PRWeek.com exclusive: Marketing to the departing college crowd

It's safe to say that college students are not easily categorized. This often makes the logistics of effective marketing and PR campaigns to attract them daunting.

It's safe to say that college students are not easily categorized. This often makes the logistics of effective marketing and PR campaigns to attract them daunting.

But there are two, clearly distinct audiences in the collegiate world: current students who are entrenched in the college lifestyle, and departing ones who are about to enter the professional world. Companies will find that different rules exist for the two and that the proposition to one is far different than to the other.

"When they're initially coming in, they're far more open to ideas," says Jeetendr Sehdev, an independent brand strategist. "When they are leaving, they've rationalized their viewpoints and understand where they stand."

Sehdev lists marketing techniques such guerilla marketing, posters, flyers, and statements tattooed on student's foreheads that hold some sway for new students. But radical marketing loses its effectiveness when departing students start looking for a career.

A phone company might talk to new college students about service plans that allow you to stay on a phone with a study partner all night, for example, but then sell new professionals on features that allow them to stay in touch with work or spend all day calling headhunters.

Incoming students are more likely to identify with communities. Younger students might be more likely to go for group marketing, because they go to school to join a culture, Sehdev says, adding, "When they leave school, they're looking to build something for themselves."

For most new professionals, fiscal priorities shift when they're the ones paying for everything.

"The tone, context, and messaging need to change," says David Morrison, founder and president of youth marketing firm TwentySomething and author of Marketing to the Campus Crowd. "A lot of times cell phones are being paid by the parents, so price-elastic customers suddenly become more price-sensitive."

Brand loyalty is also an important consideration.

"College students have a fast-food-service mentality where they go to the counter and get what they want," says Todd Sedmak, media relations director at American University.

Morrison hastens to add that while college students are loyal to certain brands, they are inherently brand disloyal and are willing to change phone plans or toothpaste many times throughout their career.

While it may appear foolish to spend so much energy on a fickle crowd, the important realization is that the product that emerges victorious from that scrum has a brand devotee.

Citing Coke versus Pepsi as an example, Sedmak says, "Whichever of those two products a person finally latches onto through college, they typically latch onto for their lifetime."

Youth marketers agreed that it's important to get into the college consumer's field of vision as soon as possible.

"We're trying to lock in students at an earlier age because they're not experimenting as much when they become professionals," Sehdev says.

Morrison agrees with Sehdev that the college market outreach should occur before college, for example, targeting high school juniors who are applying to colleges.

"There are too many different variables when they're leaving college," Sehdev says, adding that they want comfortable brands they are devoted to, so they don't have to deal with that flux. "They don't want to start at ground zero again."

But it's important to note that while departing students may know what they want, they may be unsure who is actually best to provide it for them. Even the brands they became loyal to may once again fall into flux, Morrison says. For instance, the new professional's preferred telecommunications provider may not exist in the city he or she found his or her new job.

That provides some excellent marketing and PR opportunities.

"AT&T fired the first salvo five years ago when it sent a letter to graduating seniors that says, 'Money is tight; here's a special calling program for recent college graduates,'" Morrison says. "GM and Ford now get on campus towards the end of the year and say, 'Here's our portfolio of cars and [here's a] discount for being a college graduate."

He adds high-speed internet providers have a great opportunity to say, "The real world doesn't give you free access" to reach grads.

Departing seniors provide an increasingly important marketplace as more schools lean towards privatization and companies are bypassing competitor monopolies on campus by using direct mail and the internet.

Currently, schools have primary suppliers of beverages, bookstores, and high-speed internet access. Morrison sees the trend continuing to gyms and wireless companies, as well as others.

"The university computer centers might become Dell or Apple computer centers," Morrison says. "Schools provide these exclusivity deals for cash flow to keep cost of tuition low or to create new forms of revenue."

"One data point to reinforce is all universities have financial issues and budget constraints," Sedmak says. "They need to help that university with that issue and also provide service to the students."

With universities continuing to look for partnerships, failing to work with them also offers a barrier to entry.

"We can send out an email to all the students and alert them that these wireless carriers are going to be on this campus," Sedmak says. "If you're [a wireless carrier and] not a part of our system, we're not including [you]."

For those who participate, the door is open for "marketers to create a win-win-win" situation for themselves, the school, and the students.

While Morrison speaks of the drive towards privatization, Sedmak says that AU students have provider choices, pointing to the school's deals with T-Mobile, Cingular, and Nextel that provide competition for cellular service.

Companies not working with the schools do have an opportunity - they just have to be patient. While the university may offer a service that's included in tuition, it doesn't mean the student will be loyal to that service after graduation if he or she is not receiving the proper utility from it.

Corporate citizenship's role

While college has historically been a bastion for liberalism, which is often attributed to a higher importance of corporate responsibility, a September CBS Poll found John Kerry only leading President Bush 46%-40% (when factoring in Ralph Nader). Despite shifting trends, Sehdev says it is important for corporations to have good PR and corporate citizenship as a major mission, as it affects both students and graduates.

While today's college students don't just fall into the category of liberals anymore, Sedmak says they are all still interested in determining what companies are making a positive difference in the world.

"It could be to do something along the lines working with the students to solve a meaningful, social issue," Sedmak says, such as helping the community build a playground for the area or trying to find the most fuel-efficient car.

"It has to make a real difference and appear genuine because college students today have a very good BS detector," Sedmak says. "Your representative on the campus must be genuine."

"Corporate responsibility is important all the way through [college] and something I feel should be something constantly reinforced," Sehdev says.

But Morrison cautions that his firm has never found corporate responsibility alone to be a strong enough marketing position.

"It's an attractive sell-through, but it's not the primary selling point," Morrison says. "It's not going to be a reason why they would patronize or work for a company."

Sehdev adds: "When they leave school, they say, 'That's great, but what's in it for me?'"

Sedmak says that while college students are hard to land, companies can have the opportunity to hold onto them for a long time, unless they alienate them.

"We're all eventually looking for brands we love," Morrison says. "It would take years to [shop] in the supermarket, if we didn't."

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