Market Focus: The Best Eight Years

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The college crowd has cash to burn

College may well be the only acceptable time in life to drink upside down with your head resting precariously atop a keg, acquire a sexually transmitted disease and spend upward of $300 on a book you'll only read once, if that. But alas, even Van Wilder showed up for finals, eventually.

It's easy to segment out college students from the greater amorphous mass of 18-to-34-year-olds by their preoccupations. Beyond dating, partying, music and sports, there's books. And more books. College textbook publishing and sales constitute a $5 billion racket in the United States; used textbooks add another $1.8 million. According to the National Association of College Stores, students spent $6.19 billion on required course materials in the 2005-2006 academic year ... we mentioned books, right?

The college collective has about $10 billion burning holes in its pockets during the school year, according to a Student Monitor survey, an annual snapshot of the college market.

Despite the class of 2012 being the most wired ever, the majority of that cash still changes hands in old-fashioned bookstores. Students who buy textbooks online cite price and convenience as the reasons, and yet, only 20 percent had done so in the past year, the survey found. This is despite the fact that 88 percent access the Internet daily or more often and spend an average of 20 hours a week online -a third of them average a whopping 39 hours a week online.

That's good news for on-campus retailers like Middlebury College Book Store. Bob Jansen, manager of the Middlebury, Vt., shop, uses newfangled social media to get students into his store, whose merchandise mix reflects the traditional accoutrements: logo caps, sweatshirts, mugs and bags, along with all those tomes.


Getting Social Online (and Off)

Use of social networks on campus has grown considerably as MySpace-crazy high-schoolers have matriculated. Whereas social networks were virtually an unknown entity for the class of 2003, now more than half of college students visit one in a typical day, according to Alloy Media + Marketing's latest College Explorer survey.

Last November, Jansen took advantage of Facebook's newly launched Pages, the business-oriented application, to promote a contest to win a shopping spree at the store. He videotaped the two winners, tied together, lurching around the store grabbing loot, and posted it to Facebook.

"As soon as I sent out the video, the number of friends and fans shot up," Jansen says. "My inbox was going boom-boom-boom."

So did the cash registers. The first event boosted sales 325 percent for that day; the next one increased sales 70 percent. "It creates a different level of excitement," Jansen says. "Instead of becoming a customer, they become a friend."

Jansen isn't worried that focusing his online marketing efforts on Facebook might miss part of his audience. A Middlebury College survey found that 93 percent of students used the service.

That squares with the Student Monitor findings. Perhaps because of its roots as a college-oriented social networking site, Facebook led MySpace: 65 percent of students in the survey had visited Facebook in the previous month, while 45 percent had gone to MySpace.


Engaged Experiences

Like Middlebury Book Store, Blowtorch Entertain­ment uses social media to get undergrads out into the world. The entertainment start-up, focused on the 18- to 24-year-old market, will build social networks around indie films it produces or acquires and then screens at theaters near campuses.

The motto is "Don't just watch." Instead, rate or rag on the movie while you're watching it, via texting, e-mail or browsing, all highly encouraged during screenings. Online, site visitors can vote on shorts posted by members. Winners get screened before features in theaters.

"Media, entertainment and the consumption of content has become one fun, blurred mess," says Steve Weinswig, media group president at Blowtorch. "The in-theater experience will be more engaging than just sitting there and passively consuming the movie. The challenge and voting side will have to be just as entertaining as our movies."

Branded entertainment will play a big role in the offerings. "Any given client or agency team could interact with us," Weinswig promises. For example, an advertiser could sponsor a short film contest with a theme that resonates with the brand. The shorts could run at Blowtorch screenings, on the Web site or in bars on "Blowtorch Night."


Fixed Eyeballs

If attention is the currency of advertising, why not get the most bang for your buck by putting your ads where students focus their attention? That's the theory behind Campus Media Group's e-textbook advertising program. Publishers now create electronic versions of books to keep costs down, thereby opening the door to a variety of in-book ad placements. CMG, which traffics all forms of media, offers display ads and embedded links.

Click-throughs from electronic books can be tracked, and they're slightly better than for Web ads, according to Jason Bakker, CMG's director of marketing. That could be due to the novelty factor, of course, but it also could result from tight targeting.

Talk about your contextual advertising - PricewaterhouseCoopers can be sure that anyone reading an accounting textbook is absorbed by accounting at that very moment. Hence, the consulting firm runs in-book recruiting ads.

The e-books are also available for purchase sans ads, but Bakker thinks the ad-supported model works as well for textbooks as for other kinds of content. Plus, students appreciate the help with their budgets.

"Students are taking notice of brands that sponsor textbooks and understand that these advertisers are cutting the costs of education for them in ways that our government can't," Bakker says.

Next fall, CMG and its electronic publishing partner, Textbook Media, will begin to offer Web-based books on Moving textbooks to the Web will enable all the advanced ad-serving, targeting and analytics of this channel.


Focused (Sort Of)

Of course, whether studying an e-book or the printed page, college students multitask like crazy. When Burst Media asked them about combined media use in a fall 2007 survey, it found that half surf the Internet while watching television, and 43.5 percent are online while listening to terrestrial or satellite radio.

New technology like widgets helps them multitask even more, because those little apps constantly stream content onto their desktops. They can keep one eye on the sports scores while writing an essay about the various religious interpretations of The Merchant of Venice.

Marketers are all over this format - for better or worse. But simply plastering your brand on the widget player won't do much, says Pam Webber, vice president of marketing at Widgetbox, a directory and distribution platform for the little critters. "We see companies where the advertisement is of more prominence than the actual content or interactivity," Webber says. "Marketers need to get comfortable with a little more subtlety than they might want."

Widgets get passed around from person to person, making them dynamite word-of-mouth. In order to have a shelf life, however, they should provide useful content that changes regularly, Webber says. The College Football Video Wall, for example, offers a constantly changing montage of clickable videos sure to snag a sports fanatic's attention.

After all, there's more to college than books, isn't there?

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