Benchmarking Campus Sustainability Newsletters

Posted on July 1, 2015. Filed under: Communications, sustainability | Tags: , , , |

As a campus sustainability officer, I’m well aware of the need for continuous communication to my campus community, yet with limited time and staff I have to be careful about striking the right balance between communications and, well, everything else.  Thanks to the hiring of a student intern as well as partnerships with my department’s communications team, I finally feel like we’re getting a handle on our social media planning.  However, I’ve long felt the need to develop a regular newsletter from the sustainability office, and this summer I’ve finally decided that it’s time to make it happen.

In May and June of 2015, my intern Veronica and I conducted a review of sustainability newsletters from sustainability offices across the nation. After analyzing the design and content of over thirty newsletters, we narrowed down our list to ten newsletters that stood out above the rest.  We then reached out to the appropriate contacts for each of those newsletters to schedule a benchmarking phone interview in order to learn more about their experiences.  In telephone interviews of typically 20-30 minutes in length, we asked a series of questions related to the frequency, reach, target audience, content, means of distribution, preparation time, and measures of performance of sustainability office newsletters.  For the benefit of sharing knowledge with my fellow campus sustainability professionals, we are sharing our findings below.

Eight out of ten universities publish their newsletter monthly, and the other two publish bi-weekly (although some alter their publication frequency when school is not in session).  The consensus opinion is that the best time to send out the newsletters is mid-week, primarily Wednesday and Thursday.  Further, several contacts suggested that morning tends to be the best delivery time.  Having a set schedule is important, however, interviewees also indicated that one should avoid sending out a newsletter without substantive content just to meet a self-imposed publication deadline.

We found considerable variation in the responses to the question “who is your target audience?”  Four of the ten universities have students as their only primary target audience.  Two of the ten universities have staff and faculty as their only primary target audience.  Four of the ten universities do not have a specific target audience and try to include content that is relevant for anyone on campus, graduated, or in the local community.  The variation in these responses was often reflected in the design of the newsletters themselves and the kind of content included.  Those newsletters serving multiple audiences had a balanced feel with “targeted” sections whereas others with a more singular focus not surprisingly geared their content specifically for that focus group.

The number of sustainability office newsletter subscribers varied considerably between institutions, as the total number of subscribers ranged from a little less than 100 subscribers to 20,000 subscribers.

Number of Newsletter Subscribers


Six of the ten universities have over a thousand subscribers for their newsletter.  This is not necessarily surprising given the range in institutional size within our study group. To account for this, we calculated the number of subscribers per enrolled student and found a range from less than 1% to almost 46%.  However, the university with almost 46% of enrolled students as subscribers also now automatically enrolls all incoming first year students.  If we remove that data point, the next highest figure is about 22%.  The typical range of subscribers as a percentage of total enrollment was 6% to 14%.  An additional factor that plays into the large range of number of subscribers is the date the newsletter was established.  Some university newsletters were started less than a year ago while others have been around for a significantly longer time.  The range of subscribers per year was between 100 and 1750 (again taking out the university that automatically enrolls all incoming first year students).


We identified several common themes regarding building an initial audience for the newsletter.  They are as follows:

  • Presence at Events: Eight of the ten universities brought a sign-up sheet and/or laptop to campus-wide events – specifically student activities fairs, welcome week events, earth day festivals, and staff events – to build the number of subscribers.
  • Utilizing Environmental Leaders: Four of the ten universities reached out to environmental leaders on the campus to add subscribers and promote their newsletter, specifically sustainability committees, green team members, EcoReps, and other student environmental leaders.
  • Utilizing Existing Listservs: Five of the ten universities sent their newsletter to existing environmental listservs, specifically to campus departments and student organizations.
  • Cross Promotion on Social Media: Four of the ten universities cross-promote their newsletter on their social media pages such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  One school even uses teasers (“here’s what you missed if you didn’t sign-up for the newsletter”) to build connections between social media and newsletter.
  • Sign Up on Website: Almost all of the ten universities include a signup link on their department’s sustainability website.


