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How to Improve Your School's Email Open Rates
Mia Major

You're likely sending more email than ever before — but if you're using email as a primary way to engage and inform your key audiences, you want to be sure that recipients are actually opening your emails. In Episode 12 of The School Marketing Show LIVE, we discuss:

  • Email isn’t dead — and actually, it's very much alive!
  • The reason that tour subject line is everything
  • How to make your subject line increase your open rates
  • What words to use
  • What words not to use

Watch Episode 12 now, or read the full transcription below!


Hi everyone. Welcome to The School Marketing Show: Live! We are here today with episode 12. I'm so excited that you're here with us. If you haven't been with us here before, here at Finalsite, professional development and education are really a huge piece of our culture. So, we use this show as a way to just get the latest, best practices and trends around marketing, admissions, advancement, you name it, in front of schools and districts around the world. So, it's really just our way to answer your questions. So, please feel free during the show or even after to use the comment section to just let us know what you're interested in.

Today specifically, we are going to talk about one of the biggest challenges we hear from school communicators, especially right now and that is "Why aren't our emails working?" So, before we get too into it, I think we can really just promise two things here. Number one, email is definitely not dead. So, the way you're communicating through email is so important. Especially right now where we're in this pandemic, everyone's kind of figuring out ways that they can connect with their communities, email is definitely still a huge piece of that and number two, your subject line ... way over and above what the actual content of the email is, is everything. So, your subject line is so important and I think that's one major roadblock that we see a lot of schools and districts running into, is it's not necessarily the email but it is just that first door that someone walks through to actually read your email.

So, over the next few minutes, we're just going to walk through how to make your subject line really increase those open rates, what words to use, what words not to use and just some general best practices that you can take into practice right now to really help out with your emails. So, if you're wondering why your families aren't reading your emails, stop what you're doing and we'll strategize over the next few minutes.

I will first just hand it over to Mia. She'll talk through some of the, just general things that you should know before we get into it.


Thank you so much Kristen and yes, this is a topic we are very excited to talk about today and I think it's something that comes up at every single webinar, every single event that we host is, "Why aren't people reading my emails?" And I think part of the issue could be that we always think of the email subject line last. It's like we've created the email, we've done all the work and it's like, "Oh wait. Yeah, this needs a title before we send it." But I feel like when we think about books or we think about movies that are on Netflix, that we're scrolling through, it's really the title of that book or the title of that show that gets you to click to learn more.

So, I think we need to start thinking backwards with our email communications and say, "Okay, what would actually stick out? What would make someone say, this is interesting, I want to know more."

So, let's first start by setting a benchmark for what is a good open rate and I think it's a pretty arbitrary stat, right? Every school is going to have their own benchmarks and you might have different, good open rates for your newsletter versus an events email versus a promotional email. But if you're busy, like most school communicators and marketers, I can tell you right now that in an analysis of more than 500 million emails sent on the Finalsite platform, the average open rate across the board was 49%. So, if you don't have the time to benchmark, if you don't have the time to dig through, do yourself a favor and use that 49% as your benchmark for a quote-unquote, good open rate. Anything above that means you're hitting the mark, you're doing an awesome job. Your emails are great.

49% - average email open rate

Anything below that 49%, you might just want to take a look at and say, "Okay, why aren't people opening this email? Is it the time? Is it that subject line that's so important? Is it the sender?" Whatever it may be but we definitely want to see at least 49% of people opening your emails and then even when we say that out loud, I'm like, "Oh my gosh, 49%." That's less than half of people are opening emails. We want to see that average benchmark be 70, 80, 90%, we want to see the majority of recipients opening your emails and that's really where that subject line comes into play.

Now, COVID like everything has made this so much harder and consumer behavior has changed dramatically. People are spending more time at home. They're spending more time on their phones, more time on their computers and inherently more time in those email inboxes. Email activity has ticked up 22% since January.

