Enrollment Blog

Come bearing gifts: How "swag" drives application completion

by Anika Olsen

Everybody likes to get presents—I'm no exception.

Especially fun are gifts that arrive in attractive packages on my doorstep.

So I understand the growing popularity of subscription-box services like FabFitFun and Birchbox—curated bundles of goodies that are delivered each month.

It turns out that serial gift giving can also play a role in college recruitment. Presents grab the attention of prospective students—attention that is increasingly difficult to gain in today’s message-saturated world. While college emails and Facebook posts can—when done poorly—turn into a big, unremarkable blur, branded gifts in the mailbox are a dramatic and effective way to incentivize students to complete their applications.

How to use gifts to gain applicants

We studied a college—let’s call it Embankment University—to see if the lure of college "swag" could motivate students to move through the various stages of applying to the school.

Related: Learn how an unusual application attracted an exceptional student.

Embankment’s own research had found that students who completed their applications earlier (before November 1) and more quickly (within 30 days of submitting an application) yielded at higher rates than prospective students who did not. So the school created an incentive program to encourage early and quick application completion.

Embankment’s prospective students received packages of college-branded gifts—items like caps, mugs and bumper-stickers—from the time they completed their applications until November 1st. Those who completed their applications earliest—as early as August 1st—would come away with more loot, a great incentive to finalize their applications as quickly as possible.

Enrollment strategy, campaign scheduling

To fuel students’ desire for more gifts, Embankment created a social media campaign with a hashtag where students were invited to post images of their new college swag, amplifying the impact and reach of each gift given.

Are you ready to meet changing enrollment patterns?

Gift campaigns deliver results—not just bumper stickers

While the theory underlying Embankment’s approach might be compelling, the strongest endorsement is its results.

Embankment saw a significant shift to earlier completion in just the first year of this new campaign: a 100% increase in applications completed by November 1st relative to the previous year. That’s far more than expected, given the 4% overall increase in applications that year.

Even more, as Embankment had hoped, the early applicants also yielded at favorable rates, generating a 7% increase in enrollment for the year—20% of which was attributable to the gift program.

Embankment’s calibrated gift campaign engaged and then held the attention of prospective students through carefully structured deadlines that created a sense of urgency, complimented by the physical satisfaction of receiving "real stuff" in the mailbox.

It seems that in the era of subscription boxes, gift campaigns could give institutions a great present: early and quick applicants.

Next, evaluate the strength of your digital recruitment practices

The average teen is online nine hours a day. Are your digital recruitment practices working hard to help you recruit more students? Download our digital diagnostic to help you evaluate the strength of your current practices—and find insights for improvement.

Download the Diagnostic


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