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How to Reach the College Demographic Online

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by Adrienne Erin
March 20, 2013

Adrienne Erin

Adrienne Erin is a social media marketer fond of her college days. Follow her on Twitter to catch up with her recent publications.

Adrienne Erin has written 19 articles for PromotionWorld.
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According to a study by the Journal of Business Research, Generation Y (currently ages 19 to 36) has enormous buying power – over $600 billion per year. And according to Retailer Daily, the college age group’s buying power is growing by leaps and bounds, reaching over $300 billion in 2010. While tapping into this market can prove quite profitable, it remains elusive to many marketers, who simply fail to understand this age group and what motivates them.

Generation Y, also called the Millennial Generation, is the first generation to have members that grew up with social media, and you’ll find that some of the best ways to connect with this group are through social platforms, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Do it right, and you’ll have college students flocking to your products and telling their friends all about it; do it wrong, and you’ll wonder where all that money your spending is actually going.

Offer a College Discount

It seems like a no-brainer, but offering a college discount is a great way to go straight to a student’s heart – and wallet. Make the discount section of your website noticeable from the main page or sections, and use it as a landing page for your college-specific advertising.

Give students several options for verifying their collegiate status; after all, not all colleges offer .edu addresses, and it can be hard for students to gain access to a fax machine in order to send you a copy of their ID. And don’t forget about students attending online colleges, who make up more than a million college students in the United States alone. Remember that you want to make it as easy as possible for a college student to get their rightful discount, or they will abandon you for somewhere easier.

Make Buying a Pleasant Experience

Another goal for all your marketing, but especially important to college students – keep it simple! Apple products are ubiquitously popular among college students, and it’s no wonder: one quick visit to their website offers a simple interface with gorgeous product photography and elegant typography. Channel your inner Apple: make your website as professional, easy to use, and simple as possible.

Be Accessible

College students are always on the go, and their only opportunity to buy may be on their smart phone between classes. If your website looks hideous on mobile – or worse, doesn’t even function – you’ve just lost a sale!

Tie in the Social Elements

Having grown up with social media, young Millennials are accustomed to seeing it in use on eCommerce sites. Be it a user-submitted photo gallery like on Threadless, a product voting system like ModCloth’s where potential customers actually vote and give critiques on products they’d like to see on the site, or your typical reviews system, customers love to interact with each other and their favorite brands.

These elements are also a great way to have constant new content for your website – your users are generating it for you, for free! Just make sure you have someone on top of monitoring it, or your awesome reviews widget could become a breeding ground for Viagra spam.

Make It a Competition

Contests are a great way to engage your audience, but social competitions can engage their friends, too – and your typical college student is surrounded by others of the same demographic. Offer a discount that grows with the number of friends your customer invites to your Facebook page, or a discount for when their referred friends purchase something from your website. A competition can be easy to create with limited resources, too, so if you’re strapped for cash this may be an especially attractive option.

Sell to Mom and Dad, Too

While it is true that college students have a lot of spending power on their own, much of their disposable income is thanks to mom and dad. If you can make your product appealing to their parents, they will be more likely to buy into the idea. How will your product make their son or daughter more safe, more successful in school, or more successful when they are trying to find a career? If you can make a great argument, you can try to make a presence for yourself at orientation or a parents’ weekend, or maybe even get your product endorsed on the school’s website.

Social Consciousness

Millennials are a socially and environmentally conscious crowd – and products that tout their eco-friendliness and humane practices are sure to appeal to them. TOMS Shoes is a great example – students who purchase shoes from this company have the comfort of knowing that a pair of shoes is also donated to someone in a third world country. If your product doesn’t inherently meet these requirements, try to meet them with the packaging: use as little packaging as possible, more natural cardboard and less ink, and as much recycled material as you can.

Blog and Reblog

Tumblr is a great untapped potential marketplace, and the teen and 20s crowd is its overwhelming majority. While Tumblr isn’t a great platform for everyone, you may see particular success if you can offer compelling visual elements, videos, or short and sweet snippets of text. Users of the platform can “reblog” content they like, similar to Pinterest’s “repin” function, and if you can build up your brand you’ll find that your content gets passed through a number of communities very quickly, reaching large audiences. Some brands to watch on Tumblr are Coca-Cola, Pixar, and Kate Spade.

YouTube It

According to YouTube’s demographics report, 54% of all US teens use YouTube, so the platform can be a great place to reach them – either with your own videos, or with targeted advertisements. Make your ad engaging so that it will be something they want to watch – humor and popular music are great ways to appeal to this crowd.

Late Night AdWords

If your products specifically target college students, one extreme strategy you can use is targeting your AdWords spend at late-night US searchers, who are statistically more likely to be awake at these times as they stay up to finish assignments.

Hopefully you’re full of new ideas for marketing to college students – but if you have any more ideas, be sure to leave them in the comments!


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