Five Things to Consider When Marketing to College Students

flytedeskAs an industry, we love to treat young people as mythical beasts whose motivations and desires must be deciphered through tea leaves. Marketing to college students is particularly crucial since they’re a generation of consumers coming into their own during an observable time in an observable place. There are 20 million U.S. college students with $44 billion in estimated buying power, so they’re an important demographic for brands to reach. These five truths are the bedrock of any effective college marketing strategy…

They’re expressly experimental

When students arrive on campus, they have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine who they are and decide who they want to become. Gone are the reputations of high school, the political beliefs of mom and dad, the activities they stuck with only to put in a college application. College is a time and place built for experimentation – students are surrounded by new people, new ideas, and limitless opportunity. Brands have always been part of this reinvention and self-definition process. A recent Flytedesk survey found that more than half of college students (54%) are less likely to shop at a store if their parents shop there. The brands that students choose to align themselves with, project to others who they are, in both a real and aspirational sense.

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Stand for something

College isn’t just an obvious time to be part of an expanded consideration set — brands with strong missions stand out to students more than older audiences. Students are idealistic and they’re encouraged to form opinions and defend them to their peers and professors. All our research concludes that purpose is the constant driver of students’ actions, beliefs, and brand choices. When we saw Trojan Condoms’ first message conveyed to campus communities, it wasn’t about prices or products, it was about the importance of consent on campus. Nothing cuts through the noise like a brand taking a stand on a relevant issue where they have domain expertise.

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College is a physical space

Students spend a lot of time on their phones and only an infinitesimal percentage of that time is spent sharing purchasing habits. Students are deeply motivated by the brand choices of their peers and a college campus is the perfect venue for those choices to be made apparent. Students don’t share what type of dish soap they buy, or what brand of paper towels – but they routinely occupy each other’s living spaces. They see the full spectrum of brand choices their friends make because they’re in each other’s dorms and homes on a daily basis.

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They’re digital natives

Today’s college student has never known a world without technology. They’ve expertly navigated the internet since they were in diapers – so if you think they’re waiting patiently while your video ad finishes, or while your display ad slows down their webpage, or while your pop-up offers what might otherwise be a perfectly great deal, you’re kidding yourself. College students grew up with digital advertising and they grew up avoiding it. A full 69% of Generation Z Americans block ads online and many never even had a cable television cord to cut. While their moms are spending every waking moment on Facebook, they’re more likely to be found on emerging social media platforms with less developed ad products. This makes it more important to creatively earn their attention.

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Don’t overthink it

Students are making brand choices about almost every product for the first time – that’s an opportunity marketers just can’t afford to miss. Students come to college with a household income twice the amount of their non-college peers and they’ll make over $1 million more in their lifetimes. They are the highest lifetime value consumers ready, willing and able to try out and develop an affinity for a new brand. Simply put, advertisers can’t afford not to make students a top priority.

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