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Email marketing has come a long way in recent years. Anti-spam legislation has played a large part in motivating these changes, but it is the more recent content marketing revolution that is responsible for creating a new and very important role for permission-based email within the recruitment marketing mix. If done well, content driven, email-based lead nurturing provides higher ed marketers with a highly effective, low cost approach to increasing the flow of engaged prospective students through their institution’s recruitment funnel.  How so? Let’s start by clearly defining what lead nurturing is.

lead nurturing image




Definition of Lead Nurturing
A hardcore marketing definition for lead nurturing is “a process by which leads are tracked and developed into sales-qualified leads”. A more student-centric, value-based definition might be a process through which you care for and encourage a prospects’ interests in your institution and its programs. Regardless of your definition, the process is the same. Lead nurturing, using various modes of communication including email, postcards, phone calls etc., builds a relationship with your prospect using timely messages that provide relevant and personalized information that guides them down the enrollment funnel.  Email lead nurturing provides this process with a robust and cost effective platform on which to deliver and manage these communications.

The first step in building a successful email nurturing program is to segment your target audiences into distinct personas (i.e. high school seniors, transfer students, adult students, international students, etc.). You then map the information requirements, touch points and decision journey of each unique persona to determine what content you need to create to encourage each type of prospective student through each step in their decision making process.

The example below demonstrates a typical communication flow map aimed at engaging with potential transfer students. Day number indicates the number of days from receipt of the original query from a prospect. Each lead nurturing email communication addresses a specific information need of a prospect and leads them towards the next step in the flow.


email comm plan


Email lead nurturing emphasizes providing valuable content to the prospect to encourage them on their decision making journey rather than to explicitly “close the business”.  Some marketers recommend limiting offers to the 3:1 ratio as seen below, emphasizing education, providing quality information and building trust before building up to more direct offers.  Examples of information emails could include program information, transfer information and transfer equivalencies. Examples of more discrete offers could include campus visits, financial aid application, and housing applications.

Email flow diagram


The key to a successful lead nurturing approach is to build a relationship with the prospect through these exchanges, identify any challenges they face through the funnel and helping them pass through them.

Lead nurturing pathways can be developed to meet the needs of different types of recruitment marketing objectives.  Most obvious, say for a school looking to increase overall enrolment, is to use email lead nurturing to increase or accelerate the number of leads in their pipeline. Alternatively, say for an Ivy League school looking to improve the quality of applicants, you could use lead nurturing to help qualify leads and prospects, gathering more information about prospects from their journey through the process.

Three general approaches to email lead nurturing include:

1)      Triggered Campaigns
This type of campaign is typically triggered by a specific action of a prospect, for example requesting information, downloading a PDF, or entering a social media contest

2)      Drip Campaigns
These types of campaigns typically are used to keep in touch with prospects that have not risen in priority as a result of low interaction, or inaction over a period of time. The typical example is of a program monthly newsletter

3)      One-on-one Campaigns
In this example, prospects that have been recognized as highly qualified or motivated, are assigned to one-on-one email nurturing, typically under the direct control of a recruitment advisor

Email lead nurturing content must provide value to engage the prospect and to build an ongoing relationship with them.  Suggestions to produce this high quality, effective content include:

  • Keep teaching something new, providing information unavailable anywhere else
  • Show thought leadership on how to evaluate your programs
  • Keep your content personal so prospects can relate to your content/message
  • Think of your email as a mini blog post, with all the requisite best practices
  • Stay focused on one important topic, and only include one related call to action
  • Your emails need to flow with a natural progression of content
  • Of course, integrate your content with other marketing when possible 

Create unique landing pages of your email offers
Apply all the rules of good landing pages to your lead nurturing email offers. Make them unique to each offer, customized to the content, stage and context of your prospect, to their stage in your funnel.

Format and frequency
If you have adopted the recommendations on content then your email is going to be short and sweet. The reader must be able to scan your email and get the gist of it within a few seconds. If not, it will go into the waste basket without leaving any impact, brand impression or engagement. I prefer going with high quality format on emails, with strong headlines and image and a well-designed CTA, but some quite reputable sources (like Salesforce) recommend you use plain text to keep it simple and build trust.

Lead nurturing is a well proven marketing tactic that re-invests in your recruitment funnel and improves your overall conversions-to-student rate. Research has shown that targeted persona based lead nurturing works :

  • lead nurtured emails get 4-10 times the response rate of general email
  • relevant, personalization of your lead nurturing will produce as much as 18x more revenue than broadcast emails
  • Nurtured leads produce, on average, a 20% increase in sales opportunities versus non-nurtured leads

Have you used comprehensive email lead nurturing in your school’s marketing in the past? What lessons have you learned that were most surprising? Please share your tricks and tips for successful email lead nurturing with us in comments.