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Marketing to College Students Decoded

College students are a valuable segment to target.

College is a pivotal life stage, a time when students begin to gain financial independence and forge their own paths. And, of note to marketers, it’s also a time associated with a lot of spending. With 19 million college students in the US alone, this is a valuable consumer community for brands to target. 

But if you want to acquire student customers, you’ll need to take a specialized approach. Today’s college students are digitally savvy, socially conscious, and looking to build lasting brand relationships. Read on to learn the best strategies for marketing to college students.

Why Consider Marketing to College Students?

Brands might worry that students don’t have the finances to make many purchases, but there is a lot more money in this segment than you might think. Students have a spending power of $593 billion in the US, and college spending totaled $37 billion in 2021. Much of this spending centers around back-to-school shopping, with 89% of students planning to buy college supplies. And while their incomes might be limited, 75% of Gen Z spends over 50% of their available money per month.

Since students are often living away from home for the first time, they spend this money on a lot of different products and services, including:

  • Entertainment
  • Technology
  • Streaming media
  • Clothing
  • Textbooks
  • Subscription services
  • Dorm room essentials

Students are also a loyal group. Over half (2 out of 3) of Gen Z said that once they discover a brand they like, they will continue to buy from them for a long time. 

College Student Shopping Trends

Traditionally aged college students (92% of college students are under the age of 24) right now are part of Generation Z (those born in 1995 or later). And everyone knows that Gen Z are digital natives, growing up with the internet at their fingertips. As such, it’s no surprise that a lot of college students choose to shop online. Studies show that 3 out of 4 Gen Z primarily spend their free time online, and more than 50% of students want to hear about exclusive offers via social media, email, or a brand’s website. The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged students (and consumers in general) to complete more purchases online as well; in 2022, over 40% of consumers shopping for back-to-college items chose to do so online. This means that the college population is an excellent choice for ecommerce brands to target, and brands should prioritize communicating with this group digitally. 

This is not to say that college students never frequent brick-and-mortar stores, as 2 out of 3 Gen Z shop in-store and 42% of students prefer to learn about discounts through in-store ads. So, local businesses can still acquire students, but digital marketing tactics will generally be the most effective at getting their attention.

What to Keep in Mind When Marketing to College Students

Students will, of course, eventually graduate and no longer be students. Compared to other consumer communities, such as healthcare workers or the military, they may be eligible for your discounts for a relatively short period of time. But some streaming media businesses have seen students convert to full-price after graduation at rates up to 98%. If you can offer students an excellent product and shopping experience, they might just become lifelong customers. And the limited money situation will change; college graduates, on average, make about $22k more than non-graduates.

Data privacy is also very important to this community. Having grown up with social media and digital shopping, students understand the dangers and are savvy on ways to protect their privacy. Many use ad blockers, so they are harder to reach with traditional forms of advertising. Plus, 84% of college students would not do business with a brand if they were concerned about how it might use their data, and 92% don’t want to provide sensitive information to redeem a discount. This means that brands wishing to engage and retain student customers need to follow ethical data privacy policies and be transparent about how they will use any customer data.

12 College Marketing Strategies

If you want to acquire more students, you need to be strategic and targeted with your college marketing ideas. Here’s how to market to college students to increase conversions and encourage loyalty

Map Out Student Profiles

Of course, not all students are the same. For instance, while most college students are Gen Z, some are from older generations. You will also find a variety of shopping habits and interests depending on factors such as geographic location, income level, type of college, etc. As such, it can be helpful to do a deep dive into the students you want to target. You can further segment the student community to drive even more highly personalized marketing. This is helpful considering 87% of Gen Z want a personalized shopping experience.

Use Social Media

When marketing to college students, keep in mind that 65% of students want to hear about exclusive offers via social media, and 4 of 5 Gen Z say they get most of their information from social media. But when you do use social media, you’ll need to stay on top of the trends. 

Older platforms like Facebook are losing popularity among younger generations. Instead, the top three social media platforms for Gen Z are YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. In fact, students are 68% more likely to engage with an ad on TikTok compared to other channels. Trends on these platforms come and go quickly, so your social media marketing team will need to act fast to stay relevant. You’ll also notice that these platforms all focus on video and images. With young smartphone users having a wealth of entertainment available, you want content that is bite-sized, snappy, and visually rich.

Create Brand Ambassadors

You can encourage students to share their own content with your brand by offering a fun hashtag, asking them to mention your brand in their social media posts, and featuring user-generated content on your site. Students love this because not only does it give them a chance in the limelight but they get to see other real shoppers using your products. Plus, creating brand champions can be an easy and cost-effective way to promote your brand.

