Building a strong educational community with email marketing

email marketing expert diaries

Bri Loesch is the Associate Email Marketing Director, and Elaine Armbruster is the Senior Director of Omnichannel strategy,  at The Ohio State University. They both bring some unique insights about email marketing in an educational sector. Bri and Elaine also contribute several articles for their university’s blog, and they can be read here.

Expert Diaries from Zoho Campaigns connects avid email marketers to the experts in this space, and help them learn some best practices and tips. Our aim is to connect email geeks and form a community that learns email marketing from one another. Check out our amazing line-up of Season 1.


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Audio Transcript:

Aishwarya: Email marketing empowers educational institutions by helping them build a strong student network, connect with faculty and alumni, increase admission requests and hence the overall engagement.

When a renowned university decides to share their best email marketing stories and strategy, there’s no way we go without listening!

Welcome to the Zoho Campaigns Expert Diaries, and I’m Aishwarya, your host. Today’s episode is special because we have two experts with us—Bri Loesch and Elaine Armbruster from The Ohio State University. Bri is the Associate Email Marketing Director, and Elaine is the Senior Director of Omnichannel strategy,  and they’ll be sharing their insights about email marketing in an educational sector.

Hello, Bri and Elaine! We’re glad to host you today.

Bri and Elaine: Hi, thanks! Yeah, thanks for hosting us.

Aishwarya: Yeah, so, let’s start with Elaine.

As marketers for the education industry, which is very specific, we’d love to hear about your experiences handling email marketing for a university. Can you detail about that?  


Elaine: Yeah sure! So, I think it’s interesting we have a lot of different audiences of students, prospective students, faculty staff, alumni, donors, patient athletics. And,

that’s not abnormal—a lot of businesses have different audiences, the people that they talk to, but what’s unique about higher education is that we have different goals and priorities for each of those audiences. So, for a prospective student, we’re trying to get them to apply or to enroll; with students then you want to keep them engaged throughout the process help them to graduate; with alumni, it’s keeping them engaged afterwards and making sure that they know about events that are happening or how they can connect with our alma mater; patients, you know, connecting them to the Medical Center and the care that they can receive there; so there are a lot of different things that we can say to these people.

And, the challenge then is how do we do that knowing that you could be one or you could be many of those things. Then the unique challenge on top of that is we’re very decentralized, so you’ve got different colleges and units that are speaking to all of these. And so, part of what Bri and I do is to help bring that together and help kind of coordinate some of those touch-points and messages. But, the great thing is that with all of those different audiences we are able to learn, test, and experiment what might work for one audience may not work for another so we’re all about the test-and-learn, and our leadership really empowers us to do that, which is great. So it’s a fun environment being talking to all those different audiences.

Aishwarya: Wow! That’s really interesting because you have very specific goals, and in fact, considering the diverse nature of the audience, which you listed, it’s going to be dynamic content for each of them. And it’s important that each email goes based specifically to that particularly-addressed person.

And now that you mentioned about the target audience, say that you have current students, alumni, prospective students, faculty, and many such niche groups, how to create and maintain such difference, you know, different audience segments, Bri?


Bri: Yeah, so I would say it’s more about managing the experience among and across those different segments. And, as I earlier mentioned, we do have a lot of niche groups that we have targeted messaging for, but most of our audience members actually fall into multiple segments. So where the real fun begins is trying to figure out how to talk to each person as all of the things that they are to Ohio State. So, for example, I’m an alumni, I’m a student, a staff member, and I’m also a patient. Elaine is a two-time alumni from two different colleges; she’s also a patient, a vet-med client, and a fan. So we’re a lot of different things to Ohio State, and have a lot of different affiliation.

And the fun part is figuring out how to talk to someone knowing that they’re affiliated with us in multiple ways. So then I think for the most part, our audiences are in separate databases which helps keep segmentation clean, but I think that can also be challenge for us. And when we go to try to do integrated marketing efforts, we’re really working towards more advanced personalization and accessible data, so we can provide a more streamlined experience according to all the things that our audience members are to us in the relationships with us, and also what they’re interested in.

Aishwarya: Great! As you said, yeah, people come with different affiliations and a different history. It’s important to connect and find a common pattern and put them into different segments, so that personalization and orchestrating all of your email and workflows would get easier. So good point on that, Bri.

So, Elaine, what are some commonly used engagement materials in your emails, and what uniquely have you found that works well for your university?


