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Updated Dec 20, 2023

Marketing to College Students

Gen Z likes authenticity, personalization and convenience. Here is how to reach this valuable demographic.

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Max Freedman, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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When targeting college students, remember that they are Gen Z. This up-and-coming generation is different from its older counterparts in how they react to traditional marketing.

Gen Z prefers convenience and regularly interacts with brands online. They value authenticity and are generally loyal to companies that share their personal values.

So ditch the cookie-cutter ads and get creative. Optimize your website and social media accounts for mobile. Engage with local university campuses to fully understand this population’s preferences, needs and spending habits.

Let’s look at how to market to college students and why it’s essential for the success of your business.

How to market to college students

When marketing to college students, your chances of success can be higher if you keep the tips below in mind:

1. Profile your student targets.

For instance, the needs and buying habits of a student at a four-year university will differ considerably from those of a student at a two-year college. Similarly, reaching students who live on campus requires a different strategy than one might use to contact students who live off campus. 

As such, decide what type of student you want to reach with your product or service before marketing it.

2. Get online.

College students are extremely media savvy. Their medium of choice, however, is the internet. Today’s college students grew up with the World Wide Web and spend hours online studying, surfing the net and socializing with friends. 

Savvy marketers can not only advertise to their young customers, but also interact with them. 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 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; many have student-run TV stations and magazines. Advertising in them is both inexpensive and effective to reach college students.

5. Sponsor student events.

Lending your support and money to on-campus events can get you valuable exposure within your target market and 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 to accommodate college students and cater to them – with special student discounts, services, etc. – can easily claim their cash.

7. Build buzz.

College students talk – a lot. Therefore, companies can initiate a storm of free marketing by giving them something exciting and inventive to talk about.

Did You Know?Did you know
While some companies focus their marketing efforts around the holiday season, other times of the year also offer selling opportunities. Use seasonal marketing strategies to offer college students products and services no matter what month it is.

8. Send snail mail and email.

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

[Check out our reviews of the best email marketing software.]

  • Students aren’t just students. Consider your college customers’ other attributes – their interests, for example – and target them through appropriate non-student media.
  • Because they grew up in an ad-saturated world, college students are more challenging 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 they are open to new ideas and have yet to develop strong brand affiliations.
  • Remember that while the college market is incredibly stable and static, individual student consumers are moving targets, frequently changing attitudes and addresses.
  • Don’t just sell stuff to students. Instead, focus on building relationships with them.
  • College students are trendsetters. Even when they’re not making purchases, they’re influencing them.

9. Promote affordability.

You can market to college students by providing affordable products and services. Although college students are no strangers to splurging, they are often on a tighter budget than most. They will more likely become customers if you make prices more reasonable.

10. Provide incentives.

Offering incentives to college students will make them more likely to shop with your company. For instance, providing college students with discounts can be a great way to attract new customers and maintain existing ones. 

Additionally, you can also do things such as provide free trials or samples, which can also be a great way to attract college customers.

11. Be funny.

Also, making your marketing efforts funny is an excellent way of keeping your brand memorable to your potential college customers. If they find your ad hilarious, you have a greater chance of going viral. This would mean exposure not only to college students, but also to potential customers of all kinds.

Why market to college students?

Students are teaching enterprising marketers some valuable lessons about their future customers. Among them are several reasons they are worth a slice of your offline and online marketing budget:

  1. College students are educated, brand-loyal consumers.
  2. The college market is geographically stable.
  3. According to Statista, more than 18 million U.S. college students spend nearly $500 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 flashy ads. 
Bottom LineBottom line
The Refuel Agency found that college students spend nearly $500 billion annually, and they can be extremely loyal to brands they love. That’s why developing marketing campaigns specifically targeting this demographic is critical.

What to remember when marketing to college students

As you promote your company to college students, you should consider the following:

  • Use the internet and social media. Gen Z uses social media quite often, just as they do with messaging apps and other internet platforms. As such, social media marketing can be a highly effective way to reach college students, but it also requires tact. College students often spend more than enough time on the internet to see all kinds of ads, meaning they can distinguish what’s legit from what’s authentic.
  • Be genuine. Authenticity is key to college-age shoppers. There’s no faster way to turn off Gen Z shoppers than to try to relate to them only to come off as completely out of touch. Don’t fall into the “How do you do, fellow kids?” marketing trap. Identify the value you could bring to a college student’s life and create honest and valuable content promoting that.
  • Factor in what early adulthood is like. College is early adulthood. University students are living independently and covering at least some of their own expenses for the first time. They were doing this by having their parents around all of the time to guide or discipline them. That means they might be looking for ways to make life work independently. To market to them, determine how your offerings can help with this goal and orient your marketing campaigns.
  • Consider how busy college students can be. Between loaded class schedules, extracurricular activities, social lives, homework and the inevitable all-nighters, college students are a busy bunch. You should respect their time when marketing to them. Long videos or blogs might miss the mark. Short content can be quite effective.
  • Don’t use cookie-cutter ads. Gen Z is looking for creative advertising that goes viral, has a consumer-conscious message and blends with their personal values. 
FYIDid you know
Include video when creating content for college students. Eighty-six percent of businesses say it’s an important tool in their marketing strategy, according to Wyzowl.
  • Don’t make assumptions about your target audience. While it’s easy to think all college students like pizza or prefer to spend their downtime in front of a screen, it’s vital to talk to your audience.

    Ask questions and do your research to find out how they like to spend their money, what causes are near to their heart and how to solve the common problems they face daily.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth. Finding popular influencers on campus can be marketing gold that won’t break the bank. Consider partnering with a campus influencer to become an affiliate by promoting your product or service to all of their followers. Providing a discount code or offering free samples can be an excellent way to introduce your brand and gain loyal customers.

Julie Thompson contributed to this article.

author image
Max Freedman, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
For almost a decade, Max Freedman has been a trusted advisor for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing practical insights to kickstart and elevate their ventures. With hands-on experience in small business management, he offers authentic perspectives on crucial business areas that run the gamut from marketing strategies to employee health insurance. Freedman's guidance is grounded in the real world and based on his years working in and leading operations for small business workplaces. Whether advising on financial statements, retirement plans or e-commerce tactics, his expertise and genuine passion for empowering business owners make him an invaluable resource in the entrepreneurial landscape.
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