The most common content items featured within the newsletters are campus-specific sustainability news and upcoming events.  Four of the ten schools also included broader sustainability news (local, national, international, etc.), a listing of jobs & opportunities, and an “individual spotlight” (featuring a staff member, student, etc.) in their newsletter.  Nine of the ten universities included links to their social media accounts in their newsletters.

Newsletter Content Items

Content Items

We received a number of insights from interviewees regarding content, including:

  • Always Use Photos: Pictures are popular, especially those that include people.  Generally photos get more clicks right away over just text.
  • Feature Stories About People: Empower people by giving credit, recognizing the work of others, and focusing on the people behind the work.  People have a strong emotional communication to human stories, especially when they recognize names.
  • Direct Readers to the Web Site: Many of the newsletters will link stories back to the sustainability web site, thus providing broader coverage and multiple uses for content while also keeping the web site “fresh”.

Although not directly asked about kick-off meetings for each new publication cycle, several interviewees offered that the start of each newsletter process begins with a staff meeting in which content items are discussed and responsibilities are assigned.  A few days to a week prior to publication, some of the interviewees engage another person (such as the sustainability officer) to review the newsletter, offer edits, and to ensure a consistent voice in a professional tone.

When asked whether they directly solicit donations for the campus sustainability office via the newsletter, only two replied affirmatively.  Most either do not have a way to collect donations (deliberately or not) or they use other means to do so.

We observed a varying level of interplay between social media and newsletters.  When asked specifically whether their institutions used national hashtags in their sustainability social media, only three universities reported using any.  Specifically, those universities used hashtags during nation-wide sustainability events such as Recyclemania and Campus Conservation Nationals.


Of particular note, of the ten universities that we contacted, seven have staff other than the sustainability officer who are tasked with creating the newsletter.  These staff members typically hold communications or outreach positions, although not exclusively.  Student interns are commonly used to help support (and in some cases lead) the creation of newsletters.  There is at least one intern working on the newsletter for seven out of the ten universities.

The time spent in creating the newsletter varies markedly, from as little as 2-3 hours to as many as 60-70 hours per newsletter.  Six of the ten universities spend more than 10 hours working on their newsletter.

Hours Spent Producing the Newsletter



Six of the ten universities use an email marketing service to distribute their newsletter.  The most common email marketing service used is MailChimp.  All of the universities that use MailChimp are happy with it and its ability to track metrics, although one cited challenges with newsletters from MailChimp landing in “spam” folders.

Method of Distributing Newsletter



Seven of ten universities track metrics related to their newsletter.  The most common metrics were:

  • Subscribers: number of subscribers, growth of subscriber list, who’s subscribing/unsubscribing, and people with the most “opens.”
  • Clickable Links: click-through rate, percentage of clicks, top links clicked, what is more popular and why.
  • AB Testing: testing content to see what performs best – i.e. subject line or time of day/week.  Clickbait subject titles, such as a summary of newsletter content, increase the open rate.
  • Total Hits: number of emails sent, percentage of opens
  • Website Traffic: how many people driving to web site.  In order to keep the sustainability website traffic, some universities link their newsletter and all of its stories and events back to their web site.  The website traffic is trackable via Google Analytics or Bitly.

Closing Thoughts

For me, sustainability office newsletters and the rise of the campus sustainability office communications manager job category is indicative of the further maturing of this profession of ours.  Yet, much like in the earlier days of the profession itself, there is a distinct homegrown quality and character to what each newsletter has been designed to achieve.  Hopefully the information shared above will put other campus sustainability offices in the position of launching their own newsletters, or enable those with existing newsletters to benefit from the experiences of others.

I would like to thank my intern Veronica Johnson for leading this benchmarking exercise and for co-authoring this post.


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