“Does having an exclamation point in an email's subject line send it to a spam filter instead of an inbox?”
"Are prospective students more likely to open an email with a scholarship offer in the subject line?"
In my role as an email deliverability strategy manager for EAB Enrollment Services, I get a lot of these questions.
The answers are not as simple as they used to be, reminding those of us in higher education enrollment offices that we need to cultivate a nuanced understanding of how our (often enthusiastic!) messages relate to our intended audience: prospective students and their families.
Exclamation points: not always bad!
For example, the character “!” can be a flag for a spam filter, but usually only in the most obvious cases. More often, the fate of emails with an exclamation point in the subject line hinges on how that punctuation is interpreted by the message’s target audience at that exact moment.
Based on this interpretation, internet service providers (ISPs) can actually use the actions of their subscribers to tell them whether a particular email should be delivered to the inbox or dumped into spam.
EAB Enrollment Services collects and analyzes extensive amounts of email delivery data to determine which types of subject lines are perceived as "spammy" by prospective students. This information fuels our strategic email plans and helps us optimize our partner schools’ outreach resources.
ISPs scrutinize user behavior for spam clues
ISPs such as Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail use engagement algorithms to determine whether and when an email message is allowed to arrive in an inbox. And, at EAB Enrollment Services, we deploy hundreds of test emails along with each campaign email. We then parse time-to-delivery data to gain a nuanced view of when emails reach inboxes or spam folders for most ISPs.
For example, when one of our partners launched a new application campaign this fall, no ISPs had seen any activity from the school’s domain in quite a while. You can see how this affected their delivery times below.
In this analysis, AOL shows the typical ISP handling time between when an email is sent from our servers to when it reaches their subscribers. We see that 100% of what was sent to AOL subscribers was delivered to the inbox in less than five minutes.
Not so with Gmail, which delivered barely 10% to inboxes in the first 10 minutes after deployment. Gmail also sent a significant volume to the spam folder after nearly 25 minutes, but not until almost half of the volume had already been delivered to the inbox.
Want to see more enrollment insights in your inbox? Subscribe to EAB’s Enrollment Blog for bi-weekly updates on our latest expert content
During the interval between initial send and final delivery, Gmail observes subscriber behavior. They continually study what a small percentage of their subscribers do—or don’t do—with a message in those initial minutes after deployment. If users open and click through an email, Gmail will usually place the remaining volume into the inbox too.
But if Gmail observes high bounce rates, heavy opt-out numbers, or (the horror!) even a tiny percentage of subscribers who mark that message as spam, Gmail will consider the message unwanted and treat it accordingly. So, if you're marked as spam once, it means that the next time your program sends a message, Gmail will most likely filter it immediately to spam.
Therefore, we encourage our partner schools to analyze how the content of their messages plays in the context of their audience. Put simply, if recipients engage (there’s that word again) with your message, it will most likely deliver to their inboxes. If they don’t, it won’t.
Another potential spam flag—high dollar amounts in subject lines
Since so much attention is being given to financial aid this fall because of the first October FAFSA, I’d like to point out that the same concept holds true for high-dollar amounts in subject lines.
If students perceive “$30,000” as a legitimate scholarship opportunity, this financial award message will deliver to students’ inboxes. If “$30,000” is not a plausible number for your target audience, students might simply think it’s another email from that long-lost Nigerian prince who wants to give them money, if only they’ll provide him with their bank account number! And, of course, that message will ultimately flush out in a spam filter.
As this example suggests, students are incredibly savvy email consumers. They are, in many ways, more skeptical of marketing messages than adults are. The bar is set high for us in college enrollment offices: we must communicate our “exceptional!” opportunities in a way that encourages students to receive and respond to them.