5 Email Trends to Steal for Your Alumni Communications in 2017

There's a steady email arms race going on between retailers, nonprofits, and everyone else eager for a moment of your attention.

Too often, commercial enterprises edge nonprofits and higher ed institutions out of the inbox with innovative copy and design.

Here are five email tactics you can use to keep up in 2017—if you aren't using them already.

1) Ditch multi-column layout

The multi-column layouts that many schools use for their newsletters aren't optimized for mobile.

When over half of all emails are opened for the first time on phones, sticking to your traditional layout can cause your open and click-through rates to decline.

Read Emma's   Top Design Tips: Mobile Email   for more advice on mobile optimization.

Read Emma's Top Design Tips: Mobile Email for more advice on mobile optimization.

When you optimize for mobile, you might be surprised to find how much more readable single-column layouts are than a standard multicolumn layout. One column means more room for illustrations, larger text, and calls to action.

2) Use re-engagement or "win-back" emails

Retail companies have long relied on the re-engagement email to lure back past customers and remind people to finish checking out their shopping carts.

e.g. Levi's. Subject: Next one's on us.

Levi's re-engagement email

Re-engagement emails go beyond a standard newsletter and target people who haven't engaged in a while with a focused call to action. Many re-engagement emails, like the one from Levi's above, also offer people an incentive to re-engage. 

Not everyone disengages because they're uninterested—sometimes they just need a nudge. Re-engagement emails can boost your long-term engagement rates by preventing people from losing touch with your institution.

3) Test, test, test

Testing different versions of emails will get you surprising results. Even small things—like font size, button color, and item order—can have a significant effect on open and click-through rates.

Even if your email marketing platform doesn't directly support A/B testing, you can break your contact lists up manually, send each segment a different version, and compare the results.

4) Don’t take the thank you for granted

Thank-you emails have a 42% open rate across the nonprofit industry on average, so they're your chance to shine. If you aren't making full use of yours, you're missing out.

Here are two proven ways to use thank-you emails to increase donor retention:

1) Show the donor how they're making a difference

Watsi thank you email
Watsi thank you email

Watsi personalizes its thank-you emails like no other nonprofit. Because their fundraising is done on an individual basis—think Kickstarter for patients—every email is tailored to its project. Donors get an immediate thank you email and an update from the patient's care provider after they have received treatment.

Donors are more likely to give again because they feel directly connected to the patient they helped with their gift. 

2) Keep the donor updated

Red Cross donation

The Red Cross sends blood donors an update email when their blood is on its way to the hospital where it will be used. Blood donors in Sweden even receive a text after a patient has received their donation. This also helps donors connect to the impact of their gift, and makes the institution they gave to feel like a conduit to change rather than an entity that exists for its own sake.

5) Use embedded video

Many institutions embed video in their emails already, but doing so can be counterintuitive for those who don't. After all, nobody checks their inbox looking for videos to watch, right?

This email from Reed College's Annual Fund features a playful video that makes people want to watch it.

This email from Reed College's Annual Fund features a playful video that makes people want to watch it.

Actually, half of all email marketers who use embedded video see increases in clickthrough, sharing, and forwarding rates. Embedded videos can as much as triple email clicks.


For more alumni communications tips, read our post, "What Alumni Relations & Advancement Can Learn from Public Radio."