Online Advertising & Marketing to College Students


Executive Summary:

As the definition of the college campus continues to change, on-campus marketing becomes more complicated than ever. Marketing to this profitable cohort is no longer simply a matter of stationing a representative outside the quad or getting a product in the hands of a few university influencers. College students now are just as mobile as their devices, with a fluid definition of university boundaries and a virtual world just as vivid as the physical one.

Campus ambassador programs are still at the heart of collegeoutreach programs, but now successful marketers are looking beyond campus to target college consumers where they spend a great deal of time – online.

Key Insights Include:

  • College students are most plugged into their mobile devices, favoring laptops, tablets and smart phones over desktops and televisions.
  • College marketers should reach beyond traditional campus ambassador programs and create programs that add value to the new college experience – found increasingly online.
  • College students are accustomed to display banner ads. To stand out, marketers must be as relevant as possible.
  • Display marketers should layer location-based targeting on top of their traditional behavioral and contextual tactics to deliver the most relevant ads.

A Moving Target

In 2011, The New York Times declared move-in day at the University of North Carolina, “one big commercial.” Brand ambassadors swept the campus handing out free sodas for Pepsi, free ice cream for Ben & Jerry’s and free manual labor for American Eagle Outfitters, which employed upperclassmen to help freshmen move into their dorm rooms.

Paid ambassadors have been a part of campus life for at least a decade. Their tactics have evolved from handing out trinkets to supplying real service, but they are ubiquitous – and with good reason.

“College students represent a $16 billion market and are often at a stage in their lives when they are still establishing brand loyalty and awareness,” said Bobbie Carlton of Carlton Public Relations in Lexington, Mass.

“This is kind of the coming of age into consumerism,” said Mike Poznansky, founder of college marketing agency Neato in Venice, Calif. “You’re spending your own money, you’re decorating your own room, you’re making your own shopping list.”

Brands recognize that peer endorsements carry significant weight among all social sets, more so when that set is insular, like on a college campus. But these days their lives are far from insular; students spend only about 30 percent of their time on campus, Poznansky said.

“I think that the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Get our brand onto campus,’” he explained. “What matters more is marketing that transcends the college campus and extends more into the college experience."

There’s A Computer Lab?

More and more, that experience is lived online. College students find out about their Friday night plans not on campus bulletin boards but via social networks, text messages and email. According to the Pew Research Center, college students are online even in class. More than half of college graduates say they used a laptop, smartphone or table computer in class. Devices are prohibited in only 2 percent of surveyed universities, according to Pew.

“Marketers have to scramble to find new ways to connect with a generation that is typically engrossed in a screen rather than in looking at the physical world that surrounds them,” said Michael Soloman, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Consumer Research at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Those screens are not sitting in a dorm room or campus computer lab; they’re hand held. Tablet ownership among college students tripled in 2012, according to The Pearson Foundation. Laptops are holding strong as well. Of the 96 percent of four-year students who already own computers, 91 percent own laptops, per a 2012 study by Student Monitor LLC in Ridgewood, N.J.

While tablets are trendier, they remain an aspirational item, Poznansky said. Laptops are still considered the default back-to-school purchase, allowing students to take notes, game and stream media online. In fact, many college students don’t even own a television, so traditional mass media branding is ineffective, according to Clark Fredricksen, vice president, communications at New York research company eMarketer, Inc.

He noted that social media, on the other hand, is evolving quickly, and students are already phasing out Facebook and Twitter in favor of newer social networks such as Snap Chat, Instagram and Pinterest.

“What that means for marketers is probably too early to say,” Fredricksen said. “It’s less about finding the next new thing and more about these companies developing effective marketing campaigns on the devices that these students are using more often” – laptops, tablets and mobile phones.”

Polznansky commented, “They no longer have to be on campus to get a textbook. They have remote learning options.”

What’s bad news for textbook publishers is good news for digital marketers. College students are glued to laptops, tablets and smart phones even as they walk through the quad. And they’re genuinely annoyed when a real person, not an avatar or a push notification, stops them to pitch a product.

“Most of the time, when I am walking around campus, I am on my way to class and do not want to be bothered,” said Za’ev Klapow, a freshman at Northeastern University. “A few times, I have even been approached by people representing companies while I was eating lunch, which just makes me agitated.”

Straddling the Divide

According to Poznansky, brand advertisers must work to create campaigns that straddle the online/offline, oncampus/off-campus experience that students now live.

He said, “The important thing is to credibly integrate your brand into the college experience and not just get it onto campus, because most purchases are not happening within the campus boundaries.”

He pointed to Target’s back to school campaign, which sometimes involves busing college students to nearby stores for exclusive shopping events and Red Bull Air Drop, which distributes crates of the energy drink to campuses worldwide.

These campaigns encompass a mix of on-campus, display and social media that touch college students wherever they go, while adding value to their experiences.

Tracking Them Down

While brand marketers think up big ideas, media buyers must focus on the best ways to reach college students online with their messages. Behavioral targeting is still the go-to method for most marketers. This spring, display ads invited college students to “Join the Study Group” for a 10 percent discount, then directed clickers to a dynamic landing page.

But not every impression finds a college student. Some find middle-aged reporters investigating Red Bull’s campus ambassador program. Luckily, marketers have tools beyond traditional behavioral targeting and contextual buys alone. Layering on location-based IP address targeting helps advertisers get closer to the cohort they want, with less waste.

Display advertisers who want to reach students at large universities or entire college towns might employ a ZIP+4 local targeting strategy, for example, blanketing everyone on campus and within a 10-mile radius of campus with ads for Spring Break travel deals or late-night food delivery. This kind of targeting narrows the audience to a specific location, but even then not every computer is likely in the hands of a college student. Impressions are likely to find administrators, residents and people that work in the targeted zip code.

Location-based IP targeting allows buyers to drill deeper by targeting IP addresses on-campus, ensuring their target has at least some affiliation with a college or university. “But that’s about all it can guarantee unless we overlay demo, behavioral and contextual targeting,” said Debbie Slepkow, associate director, digital at Blitz Media in Boston.

Slepkow recommends a combination of IP targeting and cookies. “It would allow the advertiser to leverage the strengths of both capabilities, garner learnings and refine strategy accordingly.”

Overlaying cookie-based predictive behavior and demographic data over initial location-based data via IP targeting allows advertisers to ensure they’re reaching traditional, full-time students – not just faculty or nontraditional students – while continuing to track them and serve ads as they move off campus, she added.

While colleges encourage students to routinely delete cookies, there is no evidence that this cohort deletes cookies at a higher rate than any others. “College students tend to be an odd mixture of tech-savvy and privacy-aware but content to tell all online,” Carlton said. “Still, only a small number will manually delete cookies.”

And relevance might just be the priority with this set. Raised online, college students have been conditioned to look around ads. Carlton said, “This means they have to ‘fish where the fish are’ by customizing their messages even more to break through the clutter and insure that young people will take notice. Of course, that often requires delivering content that is exactly tailored to the individual’s preferences.”

Location-based creative and predictive-behavior targeting together allow marketers the insight to serve the right creative to the right student at the right time.

The Bottom Line

College life is no longer tethered to the university campus. Instead, students are tethered to their mobile devices – laptops, tablets and smart phones – that allow them to straddle on- and off-campus life with ease.

Marketers that take a wider view of college marketing, reaching beyond campus boundaries and into the college experience, will consider an integrated campaign that includes on-campus and online campaigns that reach students where they live. More and more, that’s on the Web.

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