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  • How to Create Visual Emails That Increase Student Engagement and Recruiting Success

    November 01, 2019 | By Ainsley Maloney

    Branding & Marketing
    A student reads her email.

    TAGS: branding and marketing, employer relations

    NACE Journal, November 2019

    I turned my laptop around: Seated across from me was our best student worker, and we trusted her opinion. I was eager to hear her thoughts on why—despite sending three promotional emails—a lucrative job posting attracted so few applicants that a top-tier employer canceled its visit.

    I launched in with questions. “Should I add more details about the position? Are the deadlines not clear?” The student grimaced.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked.

    Knowing I was in dire need of honesty, she did not hold back.

    “What am I even looking at? I don’t know what to focus on, there are so many words,” she said. “I can’t even tell who’s hiring for my major; there are, like, a million companies. And why are you yelling at me? What’s with the all caps? And ugh,” she said, shielding her face from the screen, “that bright red font—it hurts my eyes. If I saw this, I’d think it was spam. It actually looks worse than spam. I’d probably delete it.”

    Ouch. But noted.

    Since this conversation in spring 2016—three and a half years ago—we have completely changed the way we market emails to students. Our no-cost method for creating visual emails to promote on-campus interview (OCI) positions has led to a 310 percent increase in student applications, from 187 to 767 between 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively. We have since hit 851 OCI applicants in 2017-18 and 641 in 2018-19.

    If marketing is your jam—if you run all the apps, use A/B testing, and can talk hashtags for days—this is not the article for you. We have a lean office of four FTEs and four student workers servicing 3,800 undergraduate and graduate students on the Jefferson East Falls campus. We have no designated marketing person or budget. Instead, we use a scrappy try-anything, go-with-what-works approach. Also, since marketing is a burden for any one person, we split the tasks among our team and created a system to take a job from OCI posting to promotion, ending with a designated person emailing a targeted list. The result is that every email we send is relevant to the student viewing it, and in turn, generates a high number of applicants that has significantly improved our student engagement, employer relationships, and recruiting success.

    The best part? Most of our emails are created down to the catchy subject line by our student workers, two of whom were freshmen. We’ll show you how we did it so that small schools with no time, no budget, and no marketing staff can implement this approach.

    Sharpening Our Focus

    Once we accepted the reality that our emails were ugly, overwhelming, and ineffective, we got busy figuring out why.

    First, we realized that our emails focused primarily on our office and events. We were, in effect, focused on the wrong audience: ourselves.

    We flipped that way of thinking on its head. We now focus on the users—the students—and what they care about. And, frankly, students don’t care about us. They care about us only as it relates to them.

    To focus on students, we had to think like students, and, to get inside their heads, we had to talk to them and get their feedback. Not once. Not once a semester. But every single day.

    The methods we use to collect students’ feedback are informal, but the insights we gain are invaluable nonetheless. We don’t create surveys or hold focus groups—marketing doesn’t have to be that complicated. Instead, we collect feedback on the fly. We ask students for advice in the halls and cafeteria, pulling up emails on our phones. We ask students at the end of appointments if they can take a minute to tell us what they think of an email. We ask our student workers what words they actually use that can replace our clunky ones. We borrow students from neighboring offices to test event registration steps so we can iron out barriers, no matter how obvious we believe them to be. We have our student workers design our marketing emails primarily because they know better than anyone in our office what they and their friends want to see.

    Here’s what we learned.

    3 Ways Students Assess If an Email Is Worth Their Time

    We know students don’t read emails—but they do see them. How can we be so sure? Have you ever sent an email announcing that class has been canceled? Magically, everyone gets that email!

    Like all of us, students scan their inbox, making a gut cost-benefit analysis1 that boils down to a single question: Is this worth my time?

    To find out what costs and benefits students are considering in real time, we sat next to a dozen students and asked them to talk out loud every thought they had as they viewed our emails, starting with the “ding” in their inbox. We did this over and over, until commonalities stood out. We learned that students assess our emails with these questions in mind, in this order:

    1. Is this relevant to me? Is this for my major and class year? Is there anything else in here that I care about?

    2. When and where is it? Can I fit this into my schedule? Do I have class? Can I meet the deadline? Is the location easy to get to?

    3. What do I need to do? Will this be easy (can I just do it now)? Where do I click to get this done?

    The more clearly you answer these questions in the email for students, the more intuitively they will feel that the benefits of applying to the job or taking some other action will outweigh the hassle.