Elaine: Yeah, I don’t think this is really unique to university, right. We’re talking about personalization and we find that works obviously, but yeah, easier said than done when our data is all over the place, when you have decentralized people executing these campaigns. So, we’re taking an approach where it’s baby-steps and instead of trying to boil you a whole ocean, it’s where can we step in and try something in one area of rather than trying to solve for everything.

So, one of my favorites that we did last year was for our ‘Day of Giving’ Campaign. And, prior to that, somebody could receive up to four emails in a single day, and that was just because there were a lot of different messages that we’re trying to get to people. And so, being a very clerical environment, you want to make sure that your message gets to all the people, that it should get through right. In the past, it was multiple emails that go to those people, and it was kind of a poor experience for the recipients. So what we did last year was, we said— what are all the messages and how do we then bring those people within one email. So, we use dynamic content to put those relevant messages in front of people so that all the messages still got out there but they were in a single email. We ended up with over 5600 different possible content combinations for an email. And, we were able to reduce send volume by 36% but still increase but open volume period of the day by 9%, and then the click volume increased by 151%. And then, even better, our conversion was up 140%, so this kind of shows the power and personalization, and that sending more emails is not always the best option. I think that was kind of an eye-opener for some people at the university.

Another cool one that we did is personalization with our insights newsletter. So there are a lot of different topics within that email, so like ‘health and wellness,’ or ‘science and technology,’ and what we do is we track your clicks. And so, if Bri is continuing to click on ‘health and wellness,’ then in the future we’re going to show her ‘health and wellness’ subject lines. And, we actually saw a 25% higher open rate by doing this and that translated to a 22% higher click-to-open rates, because once they open, they saw that thing that they were interested in.

So we’re doing a lot of fun personalization things to try to engage our audiences. We’ve tried a few things that haven’t resonated as much—we’ve tried countdown clocks and then we found that the urgency wasn’t just doing it for the audience, but again that’s then learn and try to figure out what works and what doesn’t. 

Aishwarya: Wonderful! I can’t thank you enough for stressing on the fact that marketers need to take control over data, because, currently I think one of the most common challenges for us as marketers, putting myself into it, is having data in multiple places. And, having it in silos that you really have to take some time to bundle them up together.

So, as you mentioned, sending about four emails per day to a person is definitely overwhelming, and the solution that you guys resorted to is very interesting, at the same time very encouraging for email marketers; how do you find those niche topics, how do you find those interests of the students or whoever is receiving these emails, and how do you put that information to use in reducing the number of emails but at the same time having a better impact. Those statistics that you mentioned about—9% open rate, about 151% percent click rate—that’s amazing! It shows the amount of effort that you guys are putting into building a centralized targeting system for your university, and this definitely encourages a lot of them to try this approach.

Elaine: Yeah, exactly!


So, what are your thoughts about the use of storytelling emails, because now we’ve discussed more about dynamic targeting, personalization, which finally boils down to powerful storytelling in emails. 

Elaine: Yeah, we’re definitely all about storytelling, and what’s cool about being in higher education is that we have no lack of content. So, name a topic, and we’re able to find content on it, and I think our team does a great job of than helping us do some storytelling and then translating that into email. It’s a great way to really keep your audience engaged without really asking them for something, but rather you’re kind of priming them for that next step for what you might need from them down the road.

Bri and I are all about it, like I said, we wrote a blog post for our university marketing site about storytelling in email, and just how it can help build brand perception, really focus in on the trust that you want to build with your audience, and help them see you as authentic. And so, we try to do that with a lot of the emails that we send out, and really just make sure that we’re focused on the recipient, how they can get those storytelling messages in the best way for them.

Aishwarya: Really happy to see you as the thought leaders for content, because you specified how content is important for emails. Content plays the spine of emails, and as recipients, people would definitely want to receive relatable content. There’s a lot of effort that you’re putting on content, and happy stating that your team is actually giving content on all fronts.

Elaine: Yeah!


Do you have any successful ongoing email workflows that work exceptionally well and save a lot of time for you?

Bri: Yeah, so a couple of the examples come to mind that we’ve worked on recently. One of which is a project we worked on with our Business Intelligence (BI) team, because our base is so large and decentralized. All of the colleges and units are responsible for handling their own marketing communication efforts and that includes email. So they are putting in list requests with our BI team, and there are numerous lists that are coming in at any given time, and the BI team is fulfilling these requests.

