5 tips for marketing to college students

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College is back in session. The back-to-school shopping rush may be over, but if your company has something that college students need or want (and you likely do if you’re reading this), you need a year-round strategy to reach them.

This highly sought-after demographic has enormous purchase power: $545 billion, with $163 billion in discretionary spending, according to this year’s College Explorer report by re:fuel and Crux Research. If you average this over the 21.6 million college students in the nation, that’s roughly $25,000 and $7,500 respectively per student for the 2014-2015 school year. Here in Nashville, per-student spending is likely even higher.

You want a piece of this pie. So, here are a few tips for doing it right:

1. Take time to understand them. Offering a student discount is good, but it’s not enough (by the way, if you do offer one, be sure to make it attractive, since your competition offers them, too). How do college students perceive what you have to offer them? How would they like to interact with you? How can you get rid of any barriers that keep this from being easy for them? There is a lot of research out there, but hosting your own student focus groups could produce some very useful insights for your brand.

2. Hire a stellar college marketing intern. One of the best decisions I made in a previous life at another organization was to hire an intern from Belmont University. Her primary responsibility was to help with our artist relations program (which she did superbly), but she also ended up being an ambassador to the entire college student community and served as our straight-shooting, in-house consultant for every product and campaign we developed for a younger demographic. She was literally worth her weight in gold, but didn’t cost us a dime. Most colleges and universities offer academic credit and/or work study programs that pay for students’ internships. Attending some career fairs, contacting marketing professors and posting on college job boards could be the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

3. Find creative ways to get on campus. Your intern and focus groups can help you come up with ideas, but be sure to think through potential natural fits for your brand to make sure that they won’t come across as artificial. How might you demo a product and get students excited about it? Could you sponsor an event (even something as intimate as an open mic night) that would give students a meaningful interaction with your brand? Think outside the box, but avoid gimmicks unless you have hard evidence that says you’ve just discovered the next flash mob (i.e., a really fun gimmick that draws a crowd and goes viral).

4. Be real. Millennial college students know when they’re being pitched and can smell fake from a mile away, so whatever you do, be authentic. Don’t strain your brand’s voice while trying too hard to speak their lingo—it will have the opposite of your desired effect. Just present the value of what you can offer them in plain speak. In an interview with eMarketer Erin Byrne, she mentioned that millennials are impressed by honesty and transparency and make decisions based on their own “information journey,” so it’s important to provide them with opportunities to do research on your brand and products.

5. Develop a killer digital strategy. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said a thousand times, but it bears repeating. If you want to reach college students where they’re spending their time online, a robust digital strategy can help you keep your efforts very targeted, thus maximizing your segment strategy budget. Beyond absolute musts like SEO and PPC campaigns that use college student-specific keywords and offers, you can also hone in on this otherwise elusive audience by running highly targeted Facebook ads, email campaigns and digital display ads that reach them on their favorite sites and while they’re reading relevant content. If you need help putting this together, we’d love to help.

Here’s one last tip: have fun with it. If you’re genuinely enjoying yourself in your interactions with college students, they’re going to pick up on that and want to keep the conversation going.


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