How to Market to College Students: The Ultimate Guide

Last year, my friends Christy and Garth opened a bubble tea shop just steps from college dormitories. Every day, college students go there to get their boba fix. But they’re not the only bubble tea shop in town, and the kids who live in the dorms across campus or at home might not even know it exists.

They quickly recognized that traditional methods of advertising weren’t reaching the right demographics. They needed to learn how to market to college students specifically, so they could use modern methods of marketing to grow their new business.

Today’s college students are part of Gen Z, known for being digital natives with a cynical eye toward traditional marketing. That is, they comfortably engage with brands online and expect authenticity and shared values. They demand convenience in a day that’s packed not only with studies but also socializing and probably working.

The first step to understanding how best to market to college students is to understand them beyond the normal statistics. What do they care about? How do they decide what to buy with their disposable income? 

For example, Christy and Garth understood that the young adults near their shop wanted plastic-free straws and compostable packaging. If you’re unsure of the values and interests of those you want to market to, consider implementing an online survey to your current customers to ask. 

Here are other things to consider when reaching out to this age group:

  • Get mobile.
  • Reach out on social media.
  • Be creative with your content.
  • Find student ambassadors.
  • Hold contests and giveaways.
  • Stand for something.
  • Be a part of on-campus events.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these marketing best practices.

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Get mobile

If you want college students to think you’re a total dinosaur, skip the mobile-responsive website. Gen Z is on the go, and they connect with brands and businesses of all sizes just as they do with their friends: online. It’s a priority to ensure your website functions just as well on a desktop computer as it does on a smartphone.

Have a fun, well-designed website that’s interactive. If you own a restaurant, include your menu on your site. If you own a retail store, incorporate an in-store shopping experience online. Have clear call-to-action buttons so any visitor to your site knows exactly how to connect with you.

Reach out on social media

You already know that college students spend hours each day on social media — so use that to your business advantage. Pick one platform for your business and dedicate time to developing your brand there.

For Gen Z, the most popular platforms are Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. Go with the one that makes the most sense for your business. Develop ways that college students can buy your products or services straight from social media, as well as through your website or in person at your store. This is known as omnichannel marketing, and it works.

Be creative with your content

Once you have your website and social media platforms set up, you’ll quickly discover it’s exhausting to come up with something to post every couple of days to keep it fresh. This is why it’s vital that you sit down with your most valued team members to brainstorm ideas for the upcoming semester or school year.

Think about popular events that you can market around, such as a big football game or finals. Create a marketing calendar ahead of time with deadlines and designated people who are responsible for certain tasks. Have fun as you create your marketing strategy. Try producing short videos to get added attention from Gen Zers.

Find student ambassadors

Word-of-mouth advertising has evolved from people chatting around the water cooler. Today, young adults listen to their peers and influencers who inspire purchases. You can create a student ambassador program by reaching out to people on your social media channel who have a significant following.

Kylie Jenner Instagram

Do your research to make sure the people you consider approaching will work with your brand. Offer brand ambassadors a discount or free items in exchange for a certain number of sponsored ads on their Instagram Stories or YouTube vlog, for example. Be clear about your arrangement with a contract, and track the engagement they have with their friends and fans.

Hold contests and giveaways

College students love free things, so appeal to them through contests with prizes or giveaways. For example, if the university near your business has a successful photography club, approach members to participate in a photo contest that is somehow connected to your service or products. Or maybe a holiday-themed giveaway fits better with your brand.

For example, Christy and Garth could host a giveaway for a free bubble tea and snack, with the winner chosen from people who take a selfie with the hashtag #ItsBobaTime and tag the business’s Instagram account. A new winner could be chosen at random each month.

Stand for something

Have you heard the phrase, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”? That wisdom is in the heart of most Gen Zers, who expect the brands they do business with to care as much about their values as they do. 

That said, use your business as an opportunity to stand up for what’s right. Just keep in mind that whether it’s supporting a local charity or a global movement, ‘what’s right’ has to be what’s right for you and your business. 

Use hashtags and feature members of the community you care about on your social media platforms. Post supportive signs in your establishment. Be authentic when deciding what to stand for. If you understand and connect with your target audience, they’ll appreciate your efforts — and likely tell their friends.

Be a part of on-campus events

It’s clear that marketing to college students can be challenging, but the easiest part is that you know you’ll find them on campus. Are there ways that you can integrate and market your business with on-campus events? Stop in at the student center or go online to follow college marketing to stay abreast of opportunities. 

Events Page
Many colleges have online schedules of events. The more you talk with college students, the quicker you’ll know about marketing opportunities on campus.

There may be fairs for students where you can have a table and give away free samples or coupons. You may be able to underwrite activities in exchange for hanging a banner. You can even use your social media to connect with whatever is going on to stay relevant. 

Need more ideas?

Marketing to college students requires you to be flexible and nimble, always listening to your current clients for ways to connect with their peers both on and offline. For more ideas, you can take a page from a college playbook by checking out Constant Contact’s The Download. It’s a free guide to help education marketers reach their target audience. 

As you grow your business with college students, remember to plan for the summer. When school’s out, you’ll want to shift your marketing strategy while planning ahead for the next semester to start.

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