    Design for the User: Capture Students’ Attention at a Glance

    Students don’t read—they scan—and 11.1 seconds is all we get to capture their attention, according to a 2017 Litmus Software analysis of billions of emails.2 Email continues to be the No. 1 way to convert readers3 and guarantee you’re hitting your target audience, since not every student follows social media. With this in mind, we create visual emails that look like an Instagram post and capture students’ interest at a glance.

    First, the email has to contain an eye-catching subject line. (See “Catchy Subject Lines That Work,” for some examples.) In addition, every email we send features three components:

    Catchy Subject Lines That Work
    Here are some of the subject lines we have used that have been especially effective:
    • Your Favorite Employer Hiring at Career Fair!
    • Industrial Design Job at Great Company
    • $18/hour Summer Internship at Awesome Firm
    • Paid Housing! Internship in NYC
    • Intern in Manayunk – 5 min. commute!
    • TONIGHT – Your Favorite Brand Info Session
    • 1 Day Left to Apply to Your Top Company

    1. A picture. Images are the best attention grabbers, since our brains see pictures before text and can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.4 Images generate emotion,5 and they are the most viewed pieces in newsletters.6

    2. An accent color. We choose an accent color to call out two lines of text that will catch students’ eyes. The color must match the picture to produce a consistent and visually appealing look. We use a free app to match the colors perfectly (Google “color picker add on”), as trying to match it without such help doesn’t work. There are, after all, more than 60 shades of red.7 Use no more than one accent color, or your email will look messy.

    3. Text (short and sweet). Reserve text for important clarifying details. Before we send, we check with our student workers and ask: “Is this how students actually talk?If students don’t say “experiential learning,” we change that word to “internships.” How would students explain the email to each other? Use that language.

    Good design builds credibility and trust.8 People under the age of 25 spend a half hour per day on Instagram,9 which means they’re viewing beautiful content constantly. If your email has multiple colors, or a blend of bold, italic, underlined, and red font, students will dismiss it as “spammy,” a designation that is in the eye of the beholder,10 and your office will lose credibility.

    Ask your student workers to create an email using our guide (see “Step-by-Step Guide to Design Engaging Visual Emails”) and then reuse that template for future promotions. At this point, our student workers can turn a template into a new beautiful promotion in eight to 10 minutes. To create emails, we use our university’s email provider (Outlook) and the built-in editing tools. If your customer relationship management (CRM) software has an easy-to-use newsletter feature, use that.

    Hyper-Relevant Content

    Once we have captured students’ attention, we offer personalized and targeted content to keep their interest. We promote every OCI position in a separate email, with content targeted to the majors and class years eligible to apply. We do not send email blasts to “all students” or newsletters with an overwhelming amount of content.

    To filter by major and class year, we use Excel, with a list of student data that we get from the registrar each semester. Our goal is that every email students get from our office is a positive association—it is something they want to see.

    If we aren’t sure a major will be interested, we will leave those students off the email; they can find the opportunity on our job board on their own. Once students start ignoring your emails, or worse, filtering them to a junk folder, it will be an uphill battle to get them back.

    What Do Students Care About?

    As we noted above, the No. 1 question on students’ minds as they scan our emails is whether the content is relevant to them. Indeed, personalized content is 20 percent more effective.11
    While your students may differ on the particulars, our students are most interested in: 1) the position is recruiting their major and class year, 2) what company is hiring, and 3) the date of the event or the deadline to apply.

    Boosting event attendance
    Besides providing free food—universally appreciated and adored—we find that not requiring an RSVP or limiting the time commitment helps to boost attendance. With their constant fear of missing out (FOMO), students like to keep their options open. For us, offering 20-minute “speed sessions”—instead of one-hour information sessions—is a good option, while not requiring sign ups (and telling students they can stop in and leave at any time) gives them the flexibility they crave.

    We design our emails to promote the company hiring or the opportunity available, along with a photo that will generate excitement. It is imperative that you obtain permission from the company first: There are copyright laws that may apply, and some firms are particular about their branding and may prefer to create the promotion for you. Others will be thrilled that you are doing extra promotion for them. Asking for permission first is a must.

    Once we get permission from the company, we prefer to use photos from their Instagram account to be sure we are using their most updated branding or logo that they have made public. This might be a picture of their products, a building they designed, or a team-building event. After choosing a photo, we will call out two lines of text in the email by putting them in an accent color that matches the photo. These color callouts usually announce the position, calling out the majors being recruited (“Industrial Design Internship!”) as well as the deadline, such as “1 Week to Apply!,” but may also highlight other key aspects of the position (“Freshmen Wanted—Training Provided,” “[Company] Hiring at Career Fair, ” “Marketing Internship in San Fran!”)

