3 New-School Rules For Marketing To College Students

More than 21 million students are reporting and returning to college campuses across the country this Fall, spending more than $30 billion on back-to-campus essentials like bedding, laptops, phones, clothes, school supplies and toiletries. Gone are the days of grabbing a lamp from the basement and a carpet from your sister’s room! 

Connecting with this audience year-round is essential for marketers vs. the traditional back-to-school mindset. Young adults now have a discretionary spending budget of more than $76 billion a year. And the 16-to-24-year-old demographic is developing brand relationships and spending habits that could last a lifetime. 



So, as they stream onto campuses this Fall, how do we engage this important, influential – but often elusive – audience? 

Short-term campaigns focused on promotions are no longer enough, so we’ve developed three new-school rules for marketing to college students:

1. Create a 360-degree connection: College students are, of course, digital natives and mobile mavens. With so many social networks and media platforms competing for their attention, breaking through as a marketer can be a formidable challenge.

The secret is to diversify — engage with students not just online, but also in-person and with hands-on product samples and demos. This experiential element can significantly help your brand stand out, and when students are excited about your product or service they tell their friends. We see this “surprise and delight” factor go far for our brand partners. This creates organic reach from students that exponentially grows in earned media as they share on their networks.

2. Be authentic--fast.This demographic is bombarded with advertising, so to be noticed, you have to move quickly and be authentic. Today’s student knows when she is being pitched, and it’s critical to clearly communicate the value you’re providing. 

Describe your product or service in a straightforward manner. Provide an offer that is specific to students and relevant to their lifestyle. Make it easy for them to act and engage. We see our community respond quickly to exclusive trials and discounts from partners such as Hulu, who speak to students in their own language. Students can sense if a 40-something ad guy on Madison Ave. is trying to reflect their voice – ask students to help you create your student voice.

3. Listen. Ask questions. Adapt. Social media is not simply a broadcast medium – as a marketer, you know its real power is as a listening channel. Tune in to the tastemakers the college crowd is following and engage in the dialog. Learn from high school and college students who become forceful media brands in their own right before they have their first legal beer.

Don’t make assumptions. Explore the counter-intuitive. Pay attention to market feedback – and do something about it! 

Making an effort to better understand 16-to-24-year-old consumers and adapting product and marketing strategies to address their priorities creates a virtuous cycle that will fuel both short- and long-term wins. We work closely with brands who are newly targeting this audience as well as those who have long focused on the student market – and listening is a critical success factor in both scenarios.

As the new school year starts, the opportunity for brands to adopt the new-school rules for marketing to college students is a powerful one. Done right, the interactions you cultivate with these new consumers can kick-start enduring customer relationships that will benefit your brand for years to come through direct purchase behavior as well as the creation of organic and powerful brand ambassadors.

1 comment about "3 New-School Rules For Marketing To College Students".
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  1. Bob Batchelor from Cultural Historian and Writer, September 21, 2013 at 3:57 p.m.

    This is a thoughtful and compelling article. However, I would like to clear up a common misperception -- these students are hardly "digital natives and mobile mavens."

    They text an enormous amount and all have FB accounts, but outside those bounds, they have little or no understanding of technology or social media. For example, the typical college student could not create a website that would demonstrate any basic understanding of strategic thought. When they use the web, it is to find information, because they have not been taught to think broadly, creatively, or critically. The standardized management regime they lived through as high school students makes them information seekers for specific facts.

    This is why "act and engage" works so well. Many only know how to act, not think. Similar to the way they have been taught to find answers, not apply critical thinking skills.

    The true "digital natives" are in elementary school right now.

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