Updated: 12/02/2020: New figures released for the number of students returning to college.
Updated 05/08/2020: Now includes the latest college marketing advice during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Updated 05/02/2021: New figures and analysis added related to the number of students set to graduate in 2021.
College marketing involves creative, high-impact marketing campaigns that specifically target college students, aged between 18-24. Targeting such a broad demographic is not easy, especially when the social attitudes and values that drive these individuals are continually in flux. For this reason, a successful college marketing campaign is built on sound research and smart planning. By taking time to understand the broader issues that affect college students, we can better formulate a marketing strategy that really speaks to them.
This article will cover a number of different college marketing ideas that could help create an effective campaign for a product or service, but first, it’s important to understand why the college market is worth targeting and what the benefits are for brands looking to do so.
In the 2020-21 academic year, an estimated 19.7 million students  travelled to study at colleges across the USA. This massive national student body stretches across every state, uniting a vast range of young people from all social backgrounds into a diverse, unique and economically powerful consumer group.
Using college marketing connects brands with thousands of young consumers who are reaching a very important part of their lives. The college experience is the first major step into the adult world for many young people, this presents a golden opportunity for brands and businesses to step in, make an impact and provide a solution to whatever need or problem that they have.
In 2021, 4.43 million college students are projected to graduate. Many of these graduates will soon be in their first professional jobs which will provide them with the most disposable income they’ve ever had. This makes graduates eager and relatively affluent consumers still looking to establish their brand loyalty. Marketing to college students early on gives you a head start against competitors to build trust and loyalty with the affluent, eager and loyal graduate consumer group.
Research has shown that young people from the highest quintile of socioeconomic status (taking into consideration their parents’ education, occupations and household income) are 50% more likely to be enrolled in college than classmates from the lowest quintile . Today’s college students are therefore more likely to have come from privileged backgrounds and have disposable income. Then take into account that median earnings for young adults with bachelor’s degrees is $50,000 (nearly $20,000 above the national average), and it becomes apparent why it’s worth marketing to these people at a young age.
It would be fair to argue that just because an average college student is likely to come from a higher socioeconomic background does not guarantee that they will necessarily spend the money that they have been bequeathed from their status. This might be true, especially as one survey has suggested that up to 74% of college students work whilst studying to supplement the contributions made by their parents . 86% of respondents to this survey also worked full or part-time jobs over the summer, however, it’s worth noting that on average a college student will spend $99,417 over the course of their degree .
Today’s college students belong to the ‘Generation Z’ generational group. These individuals were born between the mid-90s to the mid-00s and are following hot on the heels of Millennials. Although they have many things in common with their predecessors, such as an affinity with modern technologies, there are also some subtle differences that should be noted in order to target them with effective marketing.
Taken as a whole group, these students are the second generation of ‘Digital Natives’. Raised in a world of mass connectivity and social media, their affinity for technology has reshaped how they engage with retail, as such they are more aware, more informed and more empowered than any generation before them.
College students are active on more social platforms than any other demographic as 39% of ‘Generation Z’ have 4 or more social media accounts. This makes social media marketing a core component of any successful college student digital marketing strategy. Read our complete guide on social media marketing to college students for a comprehensive overview of everything you need to know about engaging college students on social media.
Taking time to get inside the minds of college students is a key part of understanding how to market to them. The move from High School to College denotes a major shift in lifestyle for the average student. The majority of students will move out of home when starting their new life at college , which brings a host of new responsibilities that these young adults must learn and master if they wish to properly thrive out of the nest. This newfound freedom and responsibility presents an opportunity for brands or businesses ready to identify how they can best help these young people to navigate this life change.
During their college years, students begin to recognize their purchasing power; setting trends and habits that will last a lifetime. Young people spend more time together than other social or professional groups, this makes influencing their consumer decisions a difficult challenge which can only be tackled with a well-planned, targeted marketing campaign.
Effective college marketing identifies the needs of this demographic and delivers a brand’s message in a timely, useful way. Whilst college students spend thousands of dollars over the course of their degrees, they are not easily swayed by traditional, interruption marketing. Studies have shown how 56% Gen Z will purposefully not click on ads whilst browsing websites, whilst 65% have gone as far as to install ad-blocking technology on their devices to stop seeing them altogether . Considering college students’ wariness of marketing messages is vital to delivering a brand message that will not simply be ignored on arrival.
