What is university and college marketing?

Let’s start out with the basics: this article isn’t focused on how to market to universities or colleges as institutions, but rather how and why to market to the individuals present on these campuses.

In today’s increasingly technologic world, the most prevalent manner of marketing is done through digital channels: websites, social media, search marketing, apps, SMS text messaging, video, etc. After all, students are on tech devices for one reason or another every day, and it makes sense to meet consumers where they already are. In fact, a 2018 PsychCentral report found that college students spend an average of 8-10 hours per day using devices like cellphones, tablets, or laptops—if these individuals are part of your target demographic, it makes sense to ask yourself if you’re offering content with which they can interact on these channels.

However, we cannot overlook the importance and impact of face-to-face marketing endeavors, which offer a unique opportunity to universities and college campuses. Through on-campus representation (i.e. brand ambassadors, guerrilla marketing, sponsorships, etc.), brands can create significant one-on-one engagements that provide additional word-of-mouth marketing opportunities.

For companies that are looking to target students at universities and colleges, there are numerous strategies that can be leveraged to increase awareness and interaction with your brand and provide a strong footing for long-lasting consumer relations.

Why should businesses market to university and college students?

College students are more prevalent in the United States than ever before, and every year those students spend an increasing amount (largely on discretionary purchases). In 2019, there was measured to be between 15 – 23 million students attending college in the US, who collectively spent over $200 billion per year. The rough breakdown in expenses can be seen below:

  • 33% on food & beverages
  • 27% on devices & technology
  • 15% on events
  • 12% on clothing
  • 9% on cosmetics
  • 4% on other

In addition to the sheer amount of discretionary spending performed by these individuals, there is a clear-cut benefit in marketing to students: younger purchasers have time to become more highly-educated, brand-loyal consumers, especially in a geographically stable market.

If your company is able to solidify your positioning as a favored provider of goods or services to a young, impressionable audience, you have the ability to secure lifelong advocates of your brand. But be careful—these aren’t just “young kids” who can easily be tricked into thinking you’re something that you’re not—today’s college students are looking for genuine connections with authentic brands. It’s not enough to talk the talk, you must walk the walk (or risk losing out on creating long-lasting consumer-brand relationships).

What are the demographics of university and college students?

On average, the age-based demographics of university and college students range from 18 – 30 years old; however, these numbers can and will vary widely so it’s important to keep your research active and engaged. The majority of students who are actively in-school/on-campus fall between 18 – 24 years old, and can categorically be classified as Millennials or Gen Z. However, with each passing year, the percentage of college students who can be classified as Gen Z increases—and they will eventually make up the overwhelming statistical majority of students.

Millennials are classified as individuals born between 1980 and 1994. Gen Z are classified as individuals born 1995 and after. The most significant commonality between these two generations versus those who came before them are their native adoption of technology in their day-to-day life. Millennials and (especially) Gen Z grew up with different technology and media surrounding them—and more so than any other generations, they look to the digital world to collect their information and share their thoughts. So it makes sense to leverage appropriate digital channels in your marketing!

These two generations offer a rich opportunity to brands: for the most part, they have not yet formed strict brand loyalties, and early adulthood is where those strong connections can be built. In order to gain the most significant traction with this crowd, you’ll need to have a solid and authentic digital narrative. Millennials and Gen Z students are looking for real authenticity in the products they purchase, and are shown to focus on brands who share their own personal beliefs. This is a fantastic opportunity to establish a strong brand identity and ensure that your business stands for something. And don’t be afraid to go out on a limb here—students are especially experimental compared to other generational audiences, so they can relate to more experiential marketing ventures.

What are the strategies to target college students?

If you want to target college students with your marketing, you’re going to need to be heavily focused on digital and experiential, and able to scale your touchpoints frequently. Let’s quickly break down each approach.

For your digital marketing endeavors, you’re going to want to focus on mobile messaging and apps, visually stunning emails, educational and enticing blogs, and (of course) social media. However, don’t dumb down your message; it’s not worth the risk of being seen as inauthentic or out of touch to simply post memes or jokes on your Facebook or Instagram page all day long. University students are looking for real engagement, with personality sprinkled in. Look to discover influencers who can assist in your messaging, and above all else remember that your content MUST be mobile-optimized. If your website or content can’t load properly on a handheld device, there is a good chance they’re going to exit out and abandon you. First impressions matter!

For your experiential marketing endeavors, look for opportunities to physically get in front of college students. You can sponsor events such as football games, concerts, etc., and be sure to have some sort of physical giveaway or experience they can participate with. Your goal here is to create memorable impressions that will help generate additional word-of-mouth marketing—students are far more likely to believe their peers than a company they don’t know! If you can get students to vouch for you by offering truly positive, engaging experiences, you have a much better chance of increasing a new prospect’s interest in your brand.

Regardless of your media deployment method, you’re going to want to keep the messaging simple and uncomplicated, and most of all: relevant.

A great example is what Trojan did on college campuses. When they first conveyed their message about their condoms to students on campus communities, they didn’t talk about price, product specialties, or anything vulgar or explicit; instead, they talked about the importance of consent. In addition to being socially responsible and empathetic in their nature, they realize that sexual consent is about both parties having a positive experience. Nothing cuts through the noise of lower-level marketing like a brand taking a stand on a relevant issue, where they have domain experience and expertise.



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