Is email an effective way to communicate with students? This question has been asked over and over again when it comes to marketing for a university. The answer is yes. Email remains one of the most preferred methods of communication that prospective students use to interact with a university. The misconception comes from universities failing to utilize email automation in their communication strategies.

Read on for three ways that universities can create and implement an effective email automation strategy.

Defining Email Automation

Before we begin highlighting strategy tips and tricks, it’s important that we understand the definition of email automation. Often, people believe the term “email automation” refers to businesses scheduling a large number of emails to be sent over a period of time. The scheduling of emails alone does not encompass the complexity and personalization that goes into automation.

Campaign Monitor, an email automation software, defines it as...

“...the ability to send action-triggered emails to subscribers with relevant information. Automation is useful for a variety of different marketing purposes. Whether it’s a triggered workflow that helps nurture new leads, birthday greetings that add a personal touch or automated blog updates that take the legwork out of staying in touch with your audience—email automation makes email marketing more efficient, personalized and relevant.” 

With this definition in mind, let’s dive into how we can create an email automation strategy that strengthens a university’s communication with prospective students.

Step ONE: Collect Emails

Before you can get started with an email automation, you first need students to email. Lead generation is a critical part to email marketing, because it opens the lines of communication between a university and the student.

How then can a university generate leads? 

Today’s prospective students want their questions answered. They don’t want to fill out any more forms than they're already asked to complete. For this reason, lead generation for the purpose of influencing a student should take another route. Here are a couple examples of creative lead-generation campaigns.

FAQ Pages

Every student has questions, but no student should have to search high and low to get his or her questions answered. A "frequently asked questions" page clearly illustrates the most common questions asked by prospective students. This page accomplishes a couple different objectives—first, it establishes the university as a location for answers. Students should understand that, when they come to the university’s site, they have all the information they need to make a decision. Second, by researching commonly asked questions, the university is also working to better understand its students. This information will become valuable later in the automation. Finally, this page also opens a door for future conversations. 

By placing a "request for information" form on this page, the university is encouraging the end user to ask any questions that weren't addressed on the page. This accomplishes the goal of obtaining the student’s email address and creates a more personal conversation with the student.


Lead generation doesn’t have to be online. Hosting events like senior or junior days are great ways to collect information. Encouraging students to sign up for these tours can generate qualified leads. If the university has a booth at a college fair, encouraging sign-ups for prizes can also generate leads.

Step TWO: Respond Quickly

Once you’ve generated a lead, either through an online or offline source, it’s time to communicate. Email automation is best utilized in critical situations where time is a sensitive subject. What this means is that there are a few times when a university has an opportunity to build a relationship with a prospective student. One of those times is when a student reaches out or becomes a lead. An effective email-automation workflow can take advantage of this interaction by illuminating dead time when a student is waiting for a response. One of the first steps in creating an effective email automation strategy is to automate email replies upon form submissions.

CNBC offers five reasons why taking advantage of this critical moment is an important part in relationship-building with individuals:

  1. It’s courteous
  2. You will be seen as reliable
  3. It forces you to act
  4. It buys you time
  5. It helps keep your inbox clean

In addition to these five reasons, responding to students' emails also establishes this method of communication as a distribution channel for additional information. Now that a student has received an email from the university, he or she will not be surprised when additional emails follow.

Step THREE: Personalize the experience 

The future of marketing is personalization. We now have the technology to create relevant and meaningful interactions with prospective students as they're going through the decision-making process. It is up to universities to provide this experience to their students. Before we continue with this step, let us first clarify what personalization really means. Emarsys has a good definition of what this term means in marketing:

“Personalized marketing is the implementation of a strategy by which companies deliver individualized content to recipients through data collection, analysis and the use of automation technology.” 

Breaking down this definition, an important distinction to make here is the difference between what is commonly thought of as "personalization" and what level of customization our audience expects. Effective email automations incorporate personalization that extends beyond just putting the recipient’s first name in the subject line or body copy. Rather, automations should deliver relevant content to an individual based on their previous actions or personal data.


An Epicosity Case Study

An example of personalization in action can be seen in a South Dakota State University (SDState) marketing campaign developed to influence admitted students. The goal of this campaign was to impel students to choose SDState once they had been accepted into the university. The content of the campaign came in the way of a personalized video sent via email for each student.

The student would receive the email and click to watch the personalized video on a landing page. This email automation took advantage of a couple things:

  • First, the email was sent shortly after the student had been admitted. This creates relevancy with the messaging and also celebrates with the student.
  • Second, the automation technology allowed us to personalize the emails to include relevant text and images that pertain to the student.

The results of the campaign produced record-high email open and click rates, far beyond the industry average.