While students may not respond to traditional advertising, this is not to say that they are resistant to all forms of marketing. Though students may have less expendable income than other groups, they still have discretionary money and are willing to spend it on brands that gain their attention and understand their values. Advertisements geared towards college students should be tailored to their values and be suitably attuned to their spending power and priorities.
So, how do you advertise to Gen Z college students when they don’t want to be advertised to? The answer is authenticity. The IBM Institute for Business Value (in conjunction with the National Retail Federation) conducted a survey of over 15,000 Gen Z people , to find out how they relate to brands and what they value most in these relationships.
Whilst the survey respondents were overall less likely to form brand attachments (compared to previous generations) they were still keen to engage with them, suggesting that a focus on creating authentic experiences could be the key to marketing to Gen Z college students. The study also noted how growing up in a media landscape consisting of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ had led these young people to crave authenticity and transparency when conducting relationships with brands and businesses.
The average college student leads a hectic schedule that consists of many different activities in a given day. A survey conducted by HSBC highlights the multifaceted nature of a college student’s day and shows how important convenience is to this demographic. On average, a college student will spend 2.3 hours studying in class, 2.8 hours studying at home, 4 hours socialising and up to 4.2 hours a day doing paid work . Other than confirming what many parents might have already guessed related to the number of hours students actually work in a given day, these findings show just how busy a college student’s day is and demonstrates that in order for brands to get their message heard they need to find the best gap in this schedule in order for their message to be heard.
To understand how to sell to college students its first important to understand where they spend their money. Student spending trends change every year. As priorities between year groups evolve constantly it can be a challenge to anticipate how and where the next cohort of college students will choose to spend their money.
Luckily for marketers looking to penetrate the student market, there is a wealth of data available online that has been collected by reputable financial businesses which gives insight into how college students spend their money. The majority of this data is taken from surveys, and although the sample sizes are large, these figures should be used as a starting point for marketing strategies.
Despite coming from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, the majority of college students will work in their spare time to support their education and their lifestyle choices. One question that brands and businesses considering marketing to college students will have is: where do they spend their money? A 2018 survey undertaken by HSBC  helps give us insight into how some college students are choosing to spend their money, shedding light on opportunities for businesses considering marketing to this demographic.
It should come as no surprise that, over the course of an average month, students spend the most on tuition fees and accommodation. However, it should also be noted that they also have no qualms in spending their hard-earned money recreationally. On average, they will spend over $5000 on various forms of entertainment during their college degree, not to mention over $4000 on eating out and takeaways. So, whilst college students will inevitably spend the majority of their money on necessities, they are far from shy when spending their money elsewhere too.
Each year Deloitte releases its Back-to-College Report , detailing where college students are planning to spend their money and, more importantly, how they prioritise certain offerings.
This year, students pointed towards pricing being one of their most important considerations when it comes to purchasing decisions. 91% of the recipients of this year’s survey held price as their number one priority, with 71% saying that discounts on prices will also influence their eventual decision
This should come as little surprise as, even though students spend in excess of $60 billion dollars each year, the cost of the average annual tuition fee is estimated at $33,215 , a price that naturally puts the squeeze on other expenditures.
Making the effort to ingratiate your brand with these students today should be seen as a building block for your business’ future success. It’s estimated that the lifetime spending potential of college graduates is $1 million more than those who do not attain a college degree .
While current students may value a good price above everything else today, investing in marketing to this demographic should be seen as a long-term strategy to securing a valuable, lifelong relationship with a consumer group that will have considerably more spending power than those whose have not attended college.
As with all marketing campaigns, timing is crucial to maximize audience engagement. By paying close attention to the rhythms of college life you can take advantage of the major marketing opportunities that pop-up throughout the academic year, effectively reaching college students at the point when they are most in need of your brand.
The ebb and flow of the college semester are permeated with major events that the student body will gravitate towards. From the back-to-school season to homecoming and college football season, these are perfect opportunities to engage students and promote your brand.
