For counselors: How to get students and parents to read what you email

I send a monthly “Collegewise Parent Email Newsletter” to families in our program who ask to receive it.  And our counselors occasionally send group emails to all of their students with important reminders, especially when it wouldn’t make sense to email each student individually to say exactly the same thing.   I thought I’d share a couple things we’ve learned through trial and error about how to get more of our families to actually read what we send.  I’m hoping it might be useful to high school counselors or other private counselors who are taking the time to send good information and would like even more of your students and parents to take the time to read it.

1. Send emails worth reading.

The best way to train people to read your emails is to send them emails worth reading.  I’ve made the mistake of sending out a monthly newsletter just because it was time to send it out, not because I had something particularly profound to say.   That’s always a mistake.  Every email you send trains people to either look forward to or ignore future emails from you.  So never send an email just so you can say you sent something—send it when you have something important or timely to share.  Nobody’s going to complain that you aren’t emailing them often enough.  And if they do complain, you must be doing something right—your emails are so good that people miss them when they don’t arrive.

2. Get permission.

You can send out something with great information your families can’t get anywhere else—but emails that people didn’t ask to get always have a faint whiff of spam no matter how great the content is.  So I only send our parent newsletter to families who specifically ask to receive it.  We let them register for it on our enrollment form.  And whenever I reference “Those of you who get my newsletters may remember…” during seminars, I always get a few more families who ask to be put on the list.   Making people ask means you’re always sending to people who want to hear from you.  And if they don’t read or like what you send, then you know it’s time to come up with a different strategy.    

3. Write for selfish readers.

Email is a selfish business—we all read messages from the angle of “What’s in it for me?”  If you send your freshmen the same email you send seniors with advice about writing college essays, your freshmen will delete it.  And worse, they’ll be less likely to open your next message.  So you really have two options.  One is to segment your audience so different groups get specific emails meant only for them.  If you can do that, great.  But that’s not an easy thing for a counselor with a large caseload to do.  The other option is to organize your content by group.  Write a short paragraph for each grade level (and let parents have their own paragraph) so people can skip what doesn’t apply to them.  If it’s a newsletter, write the short summary paragraphs and then insert a link that will take interested readers to a more thorough write up.  The key is to let people find the information that matters to them fast.  If they can’t, they’re going to delete it.  

4. Be brief.

If we send our students a two-page email with all of our best advice about how to start the Common Application, most of them won’t read it.  It’s not our fault (or theirs).  Long emails or newsletters don’t get read because kids and parents are suffering from e-information overload.  The best way to fight through the clutter is to keep emails to one screen (no need to scroll through to read them) and share only what’s essential.  You don’t have to list all 30 of the new scholarships your office has applications for.  Just mention that you have applications for 30 scholarships totaling over $40,000 in potential free money for college—the interested students will notice that.  Get right to the point and make it forcefully. 

5. Find a good subject line.

We’ve all spent the time to write a great piece we then introduced with a subject line like, “October Newsletter.”  A generic subject line screams, “generic email.”  Your subject line should entice your audience to open the message.  So give them a taste of what’s to come, but leave some room for appropriate intrigue.  “7th semester transcript and midyear report reminder” isn’t going to make people stop, click, and read.  But, “Seniors, your college apps are incomplete without these final forms…” does a better job.

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