The 3 Stages of Marketing to College Students

By Lisa Malat, Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer at Barnes & Noble College

Life event or life stage marketing typically focuses on specific moments of change, such as buying a house, starting a family or retiring. Going to college also applies, but it represents more than a moment: it’s a multi-stage experience that creates many opportunities to engage a rising generation of consumers.

At Barnes & Noble College, we created our own research platform, Barnes & Noble College Insights
, to foster a deep understanding of college students’ unique behaviors and preferences. Our Student Point of View (POV) community allows us to connect with nearly 10,000 students multiple times each week, giving us real-time visibility into how we can capture their attention and advocacy.

Through our platform, and through the thousands of interactions we have with students each day on campuses across the nation, we’ve built strong, lasting relationships. We’ve also gained significant insights on how to support them throughout the stages of their academic journey – and beyond. Here are three key stages we’ve identified and lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Beginning: Start Earlier

One of our first and most critical findings was that both
students and parents have significant anxiety about the transition to college. We dug deeper and learned that establishing an early connection with the bookstore helps to relieve some of that anxiety, especially when it comes to being prepared for class. These findings are relevant far beyond the campus bookstore: they reveal a genuine set of needs and concerns that many different brands, products and services can address. Students and parents alike have a hunger for information that helps them feel educated and equipped in the months leading up to move-in day. Any educational content that marketers can offer related to the college transition – whether it’s related to furnishing a dorm room, managing a budget or traveling smarter – shows goodwill and opens the door to longer-term relationships. Timing also is key. Whenever possible, marketers should capture the momentum and sense of urgency that hits with acceptance. Spring is better than summer, and for some industries, there may even be opportunities to reach out in the winter with resources to help with even longer-term planning.

Ultimately, we responded to transition anxiety by reaching out with helpful information and resources, starting at the moment of acceptance. Our communications program provides information on academics and course materials, but we also share tips related to preparing for college and help build school spirit and a sense of connection to campus. Since the program’s launch, we’ve gained 650,000 new customers, and 71 percent of students told us that Barnes & Noble College campus bookstores made their transition to college easier. Our takeaway: listening and responding to authentic needs fosters loyalty.

Middle: Support Mid-Journey Milestones

College comprises a rich tapestry of experiences, in the classroom, on campus and in the community. As college students live out these experiences, they’re developing their identity as adults – and as adult consumers. They’re open to exploring, testing and sharing their opinions on products, services and experiences in every category. It’s the perfect time for brands to connect with students and lay the foundation for long-term relationships. Millennial and Gen Z students tell us over and over again that they are skeptical of traditional advertising and marketing techniques. As a result, they’re unlikely to forge lasting connections with brands that take a transactional approach. Successful marketers create brand experiences that complement and enhance students’ academic and social experiences.

So, what are some of these key milestones and experiences? Here are just a few to consider:

  • Move-in day
  • Orientation
  • Building relationships on campus/joining campus organizations
  • Homecoming/alumni weekend
  • Declaring/changing a major
  • Exams
  • Looking for internships
  • Spring break
  • Job hunting and interviewing
  • Graduation

Marketers need to evaluate their brands, products and services to identify where they can offer the most value and meaning. It’s not always about quantity: a brand that steps up with the right experience at the right time can make a lasting impression. The important questions are the same, but they need to be framed in the specific context of a college student’s life. What will make life easier? More successful? More fun?

Student feedback drives our partnerships with brands that deliver unique experiences, benefits and problem-solvers. These range widely: one day, students might enjoy a makeover night with Cosmo’s Glam Squad as a much-needed study break. The next, they might free up some extra gas money through a Visa Checkout initiative offering student discounts and one-click shopping. And, of course, students can’t get enough of free food. They’re 84 percent more likely to buy a product they’ve received a free sample of; after including free KIND bars in 500,000 online order boxes, we saw a 294 percent increase in KIND bars sold in our campus bookstores. These experiences not only enhance students’ day-to-day life – they grow existing relationships with brands and launch new ones.

End: Transition into Post-college Life

For brands that take the time to build lasting connections with college students, the relationships extend far beyond graduation. This is where the value of omni-channel marketing and communications pays off. Alumni – or adult consumers – do not congregate in physical spaces and locations nearly as often as students, so email, mobile and social engagement take center stage. However, the fundamental objective stays the same: delivering targeted and relevant messages and opportunities at the right times.

For Barnes & Noble College, strengthening alumni bonds to the campus bookstore and the school is a primary goal. Recently, we launched True Spirit athletics-focused ecommerce websites for many of the colleges and universities we serve. These virtual stores deliver an experience customized for alumni and fans, who want to get right to the fan clothing and gear that support their passion. The True Spirit sites deliver an omnichannel experience, allowing fans to order online and pick up at the store or game day tent.

In the coming years, the youngest millennials will move into the workforce, Gen Z will take over campuses across the nation and their consumer power will keep getting stronger. Savvy marketers will do their homework on these students, learning how best to serve them at all stages of their academic journey and beyond.

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