So, people are spending a lot of time scrolling through emails, even if they're just clicking, deleting, or kind of just taking a pulse up to all the new subscriptions they might have from all of their random COVID quarantine purchases. So, because inboxes are more flooded than ever and because people are making more purchases than ever before and spending a lot of time there. It doesn't mean people are actually going to just inherently open your email and spend time engaging with your school. You still have to earn that click and earn that open. So, there are a few general best practices that are kind of ... they're the foundation. No matter what you do, you want to follow these handful of best practices for crafting a good subject line that can increase opens.

So, first and foremost, we want to always keep that subject line, the best we can in a range of 40 to 60 characters. Now, I know Kristen a little bit is going to share some caveats but that's that 40 to 60 character range where you're always going to be golden on desktop and on mobile.

40-60 characters is the recommended length for subject lines

You want to personalize your subject line in any way that you can. So, that means adding someone's name to that subject line just by saying, "Hey Kristin, here's your weekly newsletter." The third thing that we want to do is we want to be consistent as much as we can, especially when it comes to newsletters and that comes with consistency in timing and consistency in that subject line. So, if you send the same newsletter every single week but you're not sending it at the same time on the same day, people don't know when to look for it. Earlier this summer, Risa and I and our summer camp presentation talked about how important it is to think about your communications and marketing like a TV network.

When you turn on HGTV or you turn on the Hallmark channel, clearly those are the two channels I watch, you know exactly what you're going to get and when. You need to think about your email communications in that exact same way, especially when it comes to recurring programming, like an email newsletter. So, keep that email subject line the same, keep that day, time as close as possible because people are going to know to look for it on that specific day. The last thing that you can do, that's slightly outside of that email subject line is pay attention to that email sender. Aside from the subject line, this is the other thing that someone is going to see in their inbox. So, you want to make sure that it doesn't come from a "donotreply@", it doesn't come from a generic email address.

You want to make it come from a known person or entity. So, that way people are like, "Oh, yes this email is from Kristen" or "This is from admissions" or "This is from the head of school." If every email comes from communications@ or every email just comes from your school's name or even, gosh a "donotreply@" it's less likely that that email is going to be opened.

So, 4 best practices; keep it short, personalize it, be consistent and pay attention to that sender. Now, those are the baseline. Those are the "Here's what you can do just to follow the golden rule and guidelines." But there are plenty of tweaks and changes that you can make to actually guarantee that, that email is going to have an increased open rate and there's some pretty fun words that we can try and some strategies that we can implement and I'm going to hand it over to Kristen to kind of dive into some of those modern strategies for cutting through the noise in an email inbox today.


Yeah, thanks Mia. So, like Mia said, I ... there's just a few best practices that no matter what, you should be really taking on and that will immediately help a little bit with your open rates. If we really want to get into it, I think obviously we're saying, the subject line is so important and it's easy to just say, "Be engaging" and that's such a vague thing to say. So, I think that we'd just like to go through a few strategies you can actually do to achieve that engaging subject lines.

So, first and foremost, I think that it's important to really just get out of your comfort zone a little bit with what you typically use for your subject lines. So, obviously like Mia said, if you have a weekly newsletter, you want that subject line to be consistent, just so your families know to look for it and they can expect it but there are things you can do to just play around with that.

Don't be afraid to use emojis. I think that, that's a really big one. Obviously with more serious content, especially right now, you want to avoid things like that. But using emojis is the closest thing we can really get to getting something like an image in a subject line and we all know, we're scrolling through emails and sometimes hundreds of them, especially after a long weekend and you have to cut through the noise a little bit. So, playing around with emojis, there are actually some that aren't too silly that you can still use and play around with, just to catch the eye of your families. So, think about like the letter emoji. The email, little envelope emoji, it's actually an easy one to pop in and it's not too silly. It still kind of doesn't cross that line of, should my school use it or not.

So, you could even just put that little envelope emoji and say, "Inside, your weekly newsletter from our school" or things like that, you can just play around with it. See if it helps and then once you kind of land on something that you're seeing is engaging your audience, then maybe stick to it, especially with those recurring emails and then just play around with the content that's actually in the email itself. So, say you're sending out some fun content to families or even prospective families. If you're an independent school about current happenings, you can be like, "Soccer, Shakespeare and more from our school", things like that. Just kind of pull out little pieces of content and do the best you can to really summarize what's in there and tease the content before they click through. It's way more engaging than just saying, "An update from our school" and things like that.

