How to reach and engage alumni with email marketing

Things have changed this year for universities. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities are facing a new set of challenges. Between navigating remote classrooms, trying to increase admission and retention rates, and maintaining annual goals, universities have adopted new policies for the 19 million students attending higher education this year.

With everything on your university’s plate, it’s easy to forget about alumni reach and engagement strategies. It’s important to remember that the loyalty alumni hold for your university is a powerful tool to increase fundraising and brand awareness. If you want to tap into those benefits, you’ll want to maintain alumni relationships with a strong email marketing strategy.

Ready to boost alumni engagement to help your university succeed during the pandemic and beyond? Let’s take a look at a few email marketing best practices. 

Why is email marketing important to engage alumni? 

With the education industry moving to a more digital landscape, universities have started to take advantage of email marketing to reach target audiences on a larger scale. As the highest performing digital marketing channel, email marketing sees an average return on investment (ROI) of $42 for every $1 spent.

Email marketing helps you maintain enrollment and drive real results by frequently connecting with alumni. 

Overall, email marketing is powerful. Here are a few additional ways it supports your university:

  • Most people check their email at least 10 times a day

  • It’s the preferred platform to receive brand communications

  • With the right email marketing platform, it’s easy to use and inexpensive

  • You can use it with multiple digital platforms like social media or event marketing

  • It provides advanced tracking capabilities to understand how your alumni interact with your university

  • It builds meaningful alumni relationships with personalized messaging 

With over 3.9 billion daily email users, including millennials and Gen Z audiences, you have a huge opportunity to update alumni about your university and drive action.

Best practices to reach and engage alumni with email marketing

Now that you understand the benefits of adopting email marketing, it’s time to implement best practices to drive more results for your university. With the right strategy, you can nurture past students not to only maximize future attendance numbers but also to increase donations. 

Follow along for email marketing tactics to increase reach and engagement levels. 

1. Maintain an updated email list.

To earn high engagement rates, your emails need to go to the right people. If you’re sending emails with incorrect contact information, you risk earning a low sender profile or even ending up in the dreaded spam folder.  

Before you hit “send” on any email marketing campaigns, you need to have a healthy alumni list. Over time, your alumni contact information will become outdated. People move, get married, and change jobs. It’s normal but maintainable. 

As part of your alumni strategy, develop a database that encourages alums to update their contact information so they don’t miss any important communications. A few maintenance tactics include:

  • Send annual database update emails

  • Develop a preference center that includes contact information

  • Hold events and contests that ask alums to resubmit their contact information

2. Use storytelling to elicit an emotional response.

Your university campus should stimulate a library of happy memories. Whether it’s walking through the quad or attending thought-provoking classes, your emails should take alumni back to their college days and inspire them to engage more. 

To elicit an emotional response that drives action, you need to use storytelling. This not only enables alumni to connect more deeply with your university, but it also allows you to creatively convey information. In a period where empathy and sensitivity are essential for marketing, storytelling allows you to talk about challenges and strengths with a softer approach. 

You can start implementing storytelling in emails by:

  • Highlighting alumni career achievements or hobbies through a spotlight

  • Developing “then and now” campus stories that promote a sense of nostalgia and achievement

  • Promoting fundraising initiatives by highlighting how past donations have helped the university achieve great things

Storytelling goes beyond a monthly newsletter and helps you build a strong narrative around your university. To increase email engagement, consider adding in formats like videos, user-generated content, and GIFs. Videos increase click rate by 65% and open rates by 19%

video storytelling email example

Source: Really Good Emails

3. Implement a strong call to action (CTA).

While building brand awareness is important, you want alumni to be taking action with each email they open. CTA buttons are often eye-catching and simple, making them an excellent design element for alumni donations or content submissions.

However, you need to lead your CTAs with a level of empathy – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While not all alumni will be in the position to donate, you still want them to feel appreciated. To develop CTAs that result in high conversions, consider the following tips:

  • Use action-oriented copy: The content needs to be actionable and draw your alum’s attention in three words or less. Consider text like “donate now,” “reserve your spot,” and “share your story.”

  • Design large buttons: Your button needs to be large enough to read, without going overboard. Consider using a font larger than the body text and a contrast color to stand out. 

  • Consider the hierarchy: While your email will contain other actionable items, you need to focus on the main action. Whatever the goal is, include the CTA button at the top of the page and away from any other links.

If you’re not seeing enough email conversions, consider A/B testing your CTA button. For example, send two emails with different button copy to a small segment of your audience. When one performs better than the other, send it to the rest of your list. With A/B testing, you can optimize your emails to achieve the best results.


Source: Really Good Emails

4. Segment alumni based on interests.

Did you know that 319 billion emails are sent per day? Out of that, the average person receives at least 94 emails in their inbox. With your university experiencing tough inbox competition, your emails must stand out to drive engagement. 

Mass emails and a one-size-fits-all strategy no longer connects with consumers. Your alumni want to feel that you appreciate their loyalty and commitment to your institution. With segmentation, you can group alumni by commonalities to ensure you’re sending the right emails to the right alumni. In fact, 77% of email ROI comes from segmented emails. 

There are a few ways you can segment your alumni:

  • A geographic location, like individual cities or states

  • Graduate majors and current occupations

  • Interests through after-college groups

  • Marital or family status

While events are largely off the table for 2020, you can still use segmentation to promote college updates, promotions, and more. For example, if you track the extracurricular activities alumni engaged in as students, you can highlight those groups within a homecoming email. Your alumni engagement team can also host virtual happy hours for different cities across the country.

meetup personalization email example

Source: Really Good Emails

5. Cross-promote on other digital platforms.

While email marketing is the most successful digital channel, you’ll want to cross-promote with additional tactics to have the largest impact. In the past, traditional outreach might have included direct mail and phone calls. However, the evolving digital landscape offers you more direct and inexpensive options to connect with alumni. 

Consider using different social media platforms to reach your alumni:

  • LinkedIn: Create groups for graduates based on their fields of study to foster more collaboration and career development. You can even combine LinkedIn’s advanced targeting features with InMails and paid posts to advertise future events. 

  • Twitter: Give alumni campus updates and do shout-outs. If an alum wins a notable award or recently got married, tag them in a post to celebrate them. 

  • Instagram: Remind your alumni of the “good ole days” with photographs and videos. This type of imagery can inspire them to get involved in fundraising initiatives. 

Beyond social media, you should also consider executing a content development, public relations, and text message strategy. These tactics not only help you get in front of your alumni but also drive more awareness around all the great things your university has accomplished. 

Wrap up

While universities navigate uncharted territory with the upcoming 2020 fall semester, engaging and reaching alumni still need to be a top priority. Despite all the changes, alumni are your largest brand advocates and can have a huge impact on future fundraising initiatives.

To build meaningful connections with your alumni, consider the following best practices that drive real engagement and results:

  • Maintain a healthy and regularly updated alumni database

  • Write and design with storytelling in mind to draw an emotional response

  • Use a strong CTA to remind alumni to take action with each email

  • Segment alumni based on location or interest to deliver more personalized messages

  • Market to alumni on multiple digital platforms to extend your reach

Ready to connect with more alumni? Start increasing your engagement now with Emma

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