The relationship between the brand and your college consumer doesn’t stop at graduation. The transition into post-college existence is another key moment in a student’s life when their financial situations can potentially improve for the better and they find themselves making investments that could last them for much longer than just a single term.
At this point, students will need advice on applying for jobs, moving home, and learning how to adapt to the working world. Just like the beginning of their college experience, by being present at the end of their student lives, you can generate goodwill with consumers that will be entering a new phase of their life as spenders.
Recognizing what these Generation Z students value can help to inform the development of your marketing strategy. By digging into how these college students see the world and the general opinions that they hold on social issues, brands can tailor their messaging and approach to better fit this demographic. While making wide generalizations about a group as large as this does have its limitations, by looking at survey results taken from both generational groups it’s possible to draw some insights as to the average college student’s beliefs.
Gen Z students value authentic experiences in every aspect of their lives from their online lives to their interpersonal relationships and their education. Rejecting the interruption advertising that has been the norm for decades, they seek content that is relevant to their needs and interests. Over 50% of Generation Z have ad blockers installed on their browsers. Similarly, Gen Z students are constantly seeking authenticity as a way to generate ‘greater freedom of expression and greater openness to understanding different kinds of people’, according to a recent report from McKinsey & Company .
The current American student body is a highly experimental, socially aware cohort that do not make purchases blindly. By paying attention to the value that they hold dear and tailoring your marketing strategy accordingly, you can avoid wasting time investing in ideas that are unlikely to resonate with this demographic.
As life on campus may change significantly over the course of the 2020-21 academic year, businesses and brands will need to adapt their marketing practices in order to keep a sustained presence in the minds of college students.
The Coronavirus pandemic has dramatically affected how colleges will be managing their classes and welcoming students onto campus. Due to the disparity between different cities and states, institutions are taking different approaches to re-opening. The College Crisis Initiative  has been collecting data from institutions across the country in regards to how they are planning on re-opening.
The following figures are accurate as of 08/04/2020; from a total of 2967 colleges, only 75 have confirmed that they will be teaching their classes fully in person, whereas 622 have confirmed that they will be teaching ‘primarily in person’. 131 colleges will be holding classes fully online, whereas 704 have moved to ‘primarily online’. 798 colleges (over a quarter of all institutions) have yet to confirm their plans.
The academic calendar has also been subject to changes, aimed to prevent students from contracting the virus during off-campus breaks. Some colleges have chosen to cancel fall breaks in October, with many stating that they will not welcome students back on campus if they have gone home for Thanksgiving. Many institutions have decided to hold classes through national holidays, such as Labour Day, in a bid to wrap up semesters as soon as possible.
This range of new policies will have a significant impact on student’s lifestyles and how they experience campus life. Those institutions that are hosting students on campus are often doing so with the proviso that there will be a host of new safety controls in place, in order to ensure that students are as safe as possible, and the influx of people does not lead to localised outbreaks. The majority of colleges will require all those on campus to wear facemasks at all times and some have also banned parties and group meetings which will naturally have an impact on how Fraternities and Sororities conduct themselves moving forward.
Each college attracts its own unique demographic of students, even before the Coronavirus pandemic it was advisable to take into account your brand or product, and carefully choose the right location to target your campus marketing with. Due to the current shifting climate surrounding colleges and how they will be planning to reopen, its become more important than ever to create a primary and backup list of colleges that you wish to target. Use what you know about the specific colleges, such as their location, enrollment size and demographics of their students to create these lists, so that you have flexibility when it comes to implementing your marketing strategies. If a school’s policy happens to change at the last minute, you’ll then be able to make adjustments accordingly and draw from your back up list, so that you can still execute your marketing strategy at the previously planned scale.
Depending on the specific colleges and locations that you are planning on, businesses may find that they’ll need to embrace flexibility in terms of the media that they are using to target their students with. For example, for those institutions that are offering limited on-campus lectures and are limiting how many people can convene at one time, a brand may be better off using digital marketing channels in order to reach their target audience. Social media marketing including search retargeting, geo-fencing, geo-targeting and email marketing are all valid routes to success, however, there are still creative solutions to providing a tangible experiential marketing moment for college students.
