Six ways to NOT reach college students

Posted on Dec 28, 2011 · 7 min read

Are you trying to reach college students as a target market? It certainly makes sense. College students spent $70 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-carton 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?

Apple. Yes, they are great. Apple often offers huge discounts to college students with basically the honor system online, making it a good experience to shop, and get a big discount, 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.

All the community college students, please stand up. For those keeping track at home, that’s 29.8% of college students that are standing. Guess what, most of them are not issued a .edu email address. Now 30% 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 30% 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 kayak.com 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.

McDonalds “I’d Hit It” adTrying 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 dollar 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 just pulled an entire campaign 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.

Being disingenuous in your two-way-conversations

These particular debacles don’t seem to happen as often anymore. A few years ago, several big companies got caught writing two-way conversations on YouTube and on their blogs and forums. As a smaller company, be careful. There is a fine line between throwing a party and having no one attend, having a blog with no comments, a Facebook page with no fans, etc. and totally faking it.

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, most are living on campus and don’t venture far from there, they all are demanding and expect instant gratification. When it is so easy to offer the discount and to verify that they are a student, why wouldn’t you?

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:

Be genuine

At the non-profit where I was charged with reaching teens, I was 30 years old. I surrounded myself with 19 year olds, yes, I hired them. If you have to do research on what the kids are doing these days, you are going to screw it up. Get someone on your staff who actually knows what will work. Do NOT do focus groups, or have any manager’s meeting on it, or, as we learned here, do not just copy what bigger brands are doing. Find a voice of the student and try it. Even if it isn’t quite right the first time, at least it will be genuine and can be adjusted from there.

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

In a recent 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.

Marci Hansen by Marci Hansen