Communicating our services and the email enigma | AUA Blog

“Why do students never read our emails? We’ve asked them how they want to receive information and they always say by email.”

Sound familiar? Over the past couple of years running the Student Communications project at City I have heard this so many times now I have lost count. This is from both colleagues at City and across the sector. This is not new, it’s a problem which has existed for years. The past has however often seen just enough students engaging with the hundreds of emails they receive for many universities to not take any substantive action.

This said, times are changing, and there’s an increasing need to change the question. We need to move from asking why do students never read our emails, to why would students ever read our emails?

In this rapidly evolving modern world, we are now all too aware of concepts like generational shifts, but too often not willing to make the change that these demand. When 35% of 9-12 year olds and 83% of 12-15 year olds have access to a smartphone, this creates a fundamental change to the way they interact with the world around them. The word “email” was not featured in the 18 page Ofcom Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report for 2018, nor in the 56 page report into Children’s Media Lives. It doesn’t even hit the radar in the way they communicate growing up.

Before arriving in higher education, many students will never have used email as a primary communications tool. Given moves by some major industry players towards other collaborative work tools, they may not even use it much at work in the future. So is it any wonder we are struggling to engage them through this medium?

All that our students are used to receiving via email is slick, personalised marketing emails, driven by powerful algorithms. Big business has long since realised that to be successful they need to do everything they can to grab people’s attention. They spent thousands of pounds targeting their communications on segments, not just on demographics, or locations, but on behaviours. Linger over that advert on your Instagram feed and don’t be surprised if it pops up again.

The question is what can we do about it?

In actual fact many institutions have been working on this for some time. Bringing in student communications functions, running multi-channel campaigns, producing email newsletters and reducing overall email volume to students.

When communications are relevant, they are their most engaging. Universities have plenty to offer, but often students don’t feel this is relevant at this point in time. The way a university sells involvement in certain activities is not matched to students’ expectations.

An event someone in the university wants 20 students to attend may well be the most important to them, and even for those students going. For 99% of students it is not. So why would you send an email to all of them. Instead we need to be smarter, working their networks, finding advocates from within and helping communications spread organically.

Many students rely more on what their peers tell them through a WhatsApp or Facebook group chat than they do direct information from the institution. This presents a challenge, but also a great opportunity. Make your story relevant to students interests, and it will spread faster and wider than it ever could have before.

How can we do this? Well putting the genuine effort in to understanding students’ lives is a great first step. You could try running email inbox exercises, getting students to rate emails on how likely it is they would open them and action them. Perhaps encourage staff to look at things from the student perspective through some student experience journey mapping? Even simple steps like asking students what they are most unsure about or interested in a different points on their journey can give a fantastic insight.

Sometimes that insight is all you need to start changing the way you communicate with students. It’s not always about using new platforms. A new twitter or Instagram account is often going to create more work than impact. The most effective way to engage might mean going back to lecture shout outs. It will vary from institution to institution, department to department, even student to student.

Often it is not about the method of delivery, it is about understanding the context. A tick box survey asking if students want to receive emails or follow a Facebook account won’t provide this, only trying to understand their lives will.

One way we’ve tried doing this is embedding students themselves to be a key part of the delivery. We have five student staff working alongside our Student Communications Officer to develop our communications. Whilst our student communications are not perfect, they are at least starting to get more informed.

Once you’ve painted this picture, this understanding, then it might be time to explore the platforms. While there are plenty of university mobile apps with poor ratings in the app store, technology might be part of the solution. There’s been some amazing innovation in this space in recent years, take the Deakin Genie for example. For some of us this might seem a little intrusive, but for students that have grown up with Alexa as part of their family, it might just be the perfect fit.

Christopher Clements MAUA
Project Manager/Business Analyst
City, University of London

Leave a Reply

0 comments on “Communicating our services and the email enigma | AUA Blog