10 Creative(ish) Ideas for Higher Ed Email A/B Tests to Supercharge Enrollment

Posted By Zach Busekrus on Aug 27, 2020 3:28:41 PM

Read Time: 12 Minutes

Email A/B tests are incredibly important...yet many enrollment management and higher education marketing and communications teams fail to conduct them regularly.

Why? In a recent poll we conducted with Enrollify subscribers, 75% of respondents noted "time" as the number one reason for sending only one version of an email.

Well folks, we've got some great news for you! We've taken the time to come up with 10 different email A/B tests that you can (and should) execute this fall.

These are fun!  And pretty creative(ish) — if we do say so ourselves.

If you use any of them, be sure to let us know which version won! Let’s dive in...

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #1: The Suspense vs. The Exclamatory


This first test is all about the use of punctuation in subject lines. 

In every A/B test we’ve conducted here at Enrollify, subject lines with ellipses in them win over the use of any other punctuation!  

Ellipses indicate that your thought is unfinished. And, the only place to finish that thought is — yup, you guessed it — inside the email. 

Now, just because this works for us, doesn’t mean it’s what will be best in your context...but, it’s totally worth experimenting.

What you’re testing: Punctuation in a subject line’s influence on email open rates 

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that receives the most opens 

Pro-tip: Subscribe to The Enrollify Blog to stay on top of best practices,  trends, and case studies for higher education marketing! Everything we publish  is written by enrollment marketing strategists and industry professionals from  schools of all shapes and sizes.

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #2: Donald Draper vs. Steve Jobs



This is a classic email design versus email copy test! 

Don Draper, the protagonist of the critically acclaimed “Mad Men” series, is known for his ability to artfully string together words that compel his audience to take action (whether that be to buy a product or adopt Don’s way of looking at the world).

Steve Jobs revolutionized design — I’d argue that he was the original minimalist.  Steve understood the power of simplicity in design to evoke a meaningful response.  

To this day, Apple’s branding includes very few words...instead, they use rich, contrasting imagery to inspire the reader to take action (whether that be to buy the latest iPhone or sign up for Apple News).

What you’re testing: Whether copy or design has greater influence on click-through-rate

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that receives the most clicks

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #3: Playing-Hard-To-Get vs. Roses on the First Date


This test has everything to do with the choice you’re giving the user for how they can engage with your communication. 

If you’re playing hard to get, you’re offering the email recipient only one way to interact with your content.  You either click on the “APPLY NOW” button or’re after commitment (you’re just not into casual). 

On the other hand, with the Roses on the First Date, you’re so eager to get any attention from your audience that you offer an array of opportunities for them to engage with your communication.  

Sure, you’ve got the “Apply Now” in there, but you’ve also got “subscribe to our blog,” “download this report,” “watch this video,” — basically a plethora of opportunities for the recipient to raise his hand and let you know he’s there. (Yes, you’re still flagged in his inbox.)

What you’re testing: The correlation between number of CTAs and email click-through-rate

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that receives the most clicks 

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #4: Trader Joe’s vs. Costco

So, <First Name>, this test is all about personalization! 

Trader Joe’s is known for being a disruptor in the grocery store space, and one of their claims to fame is that the design of every store is influenced by the neighborhood the store resides in. You’ll find murals of the National Monuments in their store on Capitol Hill and mosaics of the Golden Gate Bridge in their store in San Francisco. 

As for Costco, well, let’s just say you’re going to get a more sterile experience. From a product standpoint, Trader Joe’s isn’t objectively fact, they source their food from many of the same farms, factories, and vineyards that Costco does. 

But, the shopping experiences differ like night and day, which is what makes this a fantastic email test! You have freedom on how many points of personalization you want to include in your email, but I’d recommend the “Costco” version not contain more than one variable field and the “Trader Joe’s” version contain at least three variable fields. 

What you’re testing: The correlation between personalization and click-through-rate OR the correlation between personalization and open rate (if the personalization happens in the subject line/preview text)

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that receives the most opens OR the most clicks

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #5: The Politician vs. The Comedian

The purpose of this test is to generate better insight into the tone/style of copy that convinces your audience to engage with the offer associated with your email. 

Email A, “The Politician,” contains copy that is inspirational, calculated, and safe — nothing jarring, offensive, or provocative. While Email B, “The Comedian” is, let’s just say, a bit ballsier. 

The copy in “The Comedian” version is funny, personal, and edgy.  If the tone in “The Politician” feels like a Liberty Mutual ad, the tone in “The Comedian” should feel more like Allstate’s iconic “Mayhem” ads. 

Keep in mind, the winner of this email test will be the one that generates the greatest conversion rate FROM the email. So, the goal is to discover which words and phrases inspire your constituency to not just click through the email, but to actually complete the offer (whether that be to sign up for an event, start an application, download a program resource, etc.). 

What you’re testing: The influence of copy tone and style on email content offer conversion rates. 

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that inspires the greatest number of conversions on the offer

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #6: The Baby Boomer vs. Gen-Z

My grandfather read the newspaper religiously, cover to cover, every morning. I watch videos on Twitter each evening to catch up on the most important moments of the day. 

All this is to say it’s no surprise that content consumption preferences are different. This email test is all about the content format that is most influential in getting users to click the call-to-action, and, more specifically, the verb that connotes a particular format. 