    Make It Urgent and Actionable

    We generate urgency by sending deadline reminders to encourage students to act. We send three emails per OCI position—the first announcing the opportunity, then a reminder (“1 Week Left!”), and a last-minute push (“Deadline Tomorrow!”) This creates a sense of urgency, and it works. (See Figure 1.)

    Figure 1

    Finally, every email has a call to action so students can follow through and take action in seconds. That means the link must take students directly to the job posting, event registration, or website. Any barrier to this step, and students will consider it a hassle and move on. Your email shouldn’t have instructions they have to refer back to, such as directing them to search for the job themselves using a job ID number. We also avoid vague “for your information” emails, without giving students a step they can take immediately.

    Before sending an email, we ask ourselves: What do we want students to do with this email?We think in action verbs: “Upload Your Resume,” “Sign Up Now,” “Apply Here.” If we’re compiling a lot of information, we include a “what to do next” heading, with one immediate step to complete. If there are multiple steps and instructions, we create a Google doc and direct students to “Click In & Bookmark This Page!” so they can refer back to the website later, without having to search for and find the email.

    Moreover, we do not track click or open rates: All we care about is whether students apply for interviews or attend our events, all numbers that we get via CRM software reporting. If students see our email or open it, but do nothing, that’s a fail in our eyes.

    Effects on the Office

    We have found that the best way to promote our office is by giving the spotlight to employers in our emails. The effect on our office is like a chain reaction: Once students start applying, they tell their friends and classmates, and applications continue to rise. The halls start buzzing about “Popular Company” coming to campus. Faculty forward our emails, furiously encouraging the “awesome opportunity.” Students pour into our walk-in hours, hoping to not miss out. As more students prepare for interviews taking place in our office, word about our office spreads. Our best outcome is that students know exactly where the career services office is located, not because we promote it, but because we bring in the top companies that they are excited about. On-campus interviews coordinated through our office rose from 135 in 2015-16 to an average of 308 per year over the next three years—we have more than doubled the number of students coming into our office to interview each year.

    In the fall of 2017, we stopped pushing “career fair” in our emails in favor of promoting companies that were attending. By highlighting the top two employers for each major, we saw student attendance at our career fair increase from 211 students in fall 2016 to 373 students in fall 2017—a 77 percent increase.

    The increase in employer recruiting successes has opened more opportunities to our university than we could have imagined. In 2015-2016, we had 12 employers hold on-campus interviews; we have since averaged 32 companies each year over the last three years, and most of them return. As an employer relations professional, I recognize that, if I don’t get students in the seats for employers to interview, they are not coming back. In the past, most of our employers for OCIs were lucky to get 20 applicants; now we regularly attract 60 applicants per OCI schedule.

    Yes, This Means More Emails

    We send more emails now than we ever did. Scary, I know.

    When I was first hired, our office was in a bind. Students complained that our office “sent too many emails,” so we switched to weekly newsletters. Those tanked. Students groaned that our newsletters were spammy and overwhelming.

    Once we started targeting by major, everything changed. We hear appreciation for our emails far more than complaints.

    What students actually mean to say is: “Your office sends too many emails that aren’t relevant to me.”Recently, my team took part in a universitywide town hall meeting during which the  public relations department asked why students didn’t respond to the department’s surveys. A business student we knew well said, in front of everyone: “The only emails I read are from career services because everything they send is important to me.”

    The “to me” part says it all. That’s where the gold is.


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    2 White, C. (2017, March 8). Email Attention Spans Increasing [Infographic]. Retrieved from:

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    4 Trafton, A. (2014, January 16). In the blink of an eye: MIT neuroscientists find the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds. Retrieved from:

    5 Curran, T.; Doyle, J. (2011). Picture superiority doubly dissociates the ERP correlates of recollection and familiarity. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 23 (5): 1247–1262. Doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21464.

    6 Nielsen, J. (2006, June 11). Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestion. Retrieved from:

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    Ainsley MaloneyAinsley Maloney is the associate director of industry relations at Thomas Jefferson University’s East Falls campus, located a few miles outside of Philadelphia. She oversees all aspects of employer relations, such as coordinating hiring events, on-campus interviews, and employer panels, as well as marketing opportunities to students and external constituents. Maloney presented on this topic at the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers in June 2019. Her team received recognition as a finalist for the 2017 NACE Career Services Excellence (Small College) Award for its Design Expo, an annual recruiting event that allows companies to schedule more than 1,000 interviews with students on campus in one day. Maloney received her M.A. in counseling psychology from La Salle University and her B.A. in communications from Pennsylvania State University – University Park.

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