Back to school. It’s a “season” typically greeted with dread and anxiety by students; joy and pride by parents. But if you’re a marketer, the dawning of a new semester is the perfect time to think about how your products and services can benefit college and university students.
Tap Into a Lucrative Market
The college population offers marketers a wealth of opportunities, especially because this year, student discretionary purchasing power is on the rise. The college years are also a great time to gain trust, because choices made during this stage of life tend to influence purchasing decisions for years to come.
Alloy Media + Marketing’s “10th Annual ‘College Explorer’ Survey” analyzed the spending habits of college students, ages 18 to 34. Conducted in conjunction with market research firm Harris Interactive, the survey polled 1,575 students enrolled in two-year, four-year and graduate programs during April 2010:
- This fall, 16 million college students will hit the classrooms. Their combined 2010 spending power is up 13 percent, compared with last year.
- Males and females ages 18 to 34 are spending 10 percent more on discretionary items like gaming, technology and beauty products. (Males are spending “slightly more”–$25 versus $22 per month for females–on personal care products.)
- Overall, college students are spending 3 percent more per month on discretionary purchases compared with last year, or $361 per person.
- Two percent of college students currently own an e-reader and another 50 percent say they plan to buy one in the next year.
- Smartphone ownership is expected to rise 26 percent. And, 73 percent of males expect to purchase a portable gaming console this year, versus 67 percent who plan to buy a non-portable version.
- Forty-eight percent of this year’s respondents said social responsibility is important, versus 43 percent last year. In fact, consumers have come to expect social and environmental traits from brands. If you are a non-profit organization that wants to inspire young adults to contribute in time and resources, read “How to Engage 20-Somethings in Your Cause ” for more specific advice.
It’s Time to Get Social
Because of the average age of the college crowd, social media is, hands-down, the No. 1 way to get their attention. It’s surpassed search engines as the research vehicle of choice for students contemplating a purchase or a commitment (such as, to a charity). But before you jump in, be wary. Young adults check out everything extensively, and that includes getting recommendations from people just like them. Do you want to build brand affinity? Then you must do your homework — and think creatively.
Remember, students trust each other, not brands. If they like your product or service, they will share it with their peers on social sites such as Facebook, blogs and Twitter flash polls. But don’t think you can get away with simply creating a Facebook page or a Twitter feed. They won’t come. If you want success in reaching this audience, follow these rules of thumb:
- Tap into student conversations to get the lay of the land. Just listen. Find out where the conversations are taking place, what they’re about, what interests the participants and what type of content they find valuable enough to pass on. There are free tools to do this, such as Ice Rocket  and BlogPulse . FeedDemon  is a free Windows RSS reader that will help you stay informed. For deep insight into buzz taking place among your target audience, Sysomos , a Marketwire company, is a social media monitoring system that enables you to find and track influencers, analyze sentiment and establish and manage relationships.
- Once you understand the conversations, develop a content strategy that educates and informs, amuses, engages and entertains. Include stories and messages that young adults will want to spread. But make sure your stories are authentic, interesting and useful – insincerity or fake stories and content will backfire. Be sure to incorporate videos, photos and audio whenever possible. Be sure to incorporate videos, photos and audio whenever possible. Learn how big brands such as McDonald’s and Whirlpool use creative storytelling  to drive home their social media messages.
- Give your efforts enough time to take hold. If students don’t find third-party recommendations (usually blog posts) for your brand in the first two or three pages of their search results, then you don’t exist. While September is considered official “back to school” month, there are other times in the calendar year – like January and late-February/early-March (spring break) – that might also be considered good opportunities to deliver your message to an attentive crowd.
- Target your messages only to the college-age demographic. Broad-reach sites don’t speak to them. As soon as they read “workplace” or something else non-college in a review, ad or webpage, they tune out and move on.
- When promoting a product or service, don’t just think “cheap.” Yes, students are typically on a tight budget, but they appreciate products that will meet their needs and last.
Once you get your messages down, consider sending a social media press release . But remember to follow the rules of thumb discussed above.
Tune into College Media
Campus newspapers and broadcast media are an often-overlooked path to reaching today’s college student. True, young adults don’t read traditional print newspapers, but college students do read their campus newspapers, and they tune into their campus radio and TV stations.
A single press release sent via Marketwire’s Collegiate Presswire  newsline can get your message to a potential audience of one million students. Collegiate Presswire also distributes your news to college media websites and user-generated online forums like Digg, Delicious, Newsvine and Technorati. Through September 17, Collegiate Presswire is offering a summer special that sends your stories to campus newspapers that publish during the summer months so you don’t miss the valuable early-September timeframe.
Combine Social and Campus Media for the Biggest Bang
Consider taking advantage of both social and college media – use the same approach and multiply your efforts. It’s an ideal way to reinforce your brand. If you play by the rules, you can start building trust and brand equity among the lucrative college market.
Do you have stories or best practices to share about how you’ve successfully reached the college-age market? If so, we’d love to hear from you. And if you’re a member of the college-age group, please let us know if we’re on the mark and if there’s anything you’d like to add to our tips and advice.