Markets Focus: Post-Graduate Women's Studies

by , Mar 21, 2006, 11:20 AM
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To analyze the glut of online marketing aimed at just-out-of-college women is to exhume the thoroughly flogged corpse of "Sex and the City." While members of this demographic have expressed their desire for credit cards, insurance, furniture, and related home/apartment tchotchkes, marketers seem most eager to sell them chic suits and travel deals. Nobody denies that women about to enter the working world probably need to stock up on business attire, but to assume that apparel is the only item in their consumer wheelhouse is to drastically undersell this audience.

Given the central role the Internet plays in the lives of post-college women, you'd think that marketers would be falling over themselves to reach them online. But the reverse seems to be true, with men in the same age bracket receiving most of the attention.

"Companies are still experimenting with the right way to go about [marketing to young women]," says Dina Pradel, vice president of Y2M: Youth Media and Marketing Networks. "I think they've started to understand the importance of the graduation transition to men, but not necessarily to women."

That transition shouldn't be a mystery to anybody trying to move products or services. As women leave college and enter the nine-to-five world, most find themselves making complex decisions for the very first time: where to live, where to work, and how to get ahead personally and professionally. They're ready to try new brands, but they need some degree of assurance before making big-ticket purchases, especially of financial products.

"Obviously you can't just throw a bunch of banner ads up and figure that you're done," notes Janet Sun, vice president of marketing for Experience, a provider of career resources to college students and alumni. "The people who are doing this right are the ones who are holding hands a little, speaking to [women graduates] in a way that reassures them."

Samsung is among the few companies that receive high marks from marketers and recent grads alike. The consumer electronics giant boasts a presence on the homepages of some 450 college newspapers, a frequent destination for young alumni. The company swaps out its creative frequently, hoping to solidify a place in the minds of female grads who may not be in the market for a 148-inch plasma TV just yet but might be in a few years.

If online marketers need more than anecdotal evidence about the female grad market, they might consider the data compiled by Y2M as part of its 2005 eGrad College Graduate Study. The results portray an audience on the cusp of some major decisions.

While 74 percent of college grads (female and male) already own a car, 36 percent intend to purchase one within 12 months of graduation; that same percentage plans on purchasing auto insurance. Twenty-nine percent of graduates say they will likely apply for a new credit card in their first year out of college.

The survey also overturns some wrongheaded stereotypes about recent college grads, who are often described as young, wild, and irresponsible (read: they've got disposable income flowing from every pore). In fact, they have sizable financial burdens: 67 percent have one to four student loans to repay, and 43 percent plan to take out more loans in the three to five years following graduation. Thirty-three percent of college grads face more than $20,000 in loans.

So while many marketers continue to believe that clothing and travel are what just-graduated women want, financial services firms have prime opportunities. To date, they've shown little inclination to target young professional women with online pitches. "[Young women] do just about everything else on the Internet. You figure they'd be receptive to online banking or anything involving their finances," says Micki Seibel, director of product and user experience for the new apartment search site MyNewPlace.

But Y2M's Pradel thinks the complexity of financial products demands a more customer service-intensive environment. "Something like loan consolidation is relatively simple, but women in this age range want to be walked through it. I'm not sure how you do that on the Web," Pradel explains.

As for the most effective way to appeal to post-college women, experts recommend handing over as much control as possible. "You want to target this audience non-invasively, which means you should be putting your dollars into search," says Maureen Boyle, senior marketing manager for Apartments.com. "With search, they can get as specific as they want to be. They can set the terms."

Members of the target audience seem to agree. As media and events coordinator for the CollegeBound Network, Lori Chyla, 24, boasts more marketing moxie than her peers. She underscores why keyword marketing works for this audience: "If I type in the search box 'flower delivery,' I am going to check out the first couple of sites that pop up. If they have the marketing dollars to pay for that, they must be bringing in a lot of money, which means they provide a decent service." She remains wary of end-of-search links: "I am not going to trust a company that is on the last page."

As for targeted e-mail campaigns, Chyla advises marketers to hit the brakes. "If someone wants to market something, they shouldn't overload me with e-mails," she says, pointing to Pottery Barn as a company that seems to have mastered the frequency/ease-of-use formula. "If I receive an e-mail from Pottery Barn, I will open it, because it's something I signed up for earlier."

Julia Trinko, 22, works as an assistant print analyst at media agency OMD. Since leaving what she calls "the college bubble," she's had considerably less time to dawdle online, and wonders if companies targeting her take new grads' busy schedules into account.

"When I'm online, I sort of have an agenda," Tinko says. "I check my Gmail, my college mail, my bank statement, and maybe Verizon. I don't want a company to bother me with something when I'm trying to get things done." On the other hand, she says she's receptive to savvy, minimally invasive pitches. "It's not like I'm sitting around thinking, 'I wish advertisers spoke to me more,' but I'm in a different place than I was last year. I'm not sure companies make that distinction for people my age."

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