But, we are finding that sometimes there were marketing questions that came through either from the requester or from the BI team, while they were working on these list requests. So, then they would come to us with those marketing questions and it would create kind of a triangle of communication between us and the requester and the BI team. So it just kind of barked down the process and created some miscommunication or confusion, and that made the process take a lot longer.

So we took a look at how we might be able to streamline this process, so we created a list request form so that people could fill out this form and ask list-specific questions and marketing-specific questions depending on the purpose of their messaging. That enables our team to kind of have some visibility at the front end of the request and get any questions and answers out of the way, first before the BI team, and it just gave visibility to everyone involved and really is help cut down on that process. And, it’s also given us some opportunity to discuss segmentation with the requester, so overall it’s been a really great improvement to that profit.

Elaine: I think what’s also interesting about that is that we then have seen opportunities to maybe combine emails, where there’s two different people from different units might be requesting a very similar list for a very similar purpose. And so, then we can connect those two groups and say “Hey, it makes sense to combine your efforts so that your audience isn’t receiving two different messages about the same thing.”

Bri: Yeah, yeah! I think that’s very true because of how big and decentralized we are. Sometimes, it can be really hard to coordinate messaging and it’s hard to know what all is going on across the university. So we do have a centralized email calendar that helps with that, but this is definitely another process that helps with that visibility.

Elaine: Yup!

Bri: And then the other project I was thinking of for our email review process—we use Workfront as our project management tool and for university marketing. And, they have a proofing tool that we use for email review, and this allows us to collect all of the revisions and approvals in one place and it’s also interactive, so you can even check the links on the email and it really helps to make that process much more efficient. Or before, we would send out an email test and we would get feedback via email from multiple people. A lot of times to do the same feedback just wasn’t efficient, so that proofing tools really helped us cut down on time with email review.

Aishwarya: Mm-hmm. That’s great to know! I mean, having centralized system would definitely help because as you stated students would not want to receive multiple emails on the topics that they’re interested in. Also when you have like a huge team or when you have multiple teams working on email as it is, it’s important that there is a streamlining between things teams to make sure that not one team repeats the same template as the other. So that’s a great thought that you listed of having a central approval or a central system that’s always informed about what kind of emails are going to the students and how to combine emails at the event of having two or more topics that relate to the students.

This brings me to this concept about Email Design Systems. So, I’m curious to know if the Ohio State University has such a system, and if so, can you share some tips on why should anybody build such a system?


Bri: Yeah, so, I definitely recommend implementing a design system especially if you work in a decentralized organization like we do. But, I think you can really find some workflow efficiencies either way. We use ‘Atomic Design’ principles for our design system, and what is Atomic Design is really taking your template and breaking it down into the smallest pieces in parts, and using those as building blocks that are interchangeable and just plug into each other seamlessly. So, these are really easy to add, to remove different content modules, and creates a lot of flexibility.

So when we created a design system, our primary focus was really on maintaining brand consistency across the university, and creating flexibility because there are a lot of different messaging needs for everyone in the different colleges in the unit. We wanted to create a flexible system that allowed them to manipulate the templates, to meet their needs, and then we also wanted to make them usable. Being decentralized, there are people who send email every day, there are people that have the email just a really tiny part of their job. So, we wanted to make sure they were easy to use, and I think we achieved those goals, and we were able to reduce our instances of broken code and troubleshooting, which was helpful and it also helped us to just build our emails a lot faster.  

And, one of the things that I liked most about this project was we were able to make sure our templates were accessible which is the huge focus for us, especially being in higher education, and we just feel good knowing that all of our emails going out, no matter where they’re coming from, are accessible to our users.

Aishwarya: You made the entire process of designing an email system to be just a plug-and-play job. And, if I have to sum them up in three words, I think it would be—consistency, flexibility, and usability across multiple teams in an organization.

Bri: Yeah, yeah! I think that’s exactly what we’re shooting for.

Aishwarya: And, this shows the effect on the results— because when you just stated these open rates and click rates, a couple of minutes back, now I’m able to understand where the high stats come in from. It’s about streamlining your whole process and having some clarity on the plans that you as an organization develop. 

Bri: I think streamlining our processes has also opened up some time so that we are able to do additional testing and learning and able to dedicate more time to personalization. So, I think streamlining not only helps us to be more efficient in creating emails and sending emails but also in and focusing our efforts on other things so we can improve our email programs overall. 