So, play around with it. Don't forget to personalize, like Mia said. So, if you use that personalization token, even as simple as adding in, "first name we have your weekly newsletter," things like that. When you see your name, it's just a lot more engaging to click on and you feel a little more compelled to read on. If it feels personalized. Even if you do know that, that's obviously a tactic that's not actually someone personally writing to you, no matter what, that will still catch your eye, if you see your own name. So, personalizing it is fantastic. I definitely recommend testing that out with some of your emails and then ... so earlier on Mia shared the kind of best practice subject line lengths and that's definitely something you want to keep in mind for different devices. You don't want anything to be too long because on mobile it will get cut off.

So, there might be some fun content in your subject line that gets cut off if it's too long but there are some things you can kind of try out. I think one thing that's a little obvious is that everyone's trying these best practices. So, everyone who your kind of competing with in your families inboxes are all using that subject line, character length limit. They're all optimizing for it. So, maybe just every once in a while, try out a very short subject line, maybe something that's under 20 characters. Just to see if you can maybe stand out a little bit in that sense or even a very long subject line.

subject lines with > 20 characters get higher engagement

If you find that a lot of your families are opening email on desktop, that may indicate that you can try out a longer headline and then maybe, the open rates will increase a little bit because they're seeing that and it's standing out amongst all of the shorter subject lines that they're seeing. So, kind of just take it with a grain of salt. You can always test it out and I think right now, especially since we're seeing that email activity is up, as Mia said, 22%, I believe since January. Now's the best time to test things out because your families are in their inboxes more than ever before.

email activity is up 22% since january

So, just play around with that, see what works for you and that will really help in the long run with you setting a benchmark for yourself and then of course, like Mia said, don't forget about your sender. Always switch it up. Don't let it come from a "do not reply" address. If you actually want someone to engage with your emails, switch up who it's coming from, use trusted voices at your school or district and of course that will stand out a little more than having all of your emails come from the same person.

Now, into kind of some fun things. So, words that you can definitely use and words that we're finding the data is backing, is really helping, especially today with email open rates. First and foremost, just being mindful of the times. So, parents especially right now want to feel that they're cared about. They want to feel that their children are cared about in terms of your students, things like that. So, some words like "deserve" and "available" and "for you" all work really well in that sense because it has a more ... a feeling around it, of you're actually providing something to them that they will find useful. So, if you say, if you maybe have a virtual open house coming up, you could even say, 'You deserve a coffee with us," or "You deserve a coffee on us," things like that.

If you're just going to have like a one-on-one zoom chat or if it's in person, just actually catering that content to make it feel like you want to help out. That will really help in the long run with your subject lines to get them opened and then engaged with. Urgency, is another one that can really help you in terms of getting your families to actually open your emails. I would say urgency without actually using the word urgent, which we'll get into. Once we go through some of the words that you want to avoid but things like saying, "today" or "tomorrow" or "now" in your subject lines can really help with those open rates. Because, if you see that something's happening today or tomorrow, or if you need to do something right now, right in that subject line, you'll feel a little more compelled to click because there's some urgency around it without being too pushy.

So, using those words can really work in your favor. Now, getting into words that you want to avoid are things like; "meeting", "chat", "maybe". Some of those kind of wishy-washy terms. "Urgent" is another one that you want to avoid. Unless of course there really is a matter happening at your school or district that needs five exclamation points and the word "urgent" and there's really something that has to get out and actually convey that urgency. Unless it's truly that kind of emergency situation, avoid terms like that, just because they have a little more of a negative connotation.

So, even if you feel that it is urgent, that parents read your newsletter or something that recently happened at the school. Try to avoid it and really put everything around a positive light and play around with those different words that you can kind of flip that more negative term to still have the same meaning but with more of this is what we can provide for you type terms.

