Students don't read your emails—here's how to change that

Four strategies to make your communications more effective

Julia Haskins, Staff Writer

Julia Haskins, staff writer

When it comes to communicating with students, email is a tried-and-true method for relaying information quickly and easily to the campus community. But as higher education leaders have learned, email comes with numerous challenges, said EAB Director Lindsay Miars at the CONNECTED 2016 conference.

"In many ways, email is still our best bet," Miars said. "Our recommendation for email is to evolve your email strategy to make this channel more effective rather than abandoning it."

Miars recommended four updates that can rescue your emails from students' slush piles.

1: Coordinate email timing across your institution

Students are bombarded with email from all sides. In fact, a recent survey from Bowling Green State University found:

  • 72% of students treat emails from student groups like spam;
  • More than 50% of students don't always read emails from their institution or academic department; and
  • Nearly 40% of students don't always read emails from their advisors.

Are students ignoring your emails?

"One missed communication can result in a downward spiral that leads to academic consequences," Miars said. "By ignoring critical messages, students on campus are failing to register for courses, declare their major on time, pay tuition, and submit other crucial administrative paperwork."

Michigan State University (MSU) got a wake-up call when it realized that 12 divisions across campus sent more than 400 emails in one year—not counting emails from students groups or those that senior leaders didn't know about.

To combat the flood, MSU compiled and archived messages to help administrators understand the scope of the issue and cut down on redundant messages. The IT department also shared email recommendations.

Learn more about how your peers get their email strategy under control

Other institutions have also taken steps to tackle email overload:

  • Cleveland State University designated its CIO as the central gatekeeper for email;
  • Department heads at Elizabeth City State University use one central calendar to track all emails; and
  • A cross-departmental committee at Drexel University meets regularly to review emails and establish guidelines.

Cutting back on some of the noise can help ensure that students pay more attention to each message. "There are times when a message is truly critical for a student to see, and university-level coordination can help to elevate those messages through signal value," Miars said.

In her dissertation about communicating critical messages, North Dakota State University registrar Rhonda Kitch recommended several steps for streamlining communications, including:

  • Determine the messages that your institution deems critical;
  • Designate an administrator with a position of authority to serve as the "elevated sender;" and
  • Help students learn to recognize which messages are critical.

2: Review what's working

Making email more effective depends on the cooperation of all institutional stakeholders. However, frontline staff tend to be constrained by three major barriers:

  • Lack of formal training or resources to support an institution's email strategy;
  • Lack of access to email metrics; and
  • Failure to prioritize email strategy.

"These barriers exacerbate and reinforce one another, creating a culture of ineffective outreach," Miars said.

Central Michigan University has worked to overcome these obstacles by sharing communications resources and tracking data. Success coaches in the Office of Student Success record all student outreach attempts—and their results—in a shared document. This information has helped administrators determine which strategies are working and which ones need tweaking.

What works for supporting student success: See more than 200 best practices in our library

3: Write student-centered messages

Students are more likely to understand and act on emails that are tailored to their communication style.

"Frontline staff are sending lengthy, formal emails to students accustomed to tweets," Miars pointed out.

A student outreach specialist at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said the agency keeps the state legislature's definition of "plain language" in mind when sending student emails. Text must be "written in a clear and coherent manner using words with common and everyday meanings," according to the guidelines.

Miars described effective email language as "clear and direct," and encourages email writers to use the word "you" and include "action verbs that convey a sense of urgency." As for content, Miars recommended "focusing on the student and their ambitions rather than focusing on general information or policies." She said that this approach "appeals more directly to the student's motivation."

Researchers at Royall & Company, a division of EAB, found that student-centered email copy is key to recruitment efforts. They helped a private institution change its outreach copy to be more student-centered—and the institution saw a 50% increase to its response rate.

Meeting students where they are is not the same as "coddling" them

4: Use a little psychology

Students want to succeed, but psychological and structural barriers get in the way of taking all the necessary steps to navigate their academic career. Recognizing and removing these obstacles can help students stay on track.

Learn more: Your field guide to the student mindset

"Coordination and better emails are necessary," Miars said, but "we can go a step further by centering student psychology in message architecture to get more students to act."

Emails can be structured to "nudge" toward improved behavior, whether that means signing up for classes or seeking academic counseling.

Arizona State University partnered with ideas42 to address students' failure to refile FAFSA after their first year. Researchers discovered that many students didn't know they had to reapply for FAFSA, while others missed the priority deadline. Students were also overwhelmed by the many steps in the process.

So ideas42 created a series of straightforward, behavior-centered messages designed to reduce barriers to reapplying for FAFSA. It worked: The FAFSA submission rate increased by 72% among the group in which both students and parents received emails.

Need to give students a nudge? We can help with that

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