6 Tips for Writing the Best Email Subject Lines for Higher Education

You did it—you crafted the world’s most informative, useful, and amazing email, and you can’t wait to get it in front of your university community.

While writing a great email is an accomplishment worth celebrating, your work isn’t done yet. Why not? Because there’s still a major obstacle standing between you and the results you’re hoping to achieve: Making sure recipients actually open your email.

Opening an email may not seem like a big deal. However, the reality is that the average person receives more than 100 emails per day with an open rate of just 20 to 40 percent. This means that if a person receives 120 emails a day, they may open as few as 24 of them.

All of which begs the question: How do you make sure your email ends up in the chosen 24, and not in the remaining 96 that go unread?

Many elements influence email open rates including everything from time of delivery to your subscriber list. Is the recipient tired and “over” reading emails for the day? Bypassing an email can come down to something as basic as this.

On the flip side, more sophisticated factors pertaining to technical optimization also play a big role in whether your emails get opened or ignored (and could have a whole set of blog posts dedicated to them!). 

Another crucial determinant when it comes to email open rates?

Subject line.

While an email subject line is just a few words, it can make or break whether someone feels compelled to click “open.” So what makes a busy student or important alum with an inbox full of hundreds if not thousands of unread emails feel compelled to open yours?

Here’s a closer look at why email subject lines matter so much, along with a roundup of six tips for writing compelling email subject lines that will actually get opened by prospective students, current students, parents, employees, and alumni.

Why Your Email Subject Lines Matter

Email has long reigned supreme as a favored method of communicating in higher education. But it’s got some new competition. With students spending more time on “sexier” social media platforms like Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram, emails have to do some extra-heavy lifting to get noticed. And they have to do it quickly.

The average reader’s attention span for an email is around 13 seconds—and that’s IF they decide to open it. Viewed through this lens, an effective subject line has to do much more than tell recipients what’s inside the email they’re deciding to open. It also must convey a sense of urgency and relevance.

The current generation of students is also more savvy about authentic content. They want a real connection, not a sales pitch. Buzzy subject lines may work the first time, but they can lead to diminishing returns. In addition to hurting your open rates moving forward, this tactic can also jeopardize the relationships you’re working so hard to build. Your message must also deliver on what its subject line promises while also being consistent with your university brand and campaign message.

This may seem like a lot to ask of just a few words. But there are some things you can do to become an expert at writing subject lines—the kind that not only get your emails opened, but also help you solidify your connections with your constituents so they’ll look forward to opening future emails from you, too.

6 Tips for Writing Higher Ed Email Subject Lines

1. Make it personal

One way to make sure your email stands out in a sea of emails? Personalize it. In addition to using the recipient’s name, you can also personalize your subject lines based on other factors, such as program or event of interest, location, or age group. This can be achieved by using dynamic content or different personalization tokens, depending on your email marketing platform. 

2. Speak their language

Personalization is about more than a name and other biographical materials. It also encompasses other factors, such as word choice and tone. Think of it this way: You wouldn’t talk the same way to a trustee or alumni as you would to a current or prospective student, would you? The same applies to the language of your subject line.

This is where market segmentation and personas come into play. The better the language of your subject line caters to your target persona, the better open rates you can expect.

3. Speak their values

On a related note, market segmentation and personas are also important when assessing what’s important to an audience.

For example, Gen Z is very driven by “fear of missing out,” aka “FOMO”. Email lines that acknowledge this may win their clicks. Examples include, “Don’t miss your chance to…” and “You do not want to miss this.”

On the other hand, Baby Boomers enjoy being complimented and catered to. A more successful email subject line for this target audience might be along the lines of, “You deserve this opportunity….”

4. Focus on form

To begin with, your subject line (and email!) must be mobile optimized for the simple reason that mobile email readership has surpassed desktop email readership, and this trend is expected to continue. Not only that, but if your message doesn’t look good on a mobile screen, a whopping 70 percent of recipients say they’ll delete it.

Additionally, mobile-friendly points like clickable links and “click to call” buttons create engagement and make it easy to drive desired actions.

Data also tells us that short subject lines with a maximum of 60 characters and nine words perform best with some sources suggesting that subject lines with less than 30 characters lay claim to the highest open rates. Additionally, limit subject lines to less than three punctuation marks. And keep in mind that while emojis can be fun when incorporated into subject lines, they should also be used sparingly—no more than one per message.

Again, the subject of the email and target audience are determining factors here. Younger audiences not only view emoji use more favorably than older audiences, but failure to use them in your messaging to the 25 to 44-year-old demographic could be a missed opportunity for relationship building.

You should also know the potential downsides of using emojis. For example, with certain browsers and email clients, they can be interpreted as missing or nonsense characters. Furthermore, different emojis may mean different things, depending on the generation of the recipient.

The takeaway? While emoji use can result in higher open rates, a cautious—and informed approach—is necessary.

5. Pique their interest

Given how little time you’ve got to catch the attention of a student or alum skimming their inbox, your message has to be enticing enough to grab their attention. However, this alone won’t merit a click. A strong email subject line also clearly communicates purpose and intent by answering the question: “Why is XX sending ME this email, and why does it matter?” Even better? It also conveys why it matters today. 

Or consider leading with a hard fact or a question. In the case of the latter, questions often lead to click-throughs for the simple reason that recipients want to know the answer. This goes beyond piquing the recipient’s interest to create engagement.

6. Test, test, test

While the tips included here can point you in the right direction, there are many possible directions for writing subject lines. The best way to know whether your subject line is on the mark? Test. A/B and multivariate testing campaigns let you compare how different subject lines impact email open rates.

It’s perfectly fine to start simple. Test a question vs. a statement, or a personalized version and a non-personalized version. And avoid testing too many things at once, because then you won’t be able to isolate what’s working and what isn’t.

Most email platforms offer a testing option, which can be helpful. Just be sure to test for a minimum of seven days, and to consider list size to ensure statistically relevant data.

You can also look to past subject line performance to get a better idea of which ones are likely to be winners.

Whether you’re looking to drive recruitment or boost alumni relations, email is a powerful tool for communicating with your university community—but only if people are opening and reading your messages. To position your email campaign for optimal outcomes, follow these six tips to write subject lines that compel recipients to click “open.”

About VONT Performance Digital Marketing

At VONT we believe that change is the only constant in the digital world – and that excites us. When tools and environments are constantly changing, new opportunities to help our clients achieve success are constantly arising. Each new advertising technology, social platform, or design approach allows us to improve on the results we achieve for our clients.

We believe in this idea of continual fine-tuning so much that we named our company VONT, which means to achieve exponential improvement in incremental steps. It is our core belief, and the reason why we are not simply a web design company or simply a digital advertising agency, but rather a long-term, single source partner providing a comprehensive array of web development and digital marketing capabilities.

Written By

The VONT Team