So, avoiding words like; "urgent", "quick", "remember" things like that. Making them a little less like commands and more like, here's what you can bring value out of this, can really help with your subject lines. So, I know we threw a lot of tips at you today, I hope you're feeling invigorated to really try out some more strategies with your subject lines. Like Mia said, it's often kind of the last thing you think about, but if you go into your emails with your subject line being the first thing you think about it can really help you in terms of getting that email, that you spend a lot of work on perfecting to actually get opened and read.

So, I will give it back over to Mia. We still have some exciting things coming up and she can tell you all about that.

subject line checklist


Yeah, thanks so much, Kristen. There was one thing that you said there at the very end where I was just sitting here and my brain was moving and I'm just like, yeah. We definitely shouldn't be using terms like "urgent" in a subject line in an email because the average open rate is only 49% and if we have an urgent communication that needs to get out, we probably shouldn't be relying on email.


That's a good point.


I'm just like all of a sudden someone reads an urgent email the next day and they're just like, "Oh great, I didn't know this" because I didn't use the correct form of communication. So, just thinking about some of those negative words and how maybe they don't fit in an email subject line because they simply don't fit in your email inbox. They were ... belong much more in something like a mobile app with a push notification or some type of text alert system or something like that but ...


Love all of the words to use and not to use. I know that's a long list to put together but thank you so much for sharing your expertise here.

And we are so excited because we are getting closer and closer to School Marketing Day, which is on October 29th, 2020, it is a 15 hour epic global event. We are spanning multiple time zones. We're bringing it together. Public schools, private schools, international schools and charter schools from around the globe, all under one virtual roof. It's going to be an awesome day and I think Kris and I both had this conversation this morning. It's like, "Whoa, 15 hours of content and 15 tracks." How ... "Do I need to stay the whole day?" And it's "No," we did 15 hours of content because we just want you to be able to pick and choose what works with your schedule.

We have working moms who are like, "The only time I could attend a session is 09:00 PM." Great! That also works for our clients over in Asia Pacific. Right? So, you don't need to attend the whole day. We'll be releasing the agenda shortly but we have so many amazing speakers. Including well-known brand strategists, Americus Reed, Lesley Bruinton who's the president elect for INSPRA. We have Jake Sturgis from Captivate Media + Consulting. Andrea Gribble is a social media expert. Red from Finalsite that we'll be speaking. Of course, John Moser will be speaking. Kristin and myself will also be speaking.

So, there's an amazing lineup of speakers and then of course, if you want, there's also that all access pass that you can purchase for $99. That'll get you access to every recording from every track from every session, forever. So, for just a hundred bucks, you get all those amazing best practices that you can watch at your convenience. So, we're really excited for that day and it is just a few days before Halloween. So, you might find some of the presenters dressed up. So, I mean, I think that's a cool element to. Maybe it will be spooky Zoom backgrounds. You never know what we're going to throw at you.

So, please be sure to register. It's just So, head on over to and get your ... Oh, I don't think I said it. It's literally free, 15 hours of free content. School Marketing Day is totally free unless you want to purchase that all access pass. Otherwise, your free seat can be claimed whenever, come and go as you please, it's going to be an awesome day and again, I can't believe I totally glazed over that, but it is all free. The Marketing Day is totally free.

So, next week on the school marketing show, we're going to be talking about school photography and of course school photography has changed a lot in the realm of COVID. There's a lot of questions around, "Well, do I post pictures of kids in their homes? Do I post pictures of kids in masks?" But before we get into those nitty-gritty details, we're just going to talk a little bit about what makes a good photo for your website. What we should be looking at, what kind of quality we should be posting, what kind of dimensions and colors and all of those sorts of elements that come into play before we even think about who, what and where for posting these photos. So, we're excited for next week's episode and do not forget to register for free for our School Marketing Day at and we will see you next week.

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Mia Major

As Finalsite's director of demand generation, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, eBooks, and reports, including Finalsite's Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report.


kristen doverspike headshot

In her position as Inbound Marketing Manager, Kristen provides the strategy and creation of content across email, website and social media communications at Finalsite. With over five years of experience in content strategy and digital marketing, Kristen has worked with clients around the country to develop their branding, SEM, SEO, social media, and inbound efforts. She holds and

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