Data from the VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking study offers comparative email metrics for opens, clicks, and unsubscribes. The data reveals that most institutions could see an immediate impact on alumni engagement if they were to improve their email communication strategy.
About a 3-minute read.
Is there a better way to attract AND engage your alumni, than with email? Nope!
Email simply works. Despite predictions of the demise of email long before the pandemic, it’s still the most influential and cost-effective tool in your alumni engagement arsenal. More than a website. More than social media. More than a private online community. And a ton more than a printed magazine.
Yet according to the most recent VAESE Alumni Relations Benchmarking study, institutions of higher education send far fewer emails than all other relationship-based organizations. Many alumni organizations invest little to nothing in their email strategy, and unfortunately, they’re missing out on countless engagement opportunities.
We’ll talk about the importance of sending relevant emails in a minute, but let’s first focus on cadence, or how many emails you send in any given month to your alumni.
According to this study by Marketing General, the typical relationship-based organization sends four emails per week to its constituents. That equates to an average of roughly 16 emails per month. Some organizations send multiple emails every single day. Others send two or three per week. But on average, it’s 16 per month.
But according to our data, higher education alumni organizations report sending less than half that many, or 7.4 emails monthly. You can see the breakdown here:
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The issue of sending more emails is often tied directly to budgets. Smaller alumni organizations with fewer staff send on average 3.6 emails per month. Larger institutions, like those from the NCAA Power 5 conferences, send 14.3 emails per month on average.
Yes, larger institutions with larger budgets send more frequent emails, and they enjoy great rewards as a result. But as we dig into the data and control for the size of their alumni database, we find that comparable private institutions send nearly half as many emails as similar-sized public institutions.
This difference would suggest that spending priorities are different, and usually, that’s a reflection of greater resources at private institutions being focused on other things, like fundraising. It also suggests that smaller institutions could see incremental growth in their alumni engagement IF they were willing to shift resources into sending more emails.
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When looking at email metrics for all industries, according to Mailchimp email marketing benchmarks by industry, alumni organizations are faring well comparatively. With only one exception.
Across all industries, the average email open rate is 21.3%, which compares to the average rate for respondent alumni organizations of 25.8%. That’s encouraging news. Alumni are opening your emails at a higher rate than the emails they receive from other entities.
But that’s not the only good news. The most significant difference between alumni and other industries is reflected in the click rate. For all industries, the average click rate is 2.6%, while the average for alumni organizations is 12.7%. That’s a huge difference and demonstrates that alumni want to engage with you IF what you are sending is relevant. If an email adds value, alumni will welcome it. But when your emails focus mostly on asking for something you want from your alumni, (such as a solicitation email) or you are otherwise not offering alumni compelling value, then that lack of relevance will likely be reflected in your unsubscribe rate.
And that’s just what we see.
The typical alumni organization’s unsubscribe rate is significantly higher than the industry standard. Overall, alumni organizations report a 0.5% unsubscribe rate compared to the average industry-wide unsubscribe rate of 0.2%. That may not look like much, but it’s actually a 150% difference. That means institutions of higher education have an unsubscribe rate higher than all other types of entities that send emails. This rate uses an average of all types of email senders, from one-person startups to Fortune 500 companies, from legit emailers to shady spammers. According to Mailchimp, institutions of higher ed report an overall worse unsubscribe rate than all other industries.
What accounts for the super-high open and click rates, and the surprisingly high unsubscribe rates?
It’s an odd combination, frankly.
Usually, I would look at poor list hygiene, or poor subject lines to see if those issues are impacting email engagement. It doesn’t appear to be the case. Otherwise, I’d look at some of the mechanics of the email, such as making sure your alumni organization is clearly reflected in the “From” field, or the email address ends in “.edu.”
Overall that doesn’t seem to be the issue.
From what I can tell from the data, the problem appears to be the lack of relevance. We’re sending too many emails that focus on the institution. Subject lines like: “Help us….”; “Give to support…” “English department welcomes new dean.” These are not relevant. These don’t add value to your alumni.
Another issue that may help boost engagement, (and to a lesser degree reduce unsubscribes) relates to personalizing your emails.
Our survey revealed that only 30% of alumni emails are personalized.
Personalization means using the recipient's name, degree, address, etc., as a customized element in your message. How much better are personalized emails than generic, one-size-fits-all email blasts? Personalized emails:
- are 26% more likely to be opened,
- deliver 6X higher transaction rates,
- generate a median ROI of 122%.
- Deliver a 760% increase in revenue as a result of personalization and list segmenting.
Let’s talk a bit about list segmentation. Please make it a goal to stop sending a one-size fits all email to all your alumni.
Email “blasts” are old-school, and will annoy your alumni (especially young alumni), but it can also have a negative impact on your sending reputation. Generally speaking, alumni organizations appear to be far behind the business sector when it comes to list segmentation and personalizing their email messages.
With the exception of only a few institutions, personalization, and list segmentation are rarely used strategies among institutions of higher ed. But your organization could see an instant impact on the success of your emails if they were personalized and sent to a targeted and segmented list.
How to fix it.
Option 1: Invest in your alumni email communications. That includes not only hiring a person or training an existing staff member to become your email expert but also giving them the tools they need to do the job. I’ve written previously about marketing automation tools, list hygiene services, etc. If you’re like most institutions that suffer from a stagnant alumni programming budget, you’ll have to let some programs go that aren’t delivering the engagement punch you can otherwise get from an effective and consistent email program.
Option 2: Hire a vendor or freelancer with the ability to create compelling content like a blog or e-newsletter, then send personalized emails to promote that content to your alumni.
Option 3: I happen to know a company that doesn’t charge their higher ed clients for sending highly personalized emails to alumni. The content focuses on relevant local discounts, and each email features compelling discounts at neighborhood restaurants, home centers, or retailers, based on each recipient’s ZIP Code. Because discounts are the closest thing to a universally appealing benefit (who doesn’t want to save money?), this program helps alumni organizations deliver ongoing value, between gift solicitations.
The point is, you have options. If you are creative and are prepared to commit to delivering more customized, relevant emails to your alumni, you'll be able to attract the attention of more alumni. Once you get them past that first engagement barrier, you can begin to engage them with the value your organization can offer, and only then can you lead them along a giving path.