QR codes are a simple and effective way of connecting your student demographic with your offer, service or promotion. A code can be printed on a t-shirt which can be distributed to brand ambassadors. Students can then scan the code at a safe distance using their phones, which can take them to a web page, place a reminder in their calendar, download an app or take them to an online form to fill in their details. Married with the right messaging, a QR code can help increase a brand’s presence on campus (this can also be done without the need for ambassadors). Posters or flyers can be left on campus which students can discover as they travel to and from their classes. A similar approach can also be taken with OOH marketing.
If college students continue to comprise your target demographic then you should continue to target them with your marketing. Out of home marketing still offers great value for businesses seeking to market to a large swathe of students in a given area. Whilst many students will not be returning to campus, some will still be living and working, whilst continuing their studies from home. Identifying these students’ needs whilst they are isolated from their campus lives could help formulate a message that speaks to them.
Despite not spending the same amount of time on campus, there’s still an opportunity to reach students via OOH marketing. Students will still likely travel in and around campus, so finding where your target audience frequents and the routes that they follow is key to finding the best placements for your OOH advertising campaign.
Whilst care should always be taken when putting together marketing creatives, it’s important to remember to be particularly wary of your messaging during this time. The Coronavirus pandemic has affected disparate regions of the country in a multitude of ways, you should try to understand how college students’ sentiment towards the Coronavirus and the policies that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.
For example, condoning a party-lifestyle could prove to be polarising, as some college students may agree with the sentiment, whereas others would see it as in direct conflict with social-distancing guidelines, and therefore, not ethical. Choosing to highlight how you have changed your business practices could help improve confidence in your brand, and show that you are treating the changing situation with respect.
College students may be a uniquely astute group, but they are still just like any other consumer: the challenge is simply to capture their attention and engage them with a product. Students are establishing their spending habits while they are studying, making this a competitive and rewarding time to gain their custom. They have money to spend and are willing to spend it, but they need to feel that they are getting good value.
The best way to pursue the student market is by approaching them in person. While this demographic might be resistant to traditional ‘push’ marketing, they have been noted to appreciate tangible, novel experiences. Creating an imaginative, hands-on marketing strategy that engages students on an experiential level is the key to reaching this demographic.
Although American College life has changed a great deal in recent years, the college paper is one of those cultural staples that refuses to die. Most college institutions still support the publication of a local newspaper that keeps students up to date on sports team results, events and important campus issues. While it could be argued that ‘any publicity is good publicity’, readership of college newspapers has been on the decline for some time, so advertising on this channel might not be the most cost-effective idea. The same principle applies to local or college operated television.
Besides gaining a valuable qualification and life experience that will see them through the rest of their adult lives, college students also join a huge variety of organisations, associations and clubs, all of which require funding in some way or another. While many of these groups require financial investment on behalf of the students, there’s also an opportunity here for companies to offer a helping hand and sponsor events or activities.
Although there are opportunities to market to college students throughout their degree, there are significant benefits to timing your college marketing campaign with orientation. Most colleges hold orientation activities and events, which often involve hundreds or thousands of new students. These events usually take place in the first few weeks of the opening college semester and present an excellent opportunity for brands to get their message in front of students when they are early in their college journeys.
Many freshman college students will be in the process of figuring out how to support themselves for the first time, making purchasing decisions and forming buyer habits that may stick with them for their entire college life, or even further. Delivering a timely college marketing campaign during this time can help to set the building blocks for a profitable ongoing relationship.
A college campus is a busy place, even when events such as Rush Week, Freshman Orientation and varsity sports matches aren’t on. Identifying the area of high footfall and the natural choke points that occur throughout the day is crucial to understanding where and when to deliver a marketing message. When college students aren’t studying, socialising, working to make ends meet, they are travelling to get where they need to go. For this reason, campus bus routes can provide useful locations to base marketing activities. Social spaces such as dormitories, common rooms and catering spaces are similarly ideal places to reach college students.
The best on-campus events tie the brand’s message with a wider social issue. Condom manufacturer, Trojan, have made waves in recent years tying in on-campus activations with a no-nonsense message on consent that simultaneously gets their product into their target demographics’ hands while raising awareness and starting a conversation about an issue that is vitally important to this group.
