The Higher Ed Marketer’s Guide to Must-Open College Email Subject Lines

When it comes to effective email marketing in higher education, it’s easier said than done. You know from experience: how many emails in your inbox do you actually open? Creating an email campaign that is enticing enough to your prospective students can be challenging—but it’s essential, and that’s where crafting the perfect subject line comes in. 

The email subject line is the attention grabber of your entire email marketing campaign. If your subject line fails to interest your target audience, you might as well forget about the rest of the campaign—because it will never get seen. 

So what is the secret to writing higher education email subject lines that catch attention and guarantee that prospective students will want to click and learn more? Here are our top tips on writing must-open college email subject lines.

1. Understand your target audience

The first pillar in learning to write strategic and performance-driving email subject lines is to understand your target audience as completely as you can. This will require digging into your data to create data-driven student personas. Your school likely has more than one student persona, each with their own motivations, pain points, and preferred communication strategies. 

These student personas will help you understand exactly who you’re reaching out to—and exactly what messages will resonate with them. To learn how to create data-driven student personas, check out our guide. 

2. Shoot for enticement + clarity

There are two primary objectives when you’re writing your higher education subject lines: enticement, and clarity. 

You want your subject line to be enticing—to trigger curiosity, to connote value, and to interest students enough that they’ll take the time to click on your email. You don’t want a subject line that reads: “The contents of this email are boring.”

But at the same time, you don’t want to take your enticing subject line too far—to the point where it might be vague, confusing, or obscure. You want a relatively clear subject line that gives your prospective students a decent idea of what the email might contain. 

Here are a few examples of subject lines across industries that strike that balance: 

  • “Uh-oh, your prescription is expiring” (Sender: Warby Parker). This works because it’s definitely clear what the email is about, but it’s enticing because it makes the recipient wonder, “What prescription? When is it expiring? I should check on that.”
  • “Everything you wanted to know about email copy but were too afraid to ask” (Sender: Copy Hackers). Again, this subject line is very clear, while remaining enticing. Wait, what about email copy was I afraid to ask? You have to click to find out. 

Get the idea?

Read next: 10 of the Best University Instagram Accounts We’ve Seen in 2021

3. Keep your subject lines short (…most of the time)

Conventional email marketing wisdom advises keeping email subject lines below 60 characters—and for the most part, this rule of thumb is correct. This rule exists because most email providers cut off their email subject line preview after 60 characters, so ensuring your character count is below that means your prospective students will be able to read the whole subject line. 

But there is a catch, like there is with many rules. What are rules if not to be broken, after all? A study from MailChimp found that there is no statistical connection between open rates and the length of email subject lines alone. They did found cases where shorter subject lines got more clicks, but they also found examples where shorter subject lines fell flat. 

The takeaway from this study? Ultimately, your subject lines should be clear, and if you’re sacrificing clarity on the account of length, it’s best to steer a little longer.

Read next: 7 of the Best Higher Education Marketing Campaigns to Inspire You

4. A/B Test

There is no better tool to determine what’s working than the A/B test (also known as the split test)—and that’s why so many marketers use A/B tests to regularly determine the best subject lines for their email campaigns. 

To run an A/B test on your email subject lines, you need to come up with two different subjects that you think have value. Maybe one subject line uses name personalization, and the other doesn’t. Maybe one is shorter, and one is longer. Maybe one uses an emoji, and the other doesn’t. Or maybe one connotes urgency while the other is funny. There are limitless variables you can test! 

Your email marketing platform will then send a small segment of your email list one of the two emails as a test. After a certain period of time, the best-performing subject line will be sent to the remainder of the group. 

Over time, you will be able to collect data on what kind of subject lines perform best with your prospective students. Even better, you can determine which kind of email subject lines perform best in each of your student persona segments. 

Read next: Your Complete Guide to CRM for Higher Education

Are you ready to increase your qualified student inquiries? Thinking Cap Agency is here to help. We leverage our 30 years of experience, data-driven omnichannel solutions, proprietary research, team of specialized experts, and proprietary social media video marketing solutions to drive exceptional campaign results. Contact us today to get started.

Christina OToole

Christina is a data-driven, full stack marketer with over 20 years success leading marketing in higher education, tech and publishing industries. She lead enrollment marketing programs for the both the University of California, Santa Barbara and UC San Diego continuing education divisions. Christina has developed hundreds of marketing campaigns and built all facets of programs including lifecycle journeys, creative direction and lead generation.