Misconceptions of Marketing to College Students: Why a Free T-Shirt Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore

Group of college students in the university amphitheatre, they are sitting and doing an exam.
Group of college students in the university amphitheatre, they are sitting and doing an exam.

The elusive college consumer. Most companies attempt to reach them, but many underestimate their intelligence and fail to create meaningful conversations on campus.

Enter the pre-regulation credit card company of the '90s, frequently pitching students to simply "sign up for our credit card and get a free T-shirt!" Sure, this may lead to some sign ups -- what college kid doesn't need another T-shirt for the bottom drawer? However, beyond potentially tainting some new credit scores, what does this accomplish?

In some ways marketers can behave like the college students of the '90s, seeking the instant gratification of daily conversions rather than focusing on a customer's lifetime value. Today's collegians generally see through gimmicks; they will nimbly jump through a hoop for free swag, but if you are looking to build lasting brand equity with the newest generation of consumers, then it is time to change the way you think about college kids.

The challenge is to look inward, assessing and critiquing the way your brand currently engages college students. Here are some good places to start:

Leave Them With a Story They Will Want to Share in Person

Everyone is so focused on digital engagement, due to the vast reach achievable online. While employing a strong digital strategy is important, marketers should not forget the power of good, old-fashioned recommendations that are made in person.

There is no substitute for word of mouth, especially within the networks of college campuses. UQ Marketing recently conducted a nationwide survey that showed that 94.6 percent of collegians prefer to share experiences and opinions about products they love in person rather than via text or social media. In another recent study, conducted by Barnes & Noble, 59 percent of collegiate respondents reported that friends have the biggest influence on their purchasing decisions, both online and off.

In the past 40 years, daily ad exposure has grown from 500 ads to as many as 5,000 ads. Cut through the clutter by making your consumers storytellers, taking advantage of face-to-face interactions. Of the 3.7 hours per day that students spend on leisure activities, 1.5 hours are spent socializing with friends -- more than in any other age group. If you are able to make a college student appear on top of a trend, it could represent a strong outlet for positive conversations regarding your brand.

An example of this is how our client Getaround helped introduce their car-sharing service to students in Chicago, hosting a video contest where users could share how they would use Getaround on campus. Those who entered were able to share a story about the brand, while appearing on top of the car-sharing trend. Entrants encouraged their friends, both in person and online, to vote for their video, spurring meaningful conversations with a personal touch, resulting in an average of 80 unique "likes" per video entry.

Why Brand Ambassador Programs Succeed or Fail

Brand Ambassador programs have quickly taken off, and both students and brands love them! However, these promotional models and street teams can quickly fail if their students are not authentic advocates of the product or service they represent, regardless of whether they are paid or unpaid. That's why we suggest that organizations focus on building their brands in a meaningful way -- putting an end to massive T-shirt drops or canvassing campuses with unnecessary flyers.

When done correctly, Brand Builder programs can be a very powerful way to increase brand equity and likeliness to buy among college consumers. In fact, most students are very open to direct engagement from Brand Builders. About 68 percent of the college students reported that they would be interested in becoming a Brand Builder themselves if they were able to represent a company they loved.

Red Bull has done a great job investing in their Red Bull University Program, which has helped elevate the brand over the past decade. Red Bull Student Brand Managers are passionate and proud to represent the product on their campus. Even students who aren't hired to represent Red Bull act as evangelists by wearing branded gear, using Red Bull refrigerators in their dorm rooms, and sharing videos online.

Showing You Care Pays Off

Today's collegians are passionate about the causes they care about, which is why organizations like TOMS Shoes, Charity Water, and Pure Charity (a UQ Marketing client) perform so well on campuses. For example, 70 percent of students say they are more likely to buy from a brand that supports a charitable cause, and the majority (63 percent) is willing to spend more on products tied to a charity.

Student advocates across the country have started TOMS Campus Clubs at their universities, dedicated to supporting the "One for One Movement." These groups are supervised by TOMS but are highly self-sufficient, organizing many branded events to support the cause. Their efforts on campus do not go unnoticed; TOMS leadership recognizes the importance of these campus communities, and founder Blake Mycoskie visits many clubs to speak, further developing the TOMS Shoes campus story.

It is college marketing season, and most students are back on campus. Before you rush to the quad with free T-shirts in hand, consider taking a different approach by giving students compelling stories to share with their friends, taking the time to find students who are truly passionate about your brand, and showing that you care.