Full-time college students are a $60 billion market with the average college
student spending $13,000 a year. Students are enthusiastic buyers of
electronics, technology products and entertainment products.* For many of them,
college is also the start of managing their own finances and accounts. It’s been
noted that brand affinities established in college can shape buying habits well
into the future. No doubt, there is great value marketing to this group.
Marketing to students is one of those “what you see is NOT what you get”
scenarios. It’s easy to characterize college students as a homogeneous, tech-
savvy group and leave it at that. But, wade into that market with a superficial
understanding at your own peril.
For a topline overview, I’ve split what I consider to be the key marketing
considerations into four main areas.
1. Where should you market to them?
On campus, right? Well, maybe. There are many components to the “where”
question of marketing to students.
Many buying decisions are made at home before heading off to school. Financial
decisions typically (but not always) happen at home before school starts. Same
with clothing. Obviously, that’s not the case with dorm room or apartment
In terms of on-campus media, think hyper-local. Campuses have a seemingly
infinite number of locations for student communications. We have placed
messaging on dorm corkboards, in laundry rooms and other unique locations.
Every campus is different in terms of where messages can be placed.
Student lists are available from state schools directly or list compilers. Given how
many times students move in their school careers, avoid using physical school
addresses over a year old. The safest bet with physical mail is to reach students
at home over the summer or between semesters.
One of the great enigmas to consider when marketing to students is that the
same generation that wouldn’t consider reading their local newspaper avidly
reads their school newspaper. Seventy-six percent of students reportedly have
read their campus paper in the last month. On campuses with a daily paper, that
number is 92%.**
Transit advertising can also play a major role in reaching students, both on
campus and on the way to campus, since many do without cars.
Digital media offers many opportunities to reach students when they are
researching schools and loans. There are numerous affinity sites that sell leads
and sponsorships in addition to display ad space.
And then there’s Facebook, which you may recall was originally developed as
a site for college students. Most every student lists their school and Facebook
allows targeting by specific college attending and intended year of graduation.
Student click rates on Facebook will depend on how well your ad and offer target
that audience. Use ad copy directed to the specific school if you can.
Make sure you are considering mobile in the mix, too. Text is one of the key
response channels for students. Given trends in email viewing, if email is part of
your mix, we recommend optimizing for mobile and tablet before you optimize for
the computer screen.
Given the complexity of the media landscape, it’s wise to engage a media-buying
agency that specializes in campus media. I’ve seen the most sophisticated large
agency shops falter in the research and planning of campus media.
Keep in mind, too, that many marketers compete for the same audience in the
same timeframe. Start early or risk being shut out of key campus locations.
2. Who are you really marketing to?
The bigger the tab, the more likely the parents play an essential role in the
buying process. This can change as students move through their college years,
however. Grad students are usually acting independent of parents.
While students can take the lead on day-to-day needs, financial product
decisions are more likely to be led by the parents. Going to college is often a
student’s first foray into (limited) financial independence. Often parents will want
to have a student’s account at their own bank. Parents will almost always need to
co-sign loans and sometimes other student accounts.
If personal selling is part of your marketing plan, employ student-aged
ambassadors or street teams to reach out. Not surprisingly, students are more
likely to positively receive a sales message from a cohort.
3. When do you market to students?
The bulk of student buying happens at the start of the Fall semester. Even
student loans and financial services, available year-round, are largely purchased
shortly before school starts. Sounds simple, right? Complexity ensues due to
different class start dates around the country and the proliferation of school
scheduling options – semesters versus trimesters versus quarters.
When marketing on campus, timing can be everything. If you are a product or
service purchased at the start of a semester, keep in mind that students make
a tremendous number of buying decisions during their first week on campus.
In many cases, parents are there for part of that week to foot the bill of major
Due to this timing, many buying decisions are made at the same time students
are meeting new friends, catching up with old ones, rushing a sorority or
fraternity and partying. Did I mention partying?
Trying to get their attention during this time frame is one of the great battles of
student marketing. That’s why you see so many on-campus events with booths
for local businesses and services during this time. Many marketers get attention
by sponsoring welcoming events and employing on-campus ambassadors or
street teams and the like during this timeframe.
4. How should you talk to students?
Students can be surprisingly down-to-earth in their buying decisions. The worst
offenses are trying too hard to sound like a student when you’re not, or talking
down to them.
Between search, their online network and offline relationships, this group does
fast and furious research. They will come up to speed very quickly on anything
they’re seriously considering buying. Your marketing effort should play an
important role in where and how they do their research – your links, your site,
etc. Furthermore, their buying decisions are often a group activity. Market with
these concepts in mind.
Students (as with all Millennials) are skeptical buyers. That actually leads to two
opposite-sounding conclusions. The first is this cohort is very brand conscious.
Use “natural capital” to engage them – messages related to their interests rather
than your product – as a means of establishing your brand on their terms. Brand
allegiances are often gained via indirect sales techniques such as music or
On the other hand, straightforward promotional messages can also be effective.
Money is tight so discounts work. The mix of brand and promotion messaging is
an important balance.
Given the many distractions facing this target and generally tight marketing
timing around the start of school, integrated campaigns across traditional
campus, digital media and mobile are recommended. Think numerous touches,
consistent messaging and a way for students to act online to buy or research
The Final Word
One of the significant changes going on in college attendance
is a demographic aging of the population. This is due to a weak economy, more
part-time students and the longer time it takes to complete what used to be a
four-year program. As of 2011, more than 50% of students were older than 21, a
significant change from the past. More of them are now holding jobs down while
in college and on break. In general, the older the student, the more money they
have to spend.*