Sandwich-toasters and guitars in hand, around two-million young people will be starting a new term at university this month. It is a phenomenal number - more than four times the figure in the 1960s.
What's more, many of today's students are savvy consumers of everything from iPods to the trendiest fashion labels. This makes them a desirable target for brands, but the question is: how can PROs reach this huge and diverse audience?
The obvious answer, perhaps, would be student newspapers. Produced by almost every university in the country, there are more than 150 to choose from. Widely distributed in student areas, they are an integral part of student life.
For students, by students
Because editorial desks on the papers are staffed by students, contact details change frequently. In addition, most editors and writers are part-timers with lectures to attend - newspaper offices are frequently unmanned, while letterbox pigeonholes are unlabelled and unsecured.
But despite this, many PR people persevere. Molly Hooper, director of Weber Shandwick's youth marketing arm Slam, says: ‘While some publications are great, others are not, plus each university has a different culture and a different type of student. So we pick them according to the brand rather than simply contacting them all.'
There are also national student publications - albeit few. The NUS lists just four: The National Student, Student Times, Student BMA News and The Fat Controller.
The latter was set up last year by ex-student journalist at Durham University Douglas Bell: ‘Forty-four per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds now go to university, so there's a big opportunity there. But other than us, no one is publishing anything for the market in a competent way and that can make it difficult for PROs.'
He adds: ‘Most student journalists don't really understand PR, and don't use PR people as a resource.'
Fortunately, there are other ways to target students: student radio (although it suffers from the same practical handicaps as student papers); freshers' fairs; and year-round campus events. Plus, there is SUBtv - a network of 700 plasma screens in student unions and bars across 90 universities.
‘There's definitely a lot of stuff you can do in Freshers' Week - getting things in freshers' packs and so on, but we tend to shy away from that as you can get lost with everything else that's going on,' says Julien Speed, joint managing partner at Starfish Communications.
Instead, Speed recommends using students as brand ambassadors, as Starfish did for a recent campaign for Colgate dental gum. ‘This works well as they know what's going on around campus, which is impossible to keep tabs on from the outside,' he says. ‘They identified the marketing opportunities, set up events and sent the results to us - the best student won a work placement at Colgate Palmolive.'
Of course, there is no escaping the increasing importance of the internet in youth marketing. YouTube, MySpace and Flikr are the familiar names among the growing number of social networking sites popular among students.
So where does this leave student newspapers? ‘Student newspapers are fighting a losing battle against the internet,' says Dan Holliday, partner at The Fish Can Sing. ‘Attention has switched to faster, unedited forums such as social networking sites and blogs where students can set their own agenda.'
As well as their student newspaper, if they read it at all, students are voracious consumers of mainstream media: such as Zoo Weekly and Nuts for men and Grazia for women, plus national newspapers and radio.
The resurgence of live music means NME remains popular with students, while travel is another student passion.
Cow PR teamed up with STA Travel and Rough Guides for a Yahoo! Mail campaign earlier this year. Agency co-founder Dirk Singer says: ‘We targeted students who were about to go away for their summer breaks so STA Travel was an obvious fit. Then Rough Guides came on board to produce an e-book about the world's best internet cafés. Working with the companies was much more effective than targeting hundreds of student publications.'
Grabbing their attention
Barclaycard head of PR Ian Barber admits it can be harder for his team, being a financial services brand, to get a student's attention than it would be for a fashion company or a beer: ‘It's hardly a cool subject and we are restricted as to what we can do - it would be inappropriate for us to appear in bars, for example. So we target regional media, which for us have the double effect of also reaching students' parents. Students tend to be very rooted in their cities and regional papers such as the Manchester Evening News are well read by students.'
The myriad opportunities above and beyond the humble student newspaper does not mean the publications should be discounted, however.
‘Not every student reads student news but they do tend to be fairly loyal to their university media,' says Jason Gallucci, MD of Slice PR.
But he adds a cautionary note that will be familiar to youth marketers: ‘Whatever you do for this audience don't be too pushy or try to be "too-cool-for-school". It is a brand-cynical audience.'
The student papers PROs should know:
Student Times, 0207 407 7747; The National Student, 01522 521 521; The Fat Controller, 0191 230 5155; Student BMJ, 020 7383 6018
London Student, University of London 020 7664 2054; Leeds Student, Leeds University 0113 3801450; Warwick Boar, Warwick University 024 7657 2755; Palatinate, Durham University 0191 3341799; Student Direct, University of Manchester, Salford University, Bolton Institute 0161 2752943; Nouse, York University 01904 434425; Gair Rhydd, Cardiff University 029 2078 1400; Varsity, Cambridge University 01223 337575; Oxford Student, Oxford University 01865 288467