College Students To Marketers: 'Cut The Clutter'

Looking around the web, there is no doubt that companies have, in fact, gotten on the proverbial social media bus. Look around. Everywhere we turn there are buttons to Fan, Tweet, Like, Share, Follow, Connect and Subscribe.

But this is missing the point because marketers aren't telling anyone why the heck they should do so.

Enter a new study from user-experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group on "College Students on the Web." (Yes, I shelled out the $128 for the full report and the insights it provides are definitely worth the money.)

The news reported by Online Media Daily earlier this week, "Social Networks No Place For Marketing To College Crowd," runs contrary to our marketing sensibility when it comes to social media. We know that college students are heavy social media users. The report confirms this. The college students they observed keep a Facebook or MySpace tab open throughout the day. Problem is, they think of these social networks as a place to socialize with friends and family. They aren't making the mental leap as to why they would want to click these links and they don't understand how these social sharing buttons littered throughout the Internet help them!



Which means that marketers, by in large, have fallen victim to non sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"). According to Wikipedia, non sequitur "is an argument in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises." In modern marketing communications, the argument might sound like this, "College students use Facebook, therefore, they will want to connect with us on Facebook." (The same could be said for YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, text messaging or anything other emerging technology.)

But as I read the report from Nielsen Norman Group, it struck me that we have done a pretty poor job explaining the value that they can derive from making this connection. They are wondering:

"What will happen when I share something?"

""Do my friends care?"

"Are they trying to use me?"

"Why should I even pay attention to these links?"

We need to address these questions. Of course, this may all simply be a matter of familiarity. But another interesting observation from the study was that college students aren't all the technology sophisticates that we stereotype them as (engineering and computer science majors aside). Today's college students are digital natives that have learned a few things we need to take into account:

1) "Feedback from my friends is always close." College students may not want to inadvertently promote a company, but they do appreciate input from friends they trust. Instead of simply sticking a "Share This" button in their face, try prompting them by asking, "Want to get feedback from your friends before you buy? Post this to Facebook and see what they have to say."

2) "If I can't find what I am looking for fast, look somewhere else." Gen Y sometimes gets labeled "impatient." I prefer "efficient." They have grown up online with immediate access to information. The only real challenge is determining which site will give it to them succinctly without any hassles. If your site is difficult to navigate or doesn't provide clear and concise answers to their questions, they will open another tab, start a new search, and go somewhere else. State problems, present clear solutions, and don't let unnecessary links get in the way.

3) "There are companies that are honest, and those that will try to trick you." It has been said that the Internet brings out both the best and worst in humanity. Gen Y has grown up learning to navigate this reality. As marketers, that means that everything on our sites runs through a filter that asks, "Is this company honest or not?" If your content is buried between advertisements or littered with social sharing links, then your integrity may be called into question. They appreciate ad supported business models, they just want a clear distinction between your content, advertising, and social media plug-ins. Keep your content clean.

For the college crowd, tying into social media can be very effective. Social media provides an unprecedented opportunity for the amplification of our marketing efforts. However, this requires education and a clear explanation of the associated benefits, especially for Gen Y consumers. Yes, they are social, but even more, they are attuned to good, efficient design and they are counting on us to give them clear explanations for the benefits they will reap from each and every action we ask them to take.

2 comments about "College Students To Marketers: 'Cut The Clutter' ".
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  1. Jacob Walsh from Christianity Today International, December 17, 2010 at 1:11 p.m.

    Great points, Morgan. I'm a member of Gen Y, and I definitely prefer clean, minimalist websites with intuitive navigation. In fact, I am much more likely to share content on sites that have a "professional" non-cluttered design.

    My problem with this Nielsen report is that it seems to commit a non sequitur of its own. It goes something like this: "College students don't use Facebook to search for information, therefore, they don't use Facebook to get information."

    This ignores the fact that when college students consume information on social networking sites, it's done passively. For instance, I follow like-minded people on Twitter and Facebook, and I passively absorb the information they share. I actually like it that way, because I tend to find information I didn't even know existed. The fact that I wasn't actively looking for the information does not diminish its value.

    Furthermore, the "active" search landscape is even starting to make shifts toward social media. Google, Bing, and new search engines like are starting to include real-time social media results, which are often more timely and relevant than organic search rankings.

  2. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, December 17, 2010 at 2:14 p.m.

    Jacob, thanks for catching this logical error and pointing it out!

    All of the research I have done on how consumers interact with brands on Facebook is right in line with your explanation. We have gravitated toward the term "serendipity" -- basically that people don't go to Facebook actively looking for new products, etc. Instead, they tend to stumble upon new discoveries through their social graph.

    That said, I didn't get the same take away from the full report that the headlines about social media not being the place to market to college students imply. The main point I took away from the social media section of the report was the one I addressed in the article about giving people a reason to make these connections instead of assuming they will simply share for the sake of sharing.

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