How do you cultivate a community for promotional products?

I’m not fooling myself. I know it’s still January and this week of sunshine and 60-degree weather is just another cruel joke. But I still long for spring, and it feels so close.

I used to love winter and everything about it: the cold and the clothes — all wool coats and stockings. I loved staying indoors and wrapping a blanket around my feet as my dad built a wood fire. I even loved that Counting Crows song about December, God help me.

But now that I live on my own, and I pay my own gas bill and can’t start a fire to save my life, now that I have to take my own wool coat to get dry cleaned and can never seem to find any long sleeved shirts in my closet — now that “dreary” and “sullen” are words that apply to my actual life, rather than a fantasy one that I would dream about as a teenager, winter doesn’t seem so hot. In fact, I can’t wait to get shed of it.

I’ve begun to reminisce frequently about the springs I spent in college under the Atlanta sun. In these daydreams I always forget about the long, dark nights I spent, head in hands, hunched over my Greek lexicon, eyes blurring before the page. I forget what it was like to feel terror in the face of an impending deadline, to trudge miserably through campus to the library, to dine constantly on cold cafeteria food and burnt coffee. Instead, I remember the hours between classes spent lounging on the grass — book bag as pillow and hoodie as picnic blanket — draping my hand over my eyes and drifting to sleep under the warm gaze of the sun. Never mind that there were pages of dry lit criticism and long explanations of neural processing sticking out of my bag and begging to be read. In that moment they were forgotten, and they are forgotten now; as I look back it seems those tedious articles and assignments never existed except as benign accessories decorating my blissful enjoyment of a Georgia spring.

To me, however, college in the spring was more than a paradise; it was a community. In the spring, student clubs would delight to set up tables around the quad or pedestrian circle, passing out hotdogs and t-shirts in exchange for nothing more than your email address. Never mind that the year was nearly over and anyone recruited for a club would lose interest by July, spring seemed to endow student-led organizations with a peculiar generosity. Hardly a day went by that I wasn’t confronted with a free koozie or plastic cup on my stroll to dance class.

Now, in the real world, as a marketer I weep with desire for such a friendly, readily assembled, and accessible audience. A smart, older friend told me when I was in school that “Nobody does community like college campuses.” I didn’t understand what she meant until I graduated, and gone were the hundreds of everyday friends, gone were the hallmates nosing into my apartment, gone was the free pizza and music playing on my daily commute. Gone were the free shuttles, the endless wealth of resources, the free literary mags and science papers vying for my attention at the newsstands. My friend was right: Nobody does community like college campuses.

This virtual world makes marketing with promotional products more complicated; customers are often not within an arm’s reach. So I’m asking you: How do we cultivate community — for the ease of distributing promotional products to a relevant audience, but also for the exchange of ideas and neighborly friendship, for the chance to repeat my afternoon reveries under the sun and to share common experiences — in this so-called real world? The crux of marketing, as I’m beginning to see, is to engage with a community. But what does that community look like in post-college life?


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