Substance Over Style

  • by May 29, 2002
A new national survey shows college students are a surprisingly practical and realistic group that requires a more substantive approach from marketers.

The survey of 1,000 students by YouthStream Media Networks, a youth-focused media and marketing services company, revealed behaviors and attitudes that are very different than those traditionally attributed to this market. In one prominent example, students named "honesty," "product information," and "description of actual pricing," as the most critical qualities for good advertising.

The YouthStream survey, administered by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch, found that students rated practical advertising messages as "extremely" or "very" important, with "honesty" (90%), "product information" (86%) and "description of actual pricing" (71%) getting the strongest responses. The more superficial issues traditionally considered vital to this demographic group received far fewer positive ratings, with "celebrity endorsements/models" (6%), "irreverence" (14%) and "coolness/edginess" (31%) among the least favored qualities.

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"These responses indicate that students are becoming more selective in their buying habits and want the information that will help them make purchasing decisions, " said Dennis Roche, president of YouthStream. "This is a very different type of college consumer than we've seen in the past, and marketers must adapt their strategies or they risk losing this $50 billion market."

Money a Growing Concern

Students' responses to a variety of questions showed a similar practical self-interest. When it came to personal finances, 47% said they are "more likely" to save money in the current economic climate, and 31% are "more likely" to put off major purchases. Nearly half the students surveyed said they have been directly affected by the weakened economy, and many of those have changed their behavior accordingly, such as the 50% who are "using coupons/bargain shopping."

The fiscal responsibility theme emerged in other areas as well. When students were asked how they would use a hypothetical $10,000 gift, the most popular response was "pay off credit card debt or student loans" (36%), followed by "put it in the bank" (26%). When asked about important qualities in a prospective employer, 75% named "good compensation/benefits" as an important quality, far ahead of a company's "ethics/values" (44%) or "reputation" (22%).

Issues Close to Home

Students' belief in the war on terrorism has remained strong since September 11, with the vast majority (91%) indicating support for U.S. military action. However, when asked to rank a variety of other political concerns, most students said that "U.S. education" (75%), and "stimulating the U.S. economy" (68%)--the two issues that have the most direct effect on students' lives--should have a higher priority than the war on terrorism. In contrast, most global issues rated far lower. For example, "eliminating world hunger" and "stimulating the global economy," were given a high priority by only 34 and 36% of students, respectively.

Surprising Optimism on Job Market

Even as their behavior and attitudes grow more conservative, however, students retain a positive outlook on the future. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed described themselves as "optimistic" about the future. This optimism was especially strong in responses about students' job outlook. When asked about their prospects for full-time employment, more than 75% of students said they are "very" or "somewhat" positive, with 56% confident they will find a job in three months or less after graduation, and 25% believing the job search will take only one month.

An Evolving Trend

A YouthStream survey conducted weeks after 9-11 showed that 40% of college students were reprioritizing their lives or changing their "core values," but had not made significant changes in their daily lives. While behavior--ranging from purchasing intent to sleep and studying--remained largely unchanged at that time, YouthStream suggested a no-nonsense approach to college marketing might be necessary to meet students' changing needs.

"These new survey results are extremely important because they validate the early signs of change we saw in Fall 2001," said Roche. "Despite college students' continued optimism, the added pressure of a weak economy has further affected their concerns and now they are changing behavior to cope with the uncertainty. Marketers who remained skeptical after 9-11 must realize that the messages students respond to have changed. You still need to speak to students in their own language in terms of the graphics, music, and language that they relate to, but relying on these elements at the expense of information is a flawed strategy for reaching this increasingly practical group."

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