“The Baby Boomer” version invites the user to read a student testimonial, while “The Gen-Z” version invites the user to watch a video of a student testimonial. That is the only difference between these two communications! 

What you’re testing: Whether a verb that suggests digesting a student story in a written format vs. a visual format is more compelling 

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that inspires the greatest number of clicks

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #7: The Couplet vs. The Freeverse

This might be my favorite test of all...I’m a real big sucker for email subject lines and preview text! The goal of this test is to determine whether related or unrelated subject lines and preview text generate a greater open rate.

In poetry, a “couplet” refers to two lines of verse, usually in the same meter, that form a unit. Oftentimes, this unit rhymes...but not always. Freeverse, on the other hand, is sort of like the catch-all category in poetry — there aren’t really any rules.

For our testing purposes, “The Couplet” must include a subject line and preview text combo that directly relate to one another, while “The Freeverse” must include a subject line and preview text combo that do not directly relate to one another.

Here’s an example of what this looks like:

What you’re testing: Whether a related subject line and preview text or an unrelated subject line and preview text perform better with your audience. 

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that generates the higher open rate 

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #8: The “Oops!” vs. The “Re:”

Alright, this test is somewhat controversial. Some (including yours truly) consider this test to be semi-manipulative. That said, it least from the perspective of open rates. 

This is another subject line test. “The Oops” version throws “Oops!” in front of your subject line to imply that the user received an email from you previously that included some sort of error. These emails receive wild open rates...I guess this means that we’re wired in a way that gets some semblance of pleasure in seeing how someone else messed up?  How disgusting! 

The “Re:” version implies that your email is a response to an email that a user sent to implies, well, “reply.” 

Here are what these tests could look like: 

Again, I would caution you here...I think this test is GREAT if you need a Hail Mary Pass...but, if you’re not quite there, I’d recommend tucking this trick up your sleeve and saving it for an especially rainy day. 

What you’re testing: Whether an implied mistake or an implied reply in a subject line generates better open rates 

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that generates the higher open rate

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #9: P.S. I Love You vs. Friendzoned

This is a good email A/B test if you’re trying to discern where you really stand with a particular audience segment. Think about a test like this for your incomplete apps, or your “B level” inquiries that are still popping around your domain every few weeks. It might be helpful to think about this email as a breakup email (it’s kinda like a “last chance to raise your hand if you’re interested, or we’re scrubbing you from our CRM). 

The “P.S. I Love You” test is a P.S. line test that invites the user to take some sort of serious next step (like completing an application, starting an application, submitting a deposit, etc). 

The “Friendzoned” test includes the invite to complete the decision stage offer but ALSO includes a P.P.S. line that links to an awareness-stage content offer (something like a field guide, industry report, etc.).  

Our goal is to garner more insight into where exactly the user is at in his/her journey to enrollment and feed them into the most appropriate comm flow post-campaign. 

What you’re testing: Whether an email with multiple PS lines offer more insight into what stage of the enrollment journey a prospect is at than an email with only one offer

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that generates the better click through rate on PS lines

Email Marketing A/B Test Idea #10: The T.O.I. vs. The A.C.E.

This one is so simple and it’s almost never tested. The goal of this email marketing A/B test is to experiment with the timing of email campaigns. Most enrollment marketers send emails to prospects between 6 a.m/ and 1:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. 

All else being equal concerning the emails — from the subject line and preview text to the copy and design — you’ll want to test whether a T.O.I. (email sent first thing in the morning so that it’s Top Of Inbox) or A.C.E. (email sent After Close of school/business Email) communication performs better. 

What you’re testing: There’s a lot you could choose to test to evaluate success of the email campaign — from open rate to click rate to conversion rate. Personally, I’d recommend testing for conversion rate on the actual email offer...ultimately, you’re trying to gauge when you have the most attention from your audience. I think the best indicator of quality attention is measured by the percentage of recipients that are willing to accept and complete your request for action. 

How you will evaluate the winning test: The email that generates the most form submissions or other desired action

Email marketing remains instrumentally important in enrollment marketing and student recruitment. And the best tried-and-true way to improve your email campaign performance is by testing, testing, testing!

So, there you have it.  No more excuses that you don’t “have time to come up with good A/B test ideas” — I just gave you 10.  Furthermore, these tests can be adapted for use in search campaigns, comm flows, post-app nurturing sequences, and just about any other email campaign you might run at your school.

Once you’ve tried one or more of these tests, I would love to chat with you and see what you’ve learned.  Book a time on my calendar and let’s get nerdy about all things email. 

Looking for more great content?


Each week, The Enrollify Podcast equips you with insights into how the latest trends in marketing and technology are affecting enrollment managers. Every episode is designed to inspire new, creative ideas for how to optimize the resources you have to generate the results you need.

Explore Podcast Episodes

Topics: Enrollment Marketing, Student Recruitment

Zach Busekrus

Written by Zach Busekrus

Zach is the Founder of Enrollify. He is also the Director of Growth at DD Agency — an enrollment marketing technology agency that helps undergraduate and graduate institutions recruit students. He thoroughly enjoys building new brands, developing and executing content marketing strategies, and helping clients rank better on SEO. When he's not in the office, he enjoys discussing life's quandaries over coffee (or a good bourbon) with friends, trying out new virtual HIIT workouts, and adventuring across the globe with his wife!

Submit a Comment

Back to Blogs