Enable Chat-Based Customer Service

While older generations are more comfortable calling up a business if they have a question or concern, 85% of Gen Z would prefer to interact with a brand via chat or an automated system. To make sure younger consumers feel comfortable reaching out to your brand, include a chatbot on your site, respond to queries sent through social media, or include the ability to text, rather than call, customer service representatives.

Build an International Campaign

There are over 650 million students worldwide, and thanks to the interconnectedness of our modern world, ecommerce brands don’t have to limit themselves to students in their country. SheerID’s Verification Platform allows brands to build offers in 37 languages for students in 193 different countries. Building an international campaign significantly widens your reach and makes your products accessible to students around the globe.

Cause Marketing

Gen Z is passionate about the causes they support; 77% of college students want to support brands that share their values, and 90% are less likely to skip an ad that showcases a brand’s support of a non-profit. 

Thus, brands can earn the attention and respect of college students by speaking out about causes and giving back through partnerships with nonprofits, charitable donations, and events that support important causes. Just be careful that this activism comes across as genuine; college students will notice and call out your brand if it’s nothing but lip service. Try backing up your cause marketing messaging with actual actions that support your cause and doing your research to be sure that you are speaking about these issues from an informed, sensitive perspective. 

Contests and Giveaways

College students love free stuff, so contests and giveaways are a great way to engage them. Consider running a sweepstakes campaign just for students. The exclusivity of such an opportunity will make students more likely to apply since their odds are better. 

Reach Their Parents

Don’t forget about who is likely paying for tuition: the parents. Good times to reach the parents of college students are near move-in day and parents’ weekend. Families will likely be doing a good deal of back-to-school shopping, so discounts and ads focused on items such as dorm room essentials, college supplies, textbooks, etc. will be effective. For retail businesses, building care package bundles give parents an easy way to send their children some love.

Recognize Important Times of the Year

Run ads and campaigns during times that are significant for college students, such as:

  • Orientation
  • Back-to-school
  • Graduation
  • Spring break
  • Summer break

Think about what types of products students are likely to be buying during these periods to get the most out of your campaigns. For back-to-school, there will be a lot of practical items students need for the coming school year, whereas students might be looking for more fun items, such as new clothes or jewelry, to celebrate graduation. For stores with a strong local presence, consider checking the academic calendars of local universities to time your college marketing pushes just right.

Launch Exclusive Discounts

Student discounts are one of the best ways to engage and acquire new student customers. Saving money is usually a top priority for students, and 77% prefer to shop with brands that offer student discounts. Since 92% of students strongly identify with being in college, exclusive offers make them feel appreciated and valued. If given a discount, 69% of students would shop with a brand more frequently, and 50% would be willing to try a new brand. And while there are many types of discounts, identity marketing offers that cater to a specific consumer community are most effective at driving long-term loyalty.

Student discounts have paid off for many brands. For example:

  • You Need a Budget (YNAB)’s student program led to a 68% increase in student acquisition.
  • Gainful saw an 18% lift in first month retention.
  • BackMarket increased student verifications 4x and drove a 5x increase in back-to-school purchases.
  • Comcast boosted year-over-year student conversions by 91%.

To make your offer even more effective and reduce fraud, gate your offer and require students to prove their eligibility. A digital verification process is quick, easy, and requires only basic information that students should feel comfortable providing in exchange for a discount.

Encourage Word-of-Mouth

Another benefit of exclusive discounts is that students usually spend the majority of their time with other students who might also want to redeem your offer. In fact, 97% of students would share an offer with others who were eligible for it, and 87% of students would try a brand or product that a friend recommends. You can encourage this word-of-mouth sharing even more with referral programs that reward one or both parties involved in a referral with a discount.

Remarket with Zero-Party Data

Remember how we said college students value data privacy? While that is absolutely true, that doesn’t mean you can’t gather data in privacy-friendly fashion, and the best way to do this is with zero-party data. Zero-party data is information a consumer willingly hands over in return for something of value. So, when someone redeems a student discount, they will provide basic personal information such as name, email address, and phone number. 

Then, your brand can use this data to run remarketing efforts designed to keep these consumers engaged with your brand. With the power of zero-party data, you can re-engage students with highly personalized campaigns that drive repeat purchases, retention, and Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). 

Start Marketing to College Students Today

Marketing to college students can have a massive payoff. This consumer community is engaged with the world around them, fiercely loyal, and interested in supporting brands that support them. 

With SheerID’s Verification Platform, you can build exclusive offers that reward students. Protect your offers with instant digital verification to confirm that only eligible consumers are able to redeem your offer. Continue engaging your student buyers with personalized campaigns powered with zero-party data to keep students coming back for more again and again—even after graduation.

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