come as no surprise. After all, the average open rate across all industries is just 32%, and irrelevant marketing emails are pretty easy to hate for people of all ages.

We’ll be tackling the issues increasing your email relevance and open rates later in this article. But in the meantime, we have an even more surprising fact for you.

Reality #2: Millennials are likely not your primary market.

We know that Millennials are an important donor group, but for fundraising solicitations, older alumni are where the money is.

The average Millennial’s net worth is just $100,800, compared with a whopping $1,210,100 for baby boomers. This discrepancy is not just because Millennials are younger and therefore have had less time to build up wealth. Today’s Millennial household actually has $2,600 less in net worth than the same age group did 20 years ago. By contrast, the older demographic’s wealth has grown over the last two decades.

And here’s the thing: 95% of Baby Boomers use email. So, if you want to reach this demographic—which not only holds more wealth, but is more likely to donate to their alma mater—pop open an email and get to work. 

Reality #3: Email is the most efficient and cost-effective mode of communication for alumni relations.

To get any sort of reach on social media, you typically need to purchase an ad or promote a post - even to your own alumni. Ouch! Then, there are the confusing metrics: What does a “like” mean? How much value should you put on a “view” or an “impression”? What about all those users who share posts without even reading them, just to boost their thought-leader credibility—should they count as engaged users?

On the other hand, “it’s incredibly cheap and easy to send out bulk email communication and be able to track key metrics,” says Mike Gregory, Advancement Director at NOVA Middle School in Olympia, WA. Not only that, but email is very easy to personalize, which increases your open rates.

How to Increase Alumni Email Open and Read Rates

Now that we’ve convinced you that the rumors of email’s death have been greatly exaggerated, let’s dive into the details on how to create emails that your alumni will open, read, and act upon.


1. Personalize beyond names

We all get emails with subject lines like, “James, we have a discount for you!” This type of personalization is ubiquitous—and it doesn’t show that you know anything about the recipient other than their name (which was obviously pulled out of a database).

While it’s important to address the recipient by name, there’s so much more you can do to make your emails more relevant to your alumni.  “Segmentation is key. This is where the ease and inexpensiveness of email make it very handy,” says Gregory. “If you’re emailing someone from the class of 1959 vs. the class of 2019, switching out a paragraph or a photograph to tailor your message to the recipient can make all the difference.”

Other items you can swap out include surveys, copy, or donation forms that are customized to the individual. After all, digital personalization makes a huge difference in your alumni's engagement with your university’s outreach.

Finally, there’s the simplest way of personalizing your alumni emails: address the reader in the second person instead of using vague third-person terms. “Be direct about this person’s role in your story,” writes Jennifer Doak-Mathewson on the CASE blog. “Instead of ‘alumni and donors,’ just say ‘you.’ Instead of, ‘A gift to the scholarship fund can do these things,’ try, ‘Because of you, I got the chance of a lifetime.’”

2. Put the subject in the subject line

Subject lines need to grab attention, but if they do that by being misleading, your alumni will lose trust in your college’s credibility. “A subject line that doesn’t announce a solicitation runs the risk of being seen as a bait-and-switch,” says Gregory. “I believe in being upfront in the subject line, with something like ‘This is what your gift could do.’” (Notice how he uses the second person as well!)

The upfront subject line has a second benefit. Says Gregory, “Even if the alum doesn’t end up making a gift, just by opening the email they’ve shown that they’re engaged enough with you to consider a gift. That’s good info to have!” So hit delete on those obscure mystery headlines—like “What a day!” and “A big surprise inside!”—and let your alumni know what to expect when they open your email.

Don’t confuse “straightforward” with “boring,” though: Some businesses are finding they get a huge increase in their open rates when they include emojis in their subject lines, or even use emojis exclusively (leaving the heavy lifting to the preview text).


3. Have fun with the preview text

Preview text is the text that shows up to the right of the subject line when you look at en email in your inbox. Some email marketing platforms let you specify the preview text—otherwise, the recipient’s email system will typically grab the first line or so from your email itself.

If you’re sticking to straightforward subject lines, the preview text is a good place to add some personality. Ask a question, include a surprising fact that relates to the subject line, or even do what Gregory sometimes does: Add a rhyming couplet. “Thanks to your donation, I've secured my vocation”, anyone?


4. Keep your emails short

Many marketing experts suggest writing long emails that draw the reader in and tell a can’t-put-down story. While there’s wisdom in this approach, look into your own life: do you ever sit down with a nice cup of coffee to savor a long email from a business or organization? Or are you more likely to fly through your inbox when you have a few spare minutes, dispatching emails as quickly as possible?

That said, if you do create a long email, be sure to include the most important information at the top. Journalists call this the “inverted pyramid” method—when an editor needs to reduce the word count, they typically do so by slicing content from the bottom up.

The same idea works for your alumni emails. “If you put the key information right at the beginning, does it really matter if they read to the end?” says Gregory.


5. Tell them what to do next

You send a highly personalized email with a compelling subject line, and you weave a story in the email body that’s so good that your alumni read right through to the end. But do they know what to do next?

Many emails are missing a very important element: the Call to Action, or CTA. This is the part where you let the reader know what action to take next—such as making a donation, registering for an event, filling out a survey or clicking a link to learn more.

When you craft your CTA, be sure to include all the information the reader needs to make a decision and take action. We’ve all been on the wrong end of an event invite that left out the date and time...don’t do the same to your readers. Highlight important dates and times, deadlines, locations, and any other information they need.

Ready to connect with your alumni on a personal level to boost engagement and donations? Contact us for a demo of CueBack—the personalized engagement platform that leverages academic research and modern technology to deliver relevant and meaningful content to each alumni. Learn how our cutting-edge AI technology can provide your Advancement professionals with deep insights into prospective donors that will enable them to develop personalized cultivation strategies.

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