Monday, 21 January 2013

Avoid getting spam on your phablet (or creating an email campaign in 2013).

You'll probably not be surprised to learn that email is a big part of our communications strategy. How big? Well, in the last 12 months we have sent over 225,000 emails to prospects, applicants, current students and alumni. So although they might not be as publicly visible or permanent as the website or prospectus, they make up a really important part of our marketing communications mix and they offer some unique features that we try to fully harness.

Yes, email is 'cheap' (less than 1p per email), but they are much more valuable to us than that. The flexible nature means that we can target them much more easily to an individual's needs, and increase their relevance to them. They also offer useful tracking options, so we can see which messages are working and follow up on these accordingly. They're also instant, and during a nervous application cycle, people seem to appreciate it!

Email marketing serves as as useful communications tool to remind people that we are thinking of them and to provide targeted offers of courses and services they might find useful. They also reinforce our other print and digital messages, and it is important that maintain the same design integrity as our other communications. 

It's easy to get email wrong, so here are a few best practice tips to ensure that we are delivering the best quality messages to the right people.

1. Clear call to action

The top priority of any email we send is to encourage the recipient to take some action as a result of it. This is usually to attend an event, such as an Applicant Day or Open Day, or to register their details if we are targeting them for a new course.

A good example of this are the current undergraduate course newsletters. The main purpose of this newsletter is to encourage attendance at an Applicant Day (which in turn improves the conversion rates) by highlighting some of the unique features about the particular course. We also recently targeted applicants with an interest in volunteering (through data generated from their UCAS Personal Statements) to join the Student Ambassador Scheme. The highly personalised nature and clear call to action led to record registrations for the scheme.

A clear call to action also helps us to work out how successful a campaign has been. For example, if we send an email advertising an event to 1,000 recipients and 100 of them sign up to attend the event, we have a success rate of 10%. We can then compare this figure against other campaigns to work out what we are doing well and how we can improve.

2. Responsive designs

Just over 6 years ago, the iPhone was introduced to the world. In the last few years, we've seen how mobile email is no longer the sole domain of Blackberry-toting executives. And the range of devices that our students are using is increasing all the time. Phones, Tablets, Phablets?! How can we ensure that our emails look as good on the desktop as they do on a phone?

Fortunately, we are able to design responsive emails that adapt to whatever screen size the recipient is viewing the email on. Images will automatically be shrunk to fit on a smaller screen, whilst text will be enlarged to make it easier to read on the move. Links need to be easily tappable with a chunky index finger, as well as a precise mouse pointer.

However, whilst the size of the images is reducing on some devices, the quality is also increasing. In the last couple of years we've seen the development of super high resolution or 'Retina' displays. These screens are now so good, it is possible to display a full HD picture on a device that fits in your hand. The result of this is that there is now a tricky balance between ensuring that images are the highest possible quality, but also respect mobile connection speeds and data limits.

3. Making the right impression

Our messages are fighting to be seen in busy inboxes overflowing with Facebook notifications and Groupon daily deals. Most email clients can display the subject line, along with a couple of lines to explain what the email is about.

This is where we try to sum up in as few words as possible what the email is about, whilst making it engaging and encouraging the recipient to read it. If you ever see an introduction an email that reads "Email not displaying correctly...." Then the sender isn't using preheaders properly!

We also need to consider which subject lines might get interpreted as spam by ISPs. You all know the usual suspects, which is why we'll always avoid using subject lines that include words like 'Enhance your employability' or 'Increase your opportunities'...! There are other, less common spam triggers as well. For example, spammers will often start their emails with 'Dear ....',  so to avoid getting blocked we'll try to use an alternative.

4. Encouraging sharing

You've taken the time to create a really interesting and engaging email. Using good data practices, we can ensure that it is seen by the most appropriate recipients on our databases. However, we'd also like those recipients to share it among their networks as well, because we'd like their friends to also see it. ("Look where I'm going in September, doesn't it look great?!"). This can really help with the viral reach of an email.

We've built in easy to use social sharing buttons on each of the emails we send, to enable one click sharing if the recipient wants to. You can also use these links to post the email on your Facebook/Twitter pages, to reach out to people who are interested in your content, but not on your email list.

5. Saying goodbye

For a variety of reasons, recipients may decide they're no longer interested in receiving our emails. We'll always stop sending emails to people that have declined an offer of a place, but there may be still active applicants that don't want to hear from us. That's fine, and it's something we have to respect. We offer a one click unsubscribe button on all of our emails.

However, by carefully managing our databases and ensuring our messages are targeted and relevant, we can avoid large numbers of people unsubscribing. We'll never just 'blast' out an email to everyone on our databases.

We're living in changing times, and some will argue that students are relying less on email and turning to other forms of communication. We're keeping a close eye on the market and have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, The Student Room (and we're making a start with Pinterest as well). However, students expect to receive official communications from UCAS and their university choices by post and email, and for such time as they do, we'll be there to offer useful advice and next steps during the application cycle and beyond. 

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