Swag Works (And Other Lessons Learned from the Best Recruitment Communication)

Finding the right mix of message, tone, and channel to catch the attention of college-bound high school students is hard work. Students in our Student Sentiment Research report receive an abundance of institutional outreach, and it’s difficult to make a lasting impression. But there are some schools that do this very well.

Every year, we ask who the best recruitment communicators are. Here are the top four colleges and universities from 2021 according to our expert jury: the students you are trying to recruit.

How We Pick the Winners

Our Student Sentiment Research surveys college-bound high school seniors, juniors, and sophomores across the nation about their college searches. One question we pose asks whether the students can name a school whose communications—print, web, or social—really grabbed their attention and made them want to learn more. Seventy-two percent of students responded they could and named a specific school in a subsequent question.

We compiled a list of the most frequently named schools and further explored what it is that makes them stand out. Since some institutions have the name recognition, nationally, to attract a large prospect pool, our ratings consider application numbers. That means that schools with smaller applicant pools will require fewer mentions to be taken into consideration than those with larger applicant pools. Schools are also selected based on consistent student feedback about what aspects of the outreach impressed them.

And the winners are…

Southern Utah University – a master’s level, public university in Cedar City, Utah

recruitment communication strategy-SUU

Source: Southern Utah University Instagram

 

As the only public institution on our list of top communicators, Southern Utah University stands out for its ability to make a personal connection. Students called out the school’s emails and print mail. They described a level of personal attention that made the school seem welcoming and caring. Further, the school’s communication was student-centered, showcasing campus life and opportunities – topics many students were particularly interested in this year. Student comments included:

“They seemed so welcoming, so intuitive, like they cared.”

“It looked very welcoming and genuine with lots of student interaction.”

“They had shown the opportunities students get when they arrive, attend, and finish college.”

 “It got me excited that a college actually mailed to me and wanted me to be a part of them.”

 

Baylor University – a private, religiously-affiliated university in Waco, Texas

Source: Baylor University Website

 

Students who named Baylor said they were particularly impressed with the school’s emails and website. Most students lauded the communication for its content and format. Clarity and relevance, but also brevity, was positively mentioned. Some students appreciated the personalization in the outreach. Comments include:

“Great layout, easy to read information.”

“Sometimes the emails were personalized for me, and it got my attention.”

Most of them had bite-sized information making it easier to understand.”

“It was very well written and told me everything I needed to know about the school.”

 

Tulane University – a private, urban university in New Orleans, Louisiana

recruitment communication strategy-Tulane

Source: Tulane University Recruitment Email

 

Students had positive things to say about Tulane’s emails and print mailings—the school’s communication hit a nerve with students and set itself apart from the crowd. The word “unique” was frequently mentioned in student comments. It didn’t hurt that Tulane’s mailings sometimes included college swag and other items. Additionally, Tulane has embraced the potential of TikTok—a channel that reaches students in a new, engaging way. Students said about the school’s communication:

“Very interesting and fun. Very different than all the other colleges so far.”

“They sent me stickers and a coloring book. Other schools just sent me brochures.”

“It stood out amongst the other emails, and they were offering an item like a gift card or a shirt.”

“TikTok is what I saw the school on and it felt genuine, you got to see the campus and how the students actually feel.”

 

University of Chicago – a selective, private university in Chicago, Illinois

recruitment communication strategy-UChicago

Source: University of Chicago Recruitment Email

 

This is the second time that University of Chicago made our list of best communicators, maintaining its high outreach standard despite the pandemic. Students were particularly impressed with the school’s print mailings but also favorably mentioned its email outreach. As we’ve noted previously, student comments mentioned the college swag the school includes in its mailings, and described the outreach overall as fun, unique, personalized, and creative. Here is what students had to say this year:

“Shirts are neat and if any college gives me any sort of merchandise, I’d look into the college.”

“They were always fun and tried to connect with things that were popular at the time.”

“It was personalized with my name on it. The flyer was so cool, and it was specifically made for me.”

“It’s so creative!”

 

The Bottom Line

Out of the four institutions highlighted above, only Tulane University and the University of Chicago seem to follow the same approach of being whimsical and offering college swag to prospects, but all schools were highly successful in making an impact with students. This shows that there is no single path you must follow.

Further, you don’t need University of Chicago’s marketing budget to make an impact. The examples above have some elements in common that can help you improve your recruitment outreach as well:

  • See the individual: It has been said many times before that personalization is important, but it bears repeating. If you want to connect with students, you must see them as the individuals they are. Students in our research show gratitude and interest toward schools that treat them as “not just another student.” They appreciate when a school knows their names and – even better! – their interests.
  • Have fun: Educating young minds is serious business, and your school likely has a reputation of rigor to uphold. Nonetheless, students appreciate a school that doesn’t take itself too seriously. After all, the college search process is stressful enough. You may not have University of Chicago’s swag budget, but you can still try to find a way to make your outreach more fun and creative. Adding unexpected content, tone, or design can greatly enhance your institution’s chances of being noticed among the countless emails, postcards, and ads served to high school students every year.
  • Embrace novelty: Often, higher education can be slow to embrace new marketing trends and mediums. That includes the use of promising, but untested, marketing channels. Yet, our target audience moves fast and fluidly through the world of digital communication, making it challenging to meet them where they are. Last year, we highlighted TikTok as a channel to watch. This year, we are seeing institutions called out who embraced this new channel and made a positive impression on students. TikTok is not yet a part of every school’s social media repertoire, so the schools that use it are standing out. Often, trailblazing a new path can be worth the risk.
  • Be concise: Students, like many of us, are busy people. They are also people who are heavily marketed to. Brevity is key to maintaining their attention. Students value an institution that conveys the most relevant information in the most convenient, easy-to-understand, and convenient manner. The days of the “Letter from the Dean” and long text paragraphs are gone. Combine facts with visual cues for maximum impact.

Are you already following the practices above? Would you like to learn more about what students think of institutional outreach? This look at the best communicators of 2021 is just the beginning of our focus on the newest Student Sentiment research. Follow our weekly Wake-up Calls for more insights or contact your Client Research Analyst to learn more about this study.

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Johanna Trovato

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura
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