Six ways to NOT reach college students

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 · 9 min read

I wrote this blog post in December 2011, I thought I knew a lot about college students and how to reach them. In the last seven months, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned so much, and this original blog post was so popular, that I decided it was worth updating. While it doesn’t have 30% less calories, this post does have tons of new stats from multiple surveys SheerID has conducted this year. So buckle-up, this is the new and improved list of how NOT to reach college students.

College students spent $16 billion online last year, that’s billion with a “B.” College students are everything a business is looking for in a new customer: the whole world in front of them, great potential, cinder-block and milk-crate furniture…picture of perfection. They are all gathered in one place, on campus, in classrooms, this should be easy, right? To use a saying I have never understood and is oddly violent, like shooting fish in a barrel.

The truth is though, most companies are either downright failing at reaching college students, or are doing it so inefficiently that it’s a terrible experience for the student, and a worse ROI on their marketing efforts. So how do you do it?

Imitation is the best form of flattery, so let’s start there. Who is doing a great job at reaching college students? Its ok, I’ll wait. Think of who is doing an amazing job at specifically developing loyal customers among college students. Anyone?

logo-hp-academyHP. Yes, they seem to be the early winner in 2012. HP is offering the buzz-worthy and popular “Free Xbox” with a computer purchase over $699. They may not be yelling about it loud enough since other companies are also offering the same thing, but they have no fiery hoops to jump through to get the Xbox. They offer college students a good shopping experience, and a great student promotion, for a great product.

Gillette. Sure, good one. Giving free razors in new-student packets so then they just have to buy the replacement blades. It’s a smart strategy, so smart that marketers often talk about the “Gillette” revenue model. Side note: it’s funny to me that everyone is mad at the printer and toner cartridge companies for the same model.

Anyone else? You can talk about beer companies, and Red Bull, and Urban Outfitters, but for this post, let’s stay specific. Not companies that reach 18 – 24 year olds, but very specifically college students, our soon-to-be-in-debt yet well-educated future.

I’m going to be prudent and not list actual companies in the following “not doing it well” list. Unfortunately, there are so many examples of it being done badly, that they can be broken down into broad categories.

Offering a student discount online that has to be verified in non-online ways

Believe it or not, this is a standard practice out there. There are huge companies that require that you fax in a copy of your student ID, or even a copy of your class schedule. Why do you spend literally millions of dollars advertising special offers to students only to make them go through an obstacle course that a Navy Seal would fail?

Verifying a student discount by requiring proof of a .edu email address

Quick explanation—a .edu email loop is when a company asks a student to prove that they have a .edu email address as proof that they are a current college student.

A recent SheerID survey shows that 34.2% of college students don’t have a .edu email address. That’s right, more than 1/3. So now 34% of the market you are reaching are mad at you and rightly so.

Next, you are sacrificing your conversion rate for an out-dated verification solution. Studies show that conversion rates drop by over 30% when you add an “extra” step to your cart. That step could be retrieving a coupon code, or needing to check your email for a verification code.

You spent a lot of money driving students to your site. With the .edu email verification, you lost 34% that don’t have one and another 30% due to extra steps in check-out. Not only did you not get the sale, but many of them are pretty annoyed and many of those told a friend about how annoyed they are. Do you see where this is going?

Offering tiny student discounts where better deals can be easily found somewhere else

Google “college student discount” and see what pops up—a lot of really lame, TINY little announcements that talk about 3% off your purchase, or $30 off airline tickets, or a discount off the “list” price. It’s embarrassing. Really? 3% off? That doesn’t cover sales tax in most places. College students are super-users and your discount will be discovered as a fraud. All they have to do is search to see that there is a better airline deal out there, or coupon sites to find a bigger discount. Bonus nugget of wisdom–don’t insult the intelligence of your target market.

From another SheerID survey (I know, right, how do we ever have time to write snarky blog posts?), our results showed that 90% of students need at least 10% off to get their attention, and over 40% said they need at least 20% off.

Trying to be cutting edge to an audience that can see right through you

I said I wouldn’t list company examples here, but I can’t resist. McDonald’s ad for their McDonalds “I’d Hit It” addollar menu where a guys is saying “I’d hit it” about a cheeseburger is my all time favorite. They thought they would be cool and use hipster language and ended up being weird, creepy, and just shy of fetish pornography.

Ok, one more–GM pulled an entire campaign last school season that hinted that riding a bike or walking to class was unacceptably nerdy compared to driving an SUV to class. Have you tried parking on campus? Enough said.

You know your audience, but that doesn’t mean you know how to speak their language. One of the best characteristics of any person is when they know what they don’t know.

Reaching students where they aren’t

You offer a big, juicy student discount in your brick and mortar store so you think you’ve checked the “reaching students” box. Wrong. So wrong. Everything we listed above that is great about a student also explains why the in-person discount isn’t enough. Many don’t have a car, many are clustered in smaller towns where schools are based and don’t venture far from there. They all are demanding and expect instant gratification. When it is so easy to offer the discount online and to verify that they are a student, why wouldn’t you?

Reaching students where they aren’t, part 2

If you haven’t heard about what the new “traditional” college student looks like, you should try watching a little less Big Brother After Dark, and peruse Yahoo News a little more often. Yep, I’m going to say it again, in a recent SheerID survey, only 33% of college students were even aware that they were eligible for a college student discount. Only 25% of students at two-year schools were aware. More fun with numbers:

Only 15% of college student attend a four year school and live on campus.

37% of college students work full time.

16% of college students are over age 35

So if you see the tooth-decayingly sweet dorm gear that the big guys are offering each August and think you should follow their lead to reach college students…don’t. Students are a super valuable market, but that market isn’t made up of 17 million 19-year olds with blond pony-tails painting their toe-nails in their dorm room. Most marketers are missing the actual college student market. We know, we asked them (the college students, not the marketers).

So what does that leave? If the big guys can’t do it right, how can you? I feel like we’ve circled in on the answer, it’s really pretty simple arithmetic. I listed six major blunders that companies are actively and presently doing. I see two solutions:

Keep it real, keep it simple

Do your research and make sure you know who within the college student market you want to reach. Then message them like the super-users they are, and reach them where they are.

College students told us, yes, in one of our surveys, that they want to hear directly from retailers on their website and in their email newsletters if they offer a student discount, so just tell them.

If you advertise a discount or offer, make it easy to redeem

From another SheerID survey, 43% of college students say they have abandoned an online shopping cart because it was too hard to redeem a student discount. The technology is now available to verify a student instantly and transparently, so you don’t have any excuses. SheerID offers it in an easy-to-install plugin for your cart at a fraction of the cost of any other solutions out there. Take the time to put in the tools to verify college students, ALL college students, in real time. Take down the barriers to entry and give students the instant gratification that they demand. You want to create loyal customers? Make your product unforgettable and your buying process so easy that it is completely forgettable. Your shopping cart is exactly what you DON’T want college students blogging about.

If you are interested in seeing the full results of any or all of our surveys, email us at [email protected] and we’ll get them right to you.

Marci Hansen by Marci Hansen