Aishwarya: Certainly, that’s a very good point! As we’re headed over to concluding the show, I would just like to ask a quick question to both of you:

 So, if you both had to pick five top email marketing strategies and put them in a ‘Marketer’s Toolkit,’ what would they be?

The whole listeners set is looking at you for those five best practices that they can use!  

Bri: Sure, so we both kind of talked about it. So we we shared our top five.

Aishwarya, Bri, Elaine: <laughs>

Bri: Yeah, so I what we had for number one, and we kind of went in order of importance starting with the most-important and cascaded down from there.

1. So, number one would be list hygiene. And, the reason being, if you don’t have a healthy list, I think you can really throw the rest of it away. So, list hygiene would definitely be number one.

Elaine: Yep, and that I mean, when I started at Ohio State, the kind of the focus is scan and clean up the list because if they’re going to the spam folder, if they’re getting blocked, like what’s the point of doing anything else?

Bri: Yeah, exactly! Keep our lists clean.

2. And, then at number two, I would say segmentation. We don’t say the B word here—blast. We don’t like blast messaging, so we definitely think targeting in your messaging and making sure that your audience matches the messaging that you’re sending out is really important to the email program.

3. And, then number threestrategic measurements, and that being just what are you measuring, how are you measuring it, how do you tell what’s good or bad, are your emails performing well, are they not performing well, so on. I think having some really-good benchmarks in place so you can figure out where to go with your email program, and also be able to use those metrics for diagnostics as well as engagement. And, figuring out you know if something is going well or maybe not going so well, being able to detect that and kind of plan around that to make some improvements.

4. And number four, I would say testing and optimization which really just helps you to figure out what works for your audience and helps you build on incremental learning over time, so that you’re always improving your email program.

Elaine: And, we definitely use the strategic measurement piece to build our customer plans, so we have team meetings where we say what’s working, what’s not working, and then we say based on this what do we need to start testing in order to optimize.

Bri: Yeah, absolutely!

5. And, then number five, I would say personalization. So, we’re always working towards that one-to-one communication and figuring out how we can achieve that to better engage our audiences and be more tailored in our messaging. So I would put personalization at number four…five, sorry! Lost my count here!

Aishwarya, Bri, Elaine: Laughs!

Elaine: If I had to sneak in a number six, I’d probably say how email marketing connects with all the other channels. So, that’s part of my new role and omni-channel strategy space is thinking about how emails connect with the other channels that we have out there. So that’d be my number six to kind of slide in there.  

Aishwarya: The best and the easiest six-point checklist, I should say! And, I loved the sixth point that you added. That’s something of late even I’ve been talking around with people—the importance of email in the current digital space. Because today, there are multiple marketing channels, and you can’t deny the fact that email is a powerful channel. And how it threads with all the other existing channels is a very interesting thing, and it’s something that the marketers definitely need to understand and implement in their organizations.

Elaine: Yeah, definitely! I read a white paper it was about how omni-channel starts with email, and I thought that was really interesting, and it resonated with me, being a one who grew up in email marketing. But I think usually with an email address, you have some sort of information on that person—it connects you to a person, so you can do things with email and connect it to your other channels that you might not be able to do with social or some others. And so, yes, it’s a place to start in omni-channel strategy, and start just thinking about how you then personalize the experience across different channels or touchpoints.

Aishwarya: Definitely! Emails give you that flexibility to adapt data from any platform, and as you said, helps you in easy targeting as well. So here’s that six-point checklist, something that any beginner can use and even an advanced person can use to optimize the operations.

Thank you so much, Bri and Elaine! It was a very informative session for me as well, because I’ve always been curious about how do universities use email as a chennal to engage their current audience, and the different strategies that go into it. I loved the way you stated about different touchpoints, marketing channels, mediums, some organizational processes as well as best practices.

And I’m sure listeners today would have got very different perspectives which they can implement into their current businesses as well.  

Elaine: Yeah, thanks for having us! 

Bri: Yeah, thank you!

Aishwarya: So, today’s session was the highlight on how email can be used in a very-specific industry such as an educational industry. Enough best practices that we can use in the upcoming months of 2020! To listen to more interesting stories, subscribe to the Zoho Campaigns Expert Diaries. Until the next show, bubye!


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