Despite what you may think, unless it offers a tangible benefit, such as a valuable discount or promotional code, students don’t want your flyer. Flyer distribution, although affordable, is not a marketing strategy that resonates with Gen Z students and you’re more likely to find your lovingly crafted flyer in the bin than in the hands of your target demographic.
Taking your brand message to the classroom is only possible if your organisation can offer a presentation that contains real value for students. Consider the wide array of disciplines that are taught at college institutions and then build a presentation that ties into one of them, while being relevant to what your brand offers. Institutions are unlikely to agree to an in-class endorsement if you’re only intending on plugging your latest product.
Gen Z’s expectations from brands is now, more than ever, focused on experiences and interaction. Research has shown that these young people want to be actively involved with the brands that they use: 49% of Gen Z respondents said that they would like to submit ideas for product designs for brands in growth markets, whereas 44% said they would attend an event supported by brands. This shows that although this generation of college students might be wary of traditional marketing, they are eager to have an active relationship with brands as opposed to being merely consumers. With this in mind, college event marketing can be an effective route to take to spark that initial brand relationship with students.
The college campus is a place buzzing with activity and excitement, creating an event that breaks through the noise and gets students talking about your brand. Events can be as simple as handing out samples of products or could offer a more in-depth brand-focused experience that attempts to really create something that sticks in the mind of the student.
Create a buzz on campus with a contest that gets people talking about your brand and your product in front of as many eyes as possible. Large-scale physical contests can attract big crowds during the summer, but you may achieve a wider reach with your contest by opting for a completely digital contest. Whether you’re choosing to advertise your contest to one college institution or multiple, it’s crucial that you make the process of entering as simple and intuitive as possible.
The only thing better than the chance of winning something for free is outright getting it. A giveaway, as opposed to a contest, requires no competition or barrier to entry, besides simply signing up. While it might be tempting to use this as an opportunity to harvest some useful data, resist that temptation as it will likely put off entrants at the final hurdle and damage your brand image.
Giving away free branded goods on campus is a great way to boost brand awareness in the run-up to a promotion or product launch. Keep in mind that students are bombarded with branded goods during the first weeks of their college lives, so in order for your gift to stand out from the crowd it needs to have intrinsic value. Avoid tote bags, rulers and pens; get imaginative and give them something they will actually use for longer than a few days.
If you’re thinking of targeting students early on in their college lives then you could consider putting together a survival pack that arms them with some necessary tools for a student’s arsenal. Again, think about what a student will get real value from and find an affordable route to give this to them.
College students spend their time in many different places throughout their day, whether they’re studying, working or socialising. Whilst advertising on campus can be the most direct method of getting a marketing message in front of students, there are other events and seasonal moments that brands can take advantage of off-campus. Local sporting events attract, music festivals and Spring Break themed events are all examples of off-campus activities that can be used as locations to launch marketing activities.
Given the social nature of college students and their wariness of traditional marketing techniques, the use of Peer-to-Peer marketing is one of the best methods to break down the barrier between businesses and the college student demographic. Access to areas such as dormitories, common rooms and campus corridors is typically reserved for students, having brand ambassadors advocating your message can provide a workaround for this.
College brand ambassador programs are by no means a new idea, but they have proved to be a successful one, harnessing the passion and energy of students armed with your brand message. Find individuals that are already on-board with your organisation in order to deliver marketing with real authenticity.
Working with college clubs and organizations, such as the ‘Greek System’ of fraternities and sororities, is a great way of gaining students’ trust. Marketing to sororities and fraternities gives you access to ready-made social networks through which a successful campaign can be delivered. Certain groups even offer the opportunity for direct contact with specific demographics such as The Latino Fraternal Organizations and Black Greek Letter Organizations.
The key here is to use all the tools you have at your disposal – for instance, our College Street Teams distribute promotional materials such as product samples, posters and door hangers to the areas on campus that see the most foot traffic, as well as heading into the dormitories to approach the students directly. Free samples, coupons, discounts and exclusive deals are all great ways to drive future purchases and encourage repeat custom.
Using these approaches, with the addition of unique ideas and creative strategies developed specifically for each project, we can build a campaign which draws students in and connects them with brands and products on a personal level. This approach empowers businesses to reach out to the modern student consumer group as they are forming spending habits that can last a lifetime.
