Promotional Marketing for College Recruitment

When thinking about promotional products, we have been putting ourselves in the shoes of our admissions clients. We understand that the stakes for recruiting students have never been higher.

This makes your school’s marketing tactics even more important.  You need to be memorable.  Print, online, TV, radio, events and direct mail are all common elements of any college’s marketing mix. Where does promotional marketing fit in? The answer is easy – just about anywhere.  When properly thought-out, promotional items are easily integrated into your existing marketing plans.

As with any successful marketing campaign, it’s essential to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time.  A relevant and useful promotional item can reinforce a marketing message to your audience, and repeat exposure increases the likelihood of recall and eventual action. Based on recall alone, promotional items rank higher than other media types.

Comparing advertising recall

Source: PPAI Research

The bottom line: promotional products WORK for recruiting college students. Picture a high school student seeing your college’s billboard, online ad, and using a branded phone screen cleaner from a campus event all in the same day. It’s the perfect way to keep your brand in front of a target audience – exactly what’s needed for a longer decision-making process of selecting a college.

Based on our experience working with admissions departments, we’ve broken down the enrollment funnel into three key areas categorized by marketing goals:

  1. Raise Awareness
  2. Increase Engagement
  3. Create Excitement

Read case studies, download our Admissions Marketing Checklist, and receive product ideas on these pages.

Chat with us! 

Join #EMchat on Thursday, November 21 at 9:00 pm EST to talk promotional marketing for recruiting college students.

Not available to chat? Look for the #EMchat transcript, PastChats, or feel free to contact us for a recap and more information.



Enhancing International Student Recruitment with Promotional Marketing

The U.S. will be the fastest growing international student destination over the next decade, according to a report released by the British Council’s Education Intelligence as featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  A record high: 764,495 international students came to the U.S. for the 2011-2012 academic year as noted in Open Doors 2012 Fast Facts.   The report also indicates the top ten countries of origin: China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico, and Turkey.  Outside of the top ten, Iran, Venezuela, and Spain have experienced double-digit growth rates in the number of students studying in the United States.

Country of focus aside, all of the data points to the importance of international recruiting for U.S. schools and colleges.  In this post, we’ll examine the basics of international recruiting and incorporating promotional marketing into your overall marketing strategy.

International Recruiting: The Essentials

While the U.S. is already among the most popular destination for international students, each school has the unique opportunity to build its brand to stand out from other institutions. According to a Noel Levitz White Paper, Reaching Beyond Borders: Key Issues in Recruiting and Retaining International Students, academic quality matters most to students with campus safety and security being a top concern.  In addition to these areas, international recruiters need to emphasize key differentiators: campus size, diverse student body, location etc. to “sell” a university’s experience.

Defining your Audience

Beyond solely targeting students, it’s important to also reach out to the many people who help influence students: parents, local alumni, international organizations, and agents.  As you know, some parents are extremely involved in their students’ academic decisions, so it’s not uncommon to be communicating with them directly.  Local alumni and current students also serve as brand ambassadors, sharing their experience via social media or in person at events. Such endorsements become valuable (and free) word of mouth advertising and influential peer endorsements.  Parents often hire private agents to help students select and gain admission to top U.S. schools, so it’s important make agents aware of your school.  Finally, partnering with trade organizations, such as Education USA can increase a school’s understanding, promotion, and overall reach within a given area.

Tailoring your Marketing Mix

Colleges typically utilize webinars, email, electronic viewbooks, website, mobile site, event support, and promotional marketing for international recruiting. While advertising in the local market may not be attainable or within budget, promotional marketing can be incorporated through university recruiters and professors traveling abroad (or at international trade events held in the U.S.), international alumni associations, overseas agents or advisors via events or direct mail.   Special considerations should be given to ensure any direct mail premiums or hand-carried items would clear customs.

