On the same day Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was named Time's Person of the Year, a new report finds that college students don't necessarily live up to the stereotype of an especially tech-savvy, social media-obsessed segment of society.
The study, "College Students on the Web," by user-experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group, aims to debunk what it terms as "myths" about this demographic and its relation to the Web and social media. The link between college students and social networking, of course, results in no small part from the fact that Facebook was created by a college student for other college students at the outset.
Yes, students keep one or more tabs permanently open to Facebook or other social sites -- but that doesn't mean they want everything to be social, according to Nielsen Norman. The report concludes, for instance, that marketers are misguided in assuming that social media is the best way to reach the college-age audience. When students want information about a company or organization, they turn to search engines to find their official Web pages, not social sites.
"While it's no surprise that organizations targeting college students try to reach them on the Web, they're mistaken if they think the best path is through social networking sites," noted Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman, in a statement accompanying the 259-page report. "Sites like Facebook are simply not the first place that college students think to visit to get information about organizations."
But the study, based on observations of 43 full-time college students in four countries performing different tasks on 217 Web sites, offers insights for marketers targeting college students online. Among the main points:
Students like technology, but are not technical: Nielsen Norman found that while some are technology wizards, most expect the Web to be easy to use and to streamline their efforts without hassle. They don't want to work too hard to figure out how to do something.
Students are unimpressed by fancy design: College students generally view Web sites as tools to help them get things done. They appreciate multimedia on certain sites like YouTube, but they don't want it at all times on all sites. They like it only when it serves their purpose. Furthermore, many access the Web through wireless connections and laptops that don't support multimedia that well.
Students move fast and miss information: They immediately flee a Web site when confronted with a page full of dense text, not even bothering to read the first sentence. Their lack of patience and their confidence in their ability to use the Web reduces their interest in figuring out a Web site.
The latest Nielsen Norman report is reminiscent of a separate study by social media expert Danah Boyd earlier this year, which indicated that college students -- contrary to popular belief -- care about privacy online. It found students not only tweak their privacy settings on Facebook, but are more likely to do so than a year ago.