Write emails people will read

09.14.20225 min

Is email working for your institution? If not, it’s your fault.

Over the years I’ve developed some expertise (some call it an “obsession”) with emails. Why? Because emails are cheap, they’re easy, and if they’re executed well, they’re incredibly effective. As a higher ed strategist on teams that are often strapped for resources, I found it was the tool I could reliably use to meet my institution’s marketing goals.

While email strategies can be really sophisticated, here are three foundational principles that can make emails really work for marketing teams. You can implement these with or without fancy technology, with or without beautiful email templates, and they still work.


1. Email is for action.

If you want to tell an engaging student story, make your alums laugh, captivate prospective students with beautiful imagery, or capture your faculty’s attention for a little while — email is not the channel for that.* Use your website, social, or video to do those things. Email is for action. What is it that you want the recipient to do? Whatever that action is, email is built for it. It’s a timely reminder with a convenient path to the action, after you’ve done the other work of convincing them on other channels.

Make sure every email has one clear primary action. It should be obvious from the subject line, and it should be the first thing they see when they open the message (see #3 below).

*There’s an exception here. If you have, over time, built a captive and loyal audience who trust your emails to be useful and engaging, they will eagerly await your emails and read them for entertainment and fun. This is not the case for most of us, but it’s something you can aspire to.


2. Content isn’t what you want to tell them. It’s what they need to know.

What does your recipient need to know to take action, and when do they need to know it? That’s how you decide on your content.

Here’s my favorite simplified approach for enrollment. Students go through four phases in a typical year: prospect, applicant, admitted, and committed. Each one of these phases has a primary action: apply, wait, deposit, show up. (Visit is a secondary action throughout). 

The emails students get during the prospect phase will contain the information they need to take the related action: to apply. But it takes a few emails to get them there. There are several models that describe the flow for getting someone to take action, but basically your goal is to take them through these stages: (1) grab their attention, (2) teach them something, (3) make them feel something, (4) ask for the action.

This same pattern can be applied to every phase, but (for example) what they need to know to apply is different from what they need to know to accept. The email content they receive should address what they need to take the action that moves them to the next phase. 

You can apply this same flow for fundraising. During each quarter, start by examining your important priorities and goals, then connect them to your donors’ personal motivations, and then make your ask.


3. Write emails they can’t help but read.

Finally, let’s talk about the email itself. Here are five musts.

The “From” line should show an entity that the recipient has a relationship with. If they personally know the dean, use the dean’s name. If not, use the name of the department or institution. If you can’t get this approved (I know how hard it is), make sure the institution’s name is somewhere in the “From” or subject line. 


  • Cornell CALS Dean — instead of Dean Benjamin Z. Houlton
  • Mari at Penn State — instead of Mariann Schulz


The subject line is a six-to-nine-word summary of what’s in the email. Recipients shouldn’t have to open the email to know what’s in it. For single-action emails, make the action your subject line, and add the due date if there is one. For newsletters, name your most important story. 


  • Sign up by June 3! — instead of The time is here!
  • Your 3-year giving streak expires in a week! — instead of Information about your record
  • Update your Duo — instead of IMPORTANT PLEASE READ


Write in spoken language. Keep your sentences short and simple. Delete leading phrases. Write like you speak. Avoid passive voice. Aim for an eighth-grade reading level.


Use formatting to your advantage. Don’t waste your first line on niceties, and don’t waste the beginning of your sentences with filler or intro phrases. Invert your sentences. Get to the point first, with niceties after (or not at all). Use headings to break up sections. Surround your actions with white space.


  • Instead of: In order to achieve successful completion of your degree program, please be sure to submit the required documentation by the deadline.
  • Try: Submit your transcript by August 1 to graduate.


Be descriptive with links and buttons. Describe actions clearly in your links. “Learn more”… about what? The answer is your link. If the recipients only read the links, they should still know exactly what you want them to do.


  • Instead of Donate now  →  Donate to student fund
  • Instead of Learn more  →  Find the cause you support
  • Instead of Click here  →  Get your event guide
  • Instead of Register  →  Sign up for the Alumni Lecture

When you’re done writing, test yourself. Show your draft to a colleague for only two seconds. Do they see what the action is? If yes, your email will get read.



Email is a worthwhile investment. Whether you have the resources to build multiple dynamic comm flows, or you’re only sending a handful of emails manually, this foundation can set you up for success. Happy emailing!