Promotional marketing works for recruiting international students because it is:

  1. Targeted & Brand Relevant
  2. Useful and Appreciated Advertising
  3. An Implied Endorsement

Targeted & Brand Relevant: Traditionally thought of as the marketing medium that starts a relationship, promotional products can be extremely targeted to the lifestyle of a prospective international student, while still being relevant to your brand.  When appealing to the habits and interests of students with a promotional item, a school can increase the likelihood that the item will be used, which in turn, increases the item’s effectiveness.

Useful and Appreciated Advertising: A tangible, useful branded item can be a daily reminder of a school or college (81% of products are kept because of usefulness). Promotional items are the only form of advertising that make recipients say, “thank you.”  Students will also stand in line for free promotional items.

Implied Endorsement: Lending itself to social sharing, promotional products are also an implied endorsement of your school.  This is important for word of mouth marketing to peers. Similarly, promotional items can be used to market to the high school counselors, advisors, and agents located abroad.  Either hand out items at fly-in’s or events, or mail counselors promotional items for their students interested in studying in the United States, as they are the local “face of your school.”

International Recruiting Product Ideas  

In brainstorming product ideas for international students, we subscribed to the idea that “smaller is better.”  Think of items that can easily be shipped overseas, or packed in a suitcase to reach alumni, agents, or high school advisors (that will also clear customs). As in any marketing campaign, the promotional item should be tailored to the target audience and local customs. Some ideas we like:

Long-term Strategy

The key to successfully growing an international student base is a long-term commitment in specific target countries.  Many students are already convinced that the U.S. is their top choice, so it’s up to each school to effectively brand and promote its academic experience and build relationships to become THE choice for international students.

Additional Resources


How to Guide: Integrate Promotional Products into Events for Colleges

Events are a mainstay of college recruiting.

College fairs, open houses, campus tours, alumni receptions, community events, state fairs, athletics, concerts, fundraising run/walks are just a few events that come to mind.

Any event is an opportunity for people to interact with your brand.  It may be an introduction to your school for prospective students or a type of homecoming for alumni and friends.  At any rate, it is a way to connect with an audience in a fun and exciting way.

Like peanut butter and jelly, promotional items and events are a classic combination.  It seems that every event has a table with a long line of people standing around waiting for some “cool” giveaway. This is one form of marketing that easily draws a crowd or directs traffic to your area when someone asks, “Where did you get that?”

Once at the display, students or parents will often willingly provide contact information, fill out a form, or take a brief survey in exchange for a promotional item, or for entry into a drawing for a bigger ticket item. One item we like for events is the Music Download Card because it can help drive website traffic after the event and capture additional information. This is valuable marketing data that can often be used for subsequent lead nurturing activities.

One example of an event that we’ve supported is University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) Day at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Notice how well the yellow shirts and visors stand out in the video. T-shirts, temporary tattoos, sunglasses and visors were some of the promotional items that we provided. Look for fun, bright school colors (or in this case, one main color) to unify the look of people in the crowd.  Places for photo opportunities – either with the mascot or in the tunnel – are also popular.  Make sure your school’s brand name will be in the frame, as pictures are commonly shared via social media.

In addition to the experience at the event, giveaways have a longer-lasting effect as a tangible item that represents a memory of that experience.  In telling friends and family about their time at the State Fair, they can pick up their t-shirt or sunglasses, and say, “Look what I got from UWM.”  This is true word-of-mouth marketing, creating a favorable image for promo item recipient and his or her own network.  Similarly, whenever anyone wears a UWM item after the actual event, or shares a picture at the event on social media, a larger audience is exposed to the school’s brand.

Given that promotional items serve as a reminder of a brand experience, it’s important to select an appropriate item.  We recommend advance planning with an experienced promotional consultant, who can help brainstorm items and share success stories from other colleges and universities.  From the initial brainstorm, select a few items to review internally to help choose the best options.

For more event planning resources, including product ideas and case studies, visit Raise Awareness, or Campus Tour Ideas. We are here to support your event planning needs – simply contact us to get started.

Happy event planning!