How to write a winning marketing email – part one: the nuts and bolts

Email marketing is an important part of our activity communicating with prospective students. Unlike other marketing methods, email allows you to get content directly in front of students. The tricky part is getting the student to actually open the email, but if done correctly, it can be a powerful conversion tool.

There are several key components to building a winning email:


The first thing you need to think about is whether you need to send the email – do you actually have something useful, interesting and important to tell your students?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of needing to send an email every week/fortnight/month, but if you don’t have a strong piece of content then it’s often best to not send anything at all. Sending bad content can be worse than not sending anything at all.

Imagine you open a really boring, irrelevant email from a company. The next time you see an email from them in your inbox you might be less inclined to open it based on your previous experience.

It’s important to consistently send interesting, relevant and timely emails to your students so that they associate this kind of content with your department and the University.

Building your email

From name

It may seem simple, but the email ‘from name’ is very important and can impact on your email open rate. The ‘from name’ appears in your inbox and identifies to recipients who the email is from. It should be quickly and easily identifiable and from a brand the recipient knows. You should avoid using acronyms or people’s names.

We always use University of York as our ‘from name’ even if we’re sending department-specific communications. You can talk about the department in the subject line or pre-header, so the ‘from name’ should be the overarching brand/institution.

Make sure your ‘from name’ is easily identifiable

Subject line

Your email subject line is the key to getting a recipient to open your marketing email and see your content. It should be:

  • Concise – subject lines are often truncated on different devices and recipients need to be able to quickly and easily see what your email is about, so keep it short. According to research, the optimal length for a subject line is 41 characters.
  • Front-loaded – you should put the most important information at the start of your subject line, so it doesn’t get cut off.
  • Relevant – your subject line should always lead into your email and inform people of what they can expect when they open it. If your email contains various topics, you should make sure the subject line refers to the first article they’ll see or the main call-to-action. 

Other things to consider:

  • Personalisation – a personalised subject line can help with open rates and make the email stand out in the inbox. For example, Helen, book your Open Day place
  • Emojis – including an emoji in your subject line can make your email stand out in the inbox and attract attention however, ensure using emojis fits with your audience and what you choose is relevant to the subject of the email. For example, Helen, it was great to meet you at Open Day 👍

Do not:

  • Repeat the ‘from name’ in the subject line. For example, University of York  | University of York Open Day booking now open


Think of an email pre-header as an extension of the subject line. In an inbox preview it appears after the subject line:

Use it to give further information about the event mentioned in your subject line, as the above example. Or give more details about the content contained in your email, for example:

If you leave the pre-header blank, it will automatically pick up the first bit of content in your email. This might not make any sense or be relevant for an inbox preview, so it’s best practice to write a pre-header.


It’s extremely important to test your email before you send it, and you might need to test it multiple times. Things to look out for:

  • Links are correct
  • Personalisation is working
  • From name, subject line and pre-header have been set-up correctly
  • The overall design looks good
  • Check what it looks like on a mobile/other devices – we design emails on desktop but most people open them on a mobile

In the next blog post, we’ll focus on creating the content for your winning email.

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