All-night study sessions and epic-tailgate parties are just some of the things that characterize the college experience in America. If you're starting a business while you're still in school here's one more: Figuring out how to turn your classmates into customers.
As startups look for strategies to grow their business quickly, college students are often an ideal target. Not only are they plentiful in college towns across the U.S., they've got serious spending chops. Millennials -- Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s, also referred to as Generation Y -- will spend $69 billion on discretionary items this year alone, according to data from a recent Harris Interactive study.
Still, marketing to college students isn’t as easy as you might think. "Nobody can really be a college marketing expert because the industry changes dramatically every year," says Leah Bell, president and co-founder of UQ Marketing, a Columbus, Ohio-based company that specializes in marketing to college students.
Despite that challenge, here are four keys to getting the most from your millennial-marketing efforts:
1. Know your audience. This may be a touch easier for those still in school. But even campus-based entrepreneurs will need to do their research. Tailgates, for instance, are popular in the Midwest but not as much in the Northeast.
This means you may need to host focus-groups. It means interviews. It means getting out on a number of campuses and canvassing the masses for a look at what’s hot and what’s not.
The trick with successfully hosting any kind of focus group, says Bell, is finding a broad range of college students -- from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life.
2. Leverage recommendations. It’s hardly a secret that young adults represent one of the biggest user groups of popular social networking sites. A less well-known fact: College-aged, social-media users place an inordinate amount of emphasis on personal recommendations via Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and even Facebook.
"There is no stronger call to action than creating opportunities for people to share things and having peers recommend stuff to other peers," says Bell, who herself graduated from Miami University (Ohio) in 2010. "Students relate to people who are like them -- especially people whom they view as being on top of trends."
Christian Borges, vice president of marketing for MRY, a New York-based social-media agency that got its start in the college space, adds that this domino-like reality makes it even more important to achieve brand recognition and adoption in the first place. "With students you rarely get just one," he says.
3. Embrace video 2.0. Even if you're not the best multi-tasker, many of college kids are. They've likely been doing it for years, after all. But rather than watch TV while they study, students today get a significant portion of their entertainment from web videos.
For this reason, the best approach to video marketing is to produce pieces that enable students to "put their own fingerprints on it," says Nick DeNinno, a consultant and advisor who specializes in helping universities with student-run television stations. He suggests using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a host of other vehicles to help students make their mark.
"If they can’t personally own it, by commenting on it, sharing it, or having a hand in the creation of it, they aren’t interested. If it’s not a flag they can fly, a college student will not be interested," he says. "The worst possible thing any [brand] can do is not allow feedback at all."
4. Don’t forget the face-to-face. Despite the way technology pervades life for most college students today, most still value and appreciate sharing likes and dislikes in person.
About 95 percent of college consumers polled in a recent survey from UQ Marketing prefer to share experiences and opinions about products they love in person rather than via text or social media. Additionally, nearly 92 percent said they prefer to tell others about products they dislike when they can be honest, face-to-face.
"There’s no denying the popularity of certain technologies among college students but these users develop long-term habits based on recommendations from their peers," said Bell. "Brands need to interject themselves into these real-world conversations if they want to stay ahead."
What is your strategy for successfully marketing to college kids? Let us know in the comments below.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.