The cliche that college students are constantly strapped for cash is still one that holds true. Fees are expensive and students need to make concessions in their spending in order to be able to afford their lifestyle. Offering a discount on your services and products is a good way of making the initial acquisition, however, if your standard retail price is outside of the average student budget, don’t be surprised if their interest wanes.
In order to maintain a valuable relationship with the student body, it could be worth tailoring a pricing structure for their needs. Major brands such as Apple and Amazon have seen success by offering exclusive deals to students; simultaneously hooking customers for life.
The college students demographic is a moving target, even with the insights we have into how they spend their money and where they spend their time, it can still be difficult to deliver marketing results by using one platform alone. Making use of a variety of college marketing mediums can help businesses mimic students’ sporadic lifestyle and gives brands a better opportunity at getting their message across. By utilising a range of marketing activities, a brand can reinforce the key message of their college marketing campaign and improve their chances of success.
More than ever before, the consumer is playing a vital role in the dissemination of marketing campaigns: this is especially true amongst students.
Social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have been blamed for a raft of mental health issues amongst the student body, but that hasn’t put a stop to their popularity with this demographic. Targeting students via social networks can be done with surprising ease, but costs can ramp up quickly with little benefit if there is no overarching strategy in place.
Engaging students through social media is most effective when used in conjunction with a wider campaign. Events should be engineered in a way which encourages students to share their experiences. Practically, this means offering photo opportunities for students to share their experience through social apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. User-generated content then becomes the basis of an organic social media campaign that can be used to pre-promote events, generate calls to action and build anticipation on campus.
Investing in a targeted video advertising campaign is an easy way to get your brand in front of students’ eyes. According to reports, the number of students that watch online video has now overtaken those watching traditional TV . A report from Nielsen  also showed that college students living away from home during term time stream digital video more than any other demographic within their age group.
Competing on social networks requires a different tact to traditional forms of advertising, especially when targeting college students. Using humour can often be an expedient way to grab the attention of a scrolling student, while extra points can also be scored by creating original content that promotes affordability above all else.
Marketing to college students is by no means a recent trend, many of America’s biggest brands have already identified the benefits of using ambassadors and campus events to keep their brands relevant to the student populace. College students lead fast-paced, busy lives with little down-time to enjoy between social activities, classes, studying and part-time jobs. For some brands, it has become apparent that traditional marketing doesn’t have the desired impact on college students  who live on campus and spend up to 4 hours 25 minutes  on their phones every day.
Red Bull is one brand that has kept a ubiquitous presence on campuses across the United States since 1987. Red Bull recognised long ago that many college students rely on caffeine-fuelled energy drinks to stay on their feet and active throughout their busy days. The energy drink has been running a brand ambassador program since its inception, ensuring that college campuses across the country have passionate, energetic representatives to espouse its adventurous brand values and organise branded events.
At the core of Red Bull’s on-campus marketing activities is product sampling. Student ambassadors are given rucksacks in the shape of the iconic can, and some are even given the keys to branded vehicles which create an eye-catching presence wherever they’re parked up. Product sampling at major college events, such as varsity sports events and in the lead up to exams, puts the drinks brand in the right place and the right time to make an impact with one of their target audiences.
Victoria’s Secret PINK is another brand that has made prodigious use of college ambassadors in order to aggressively pursue their target audience. The sub-brand of the internationally renowned lingerie company aims itself squarely at college women, so it should come as little surprise that they’ve run a brand ambassador campaign since 2008, recruiting thousands of campus reps in the process .
PINK’s brand ambassadors are now spread throughout the country with 2 reps per college and 10 team members per institution, all of whom will be involved with sharing their experiences with the brand on social media, contributing to brand designs and empowering their fellow college women. Victoria Secret incentivise their ambassadors with discounts, free events and valuable experience which they can use in later life.
These major brands have proven that nationwide ambassador programs can effectively increase awareness and extend reach, but it’s not always necessary to create an entire infrastructure to support this kind of marketing activity. Campus Solutions have pre-existing relationships with student organisations across the country, giving brands the opportunity to make an immediate impact with the college student demographic.
To find out how we can help you with your marketing campaigns, get in touch using the form below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Alternatively, you can call us on (212) 386-7617.