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Marketing to College Students

By Matt Alderton, writer
Dec 22, 2010
Image Credit: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
> Marketing

Find future customers when you get schooled on student trends and targets

College students are more famous for skipping class than for being classy, more highly regarded as thrifty shoppers than as sophisticated consumers.

Still, smart companies covet their attention, as well as their approval. Why? Because even though they may not make a lot of money, college students spend a ton of it. And they don’t just spend it on Ramen noodles, either. Instead, modern-day scholars are buying everything from electronics and entertainment to apparel and Spring Break vacations.

Students are smarter and savvier than their reputation lets on, and they’re teaching enterprising marketers some valuable lessons about their future customers. Among them are several reasons they’re worth a slice of your offline and online marketing budget:

  1. College students eventually become educated, brand-loyal consumers.
  2. The college market is geographically stable.
  3. More than 15 million U.S. college students spend more than $200 billion annually.
  4. Consisting almost exclusively of 18- to 24-year-olds, the college demographic is remarkably age stable.
  5. Marketing to college students is cost-effective because they respond more favorably to grassroots messaging than to flashy ads.

1. Profile your student targets

Not all students are created equal. The needs and buying habits of a student at a four-year university, for instance, will differ considerably from those of a student at a two-year college. Similarly, reaching students that live on campus will require different strategies than one might use to reach students who live off campus. As such, decide what type of student you want to reach with your product or service before you begin marketing it.

2. Get online

College students are extremely media savvy. Their medium of choice, however, is definitely be the Internet. Modern-day college students grew up with the World Wide Web and spend hours at a time online studying, surfing the net and socializing with their friends. Smart marketers will log on not only to advertise to their young customers, but to interact with them, too. Create a well-designed website that appeals to the college demographic, and link it to your social media profiles for maximum effect.

3. Turn campuses into ads

Enterprising marketers can literally decorate a college campus with their message. Use sidewalk chalk to create eye-catching ads on campus thoroughfares and post flyers on campus bulletin boards, where they’re sure to catch receptive students’ eyes. 


4. Buy ads in campus media

Every college has a newspaper, and many have student-run TV stations and magazines. Advertising in them is both an inexpensive and an effective way to reach college students.

5. Sponsor student events

College students love a good party. Lending your support and your money to on-campus events can get you valuable exposure within your target market and can also build your reputation as a student-friendly business.

6. Make students feel special

Businesses often ignore—or even reject—their student customers. Companies that make an extra effort not only to accommodate college students, but to cater to them—with special student discounts, services, etc.—can therefore easily lay claim to their cash.

7. Build buzz

College students talk. A lot. Companies can therefore initiate a storm of free marketing just by giving them something exciting and inventive to talk about.

8. Send both snail mail and email

College students change addresses often, but love to get mail nonetheless. Direct mail, then, is an easy and effective way to get them excited about your company. Don’t neglect students’ email inboxes, though, as most students check their email at least once daily.

  • Students aren’t just students. Consider your college customers’ other attributes—race, gender and interests, for example—and target them through appropriate non-student media.
  • Because they grew up in an ad-saturated world, college students are harder to reach with traditional advertising. They are more likely to respond to word of mouth, including recommendations from their friends.
  • College students are “trial receptive,” meaning that they are open to new ideas and have yet to develop strong brand affiliations; as such, they are an ideal market for companies that want to color outside the lines.
  • Remember that while the college market is incredibly stable and static, individual student consumers are moving targets, changing both attitudes and addresses frequently.
  • Don’t just sell stuff to students; it won’t work. Instead, focus on building relationships with them.
  • College students are trendsetters, often focused more deeply on their friends and family—and their cash—than on their studies. So even when they’re not making purchases, they’re influencing them.
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Matt Alderton
Matt Alderton
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