Is email over?

I agree with Andrew Gossen’s emphatic NO in the recent Higher Ed Live episode on email insights for decision-making. Email remains at the heart of our communications operation at McMaster (which, for reference, is allll the way up in Canada, eh).

The panelists in the episode insightfully note that email analytics is an art and not a science. I would add that it can even be thought of more like magic – when it works, sometimes you just don’t know why! But email isn’t going anywhere, so it’s worth a continued conversation. Shared insights and knowledge is better for the strategic decision-making we all need to do.

So, in that spirit, here are four of our key values around email strategy at McMaster:

  • Involve the team

    The more brains and eyeballs focused on email, the better. At McMaster, each alumni and development officer is responsible for creating their own email drafts with templates and assets provided to them. We also talk about digital engagement a lot as a team. We use Slack to help facilitate conversations around best practices and share great examples of emails from both nonprofit and corporate marketing campaigns. Content, design, segmentation and timing are all strategic decisions open to our entire team for debate and input.

  • Pay attention to analytics

    Team involvement is helpful with this too. I often focus on the aggregate data of our email sends, but my colleagues will notice a blip in the analytics of their particular email send, and we can apply that insight universally going forward. The same is true of our social metrics and Google Analytics. We have a bi-weekly meeting, The Digital Hour, where we share recent analytics and discuss learnings across all of our communications channels, not just email. Colleagues will notice trends that I don’t, because they have goals different from mine. Carving out the time and space for analytics review and analysis is critical for us as a team, not just me as the person responsible for digital.

  • Focus on application:

    Why are we looking at email analytics? How will it actually help us? This is a question I try to ask myself whenever I get too swamped with data. We use iModules to see which alumni opened our monthly newsletter, Maroon Mail, at least three times in one year and we code that in our alumni database. This one data point has proven incredibly helpful. On a macro level, it’s included in engagement scoring. On an individual level, it helps alumni officers and fundraisers know if a grad is perhaps more likely to answer an email invitation to engage them further. We’ve used email click-through rates to inform the redesign of our monthly newsletter, in order to feature content that has proven appealing for different demographics.

  • Consistency is key

    If someone knows what to expect when they see an email in their inbox – and if you’ve done a good job ensuring it is good content – then they’re more likely to open it. This insight is revealed in the open and click-through rates of our monthly newsletter, but also in newer email-based alumni programs we are experimenting with. One of these is a email sent on Friday afternoons from our director to donors that features a student story. The open rates on these emails have become some of our highest. Another initiative is our Question of the Week Club. We send a weekly email to alumni and friends who opt in and ask them one simple, delightful question. After they’ve answered, they are directed to the crowdsourced answers from the previous week. Email recipients for both examples know what to expect when they see that email appear in their inbox, and our open rates show that this means they’re more likely to click and read.


Finally, the most important thing (in our office, at least) is to have fun. Let’s be frank: we think about our emails way more than anyone receiving them, so it’s to our benefit to keep it creative and fresh!


Erin O’Neil is the alumni officer for digital engagement at McMaster University (Hamilton, Canada). She believes passionately in the power of ‘delight’ to engage alumni communities, an instinct proven by careful attention to analytics! She is an undergrad alumna of McMaster and has a master’s in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership from Carleton University in Ottawa. You can connect and say hello online @erinlauraoneil.


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Higher Ed Live

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