Marketing to College Students

The college student segment in the United States is made up of nearly 20 million people. Marketing to this young, influential group is a powerful way to create lifelong customers. Currently, college students come from the millennial generation or Generation Z, and have had access to the internet for most or all of their lives.

One of the key reasons that the college student segment is so influential is the over $574 billion in spending power they possess. In 2018, college students spent $55.3 billion on back to school shopping alone.

As college students begin living away from home for the first time, they also start becoming more financially independent and begin forging brand affinities. Nearly 60% of millennials claim to be brand-loyal. When they connect with a brand, they’re likely to stick with it throughout their lives.

$574 Billion

College student spending power in 2018

Marketing to college students presents its own set of challenges. When evaluating  a purchase, students aren’t easily persuaded by ads, but instead look for authenticity in the brand. They also encounter advertisements less frequently, due to their use of ad blockers and ad-free streaming services.

Students’ lack of connection with ads means companies must consider alternate strategies when marketing to them. In recent years, brands have successfully caught the attention of college students through authentic branded content on social media sites like Youtube and Instagram. College students also prefer content with a more personable approach, which means many brands have started using brand ambassadors or internet personalities to influence the market.


The College Student Market – By The Numbers

The total number of college students in the U.S. is about 20 million, and is expected to increase to 20.5 million by 2027. There are more females enrolled in college than males (11.2 million females compared to 8.7 million males). More students are expected to attend college full-time, rather than part-time, and while the majority are under the age of 25, more than one-third are older.

When it comes to spending, most college students’ money goes toward essentials (tuition, text books, bills), but their discretionary spending has continued to rise, topping $212 billion in 2018.  College students spend most of their discretionary money on food (about $65 billion) ,“non essential items” like clothing, alcohol, and beauty items ($36 billion), and entertainment (2.7 billion).

It’s important to consider that once a  student leaves college, they are estimated to make over $1 million more in their lifetimes than their non-college peers, which means they are high lifetime value consumers. Their earning potential, coupled with the fact that they will be forming their forming brand preferences for the first time in their adult lives, makes it crucial to market to them while they are making their purchasing decisions.


of the US population are Gen Zers.

Gen Z vs. Millennials

Generation Z consists of people born in 1995 or later. At 26% of the United States population, they are the largest subgroup,  and by 2020 they will account for one-third of the U.S. population. These numbers are certainly worth paying attention to. In contrast “millennial” is a person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000.  The difference between the two is important to know in order to prepare your business for the future.

How Generation Z Differs from Millennials

  • Gen Z can be less focused and have shorter attention spans than millenials. Since they grew up with the internet, they are used to obtaining and processing information faster than previous generations. This can also make them better multi-taskers, as they are used to operating multiple technologies at once.
  • Gen Z is 25% more likely than Millennials to say they are addicted to their digital device, with a full 40% identifying as “addicted”.


Marketing Strategies For College Students

Marketing successfully to college students means being able to market to both millennials and Gen Zers, because they make up the majority of college students.

Traditional ads aren’t the best way to reach today’s college students, because they are less likely to notice TV, magazine, or radio ads than their counterparts. Most students now use ad blockers or rely on streaming services without ads. The best way to engage with and market to college students is to create and share content.  

Marketing to Gen Z

Gen Zers prefer realistic to idealistic, and they like to be engaged by “real people.” This is no surprise when one considers that their ”real” connections to real people are often through social media, particularly YouTube, which 85% of Gen Zers say is their favorite site (EY:Rise of GenZ).

In a survey, 46% of Gen Z said they have a strong connection or loyalty to a brand, and 66% also said that once they find a brand they like they will continue to buy for a long time. Sixty percent said they were happy to be associated with their favorite brand, and 59% said they trust brands they have grown up with. (Gen Z Brand)

Marketing to Millennials

Loyalty programs tend to appeal to millenials more than Gen Zers. A study by Lab42 found that less than half of Gen Z shoppers were influenced to purchase based on a loyalty program compared to 75% of millennials. Brand loyalty for Gen Z is less about a “program” and more about how the brand experience aligns directly with their lives. Nearly 60% of millennials claim some form of loyalty to their favorite brands.


College Student Seed Marketing Programs

Seeding the market with a student offer is becoming a go-to strategy for digital marketers because it successfully leverages the great appeal of student discounts. Sixty-seven percent of millennials indicated that they would go to a website to get a coupon, and 46% of Gen Z polled said they would do the same.

Gated, exclusive offers are an emerging trend for providing discounts to students. Brands create exclusive promotions for college students, then use a digital verification platform to confirm a student’s eligibility.

Marketing to college students with gated offers can be highly effective because gated offers:

Accelerate the Acquisition Process

Offering a student discount can be an effective way to accelerate the acquisition process. Our shopper survey showed that when students are given access to a gated, exclusive offer, 54% say they feel excited and 91% would be more likely to shop with a brand.

Increase Brand Loyalty

College student seed marketing programs also help increase brand loyalty. Establishing a positive relationship with students when their brand affiliations are still forming makes them stay for the long haul. Deloitte found that college students have a 10-year customer lifecycle preference, and 60% of millennial consumers said they are “often” or “always” loyal to brands that they currently purchase.

Facilitate Full-Priced Adoption

When software and subscription companies seed their marketers with gated offers, it can lead to long-term revenue gains because as students become familiar with (and reliant on) a product or offering, their commitment to it deepens and they convert to full price when they graduate.

Tableau is a great example. The company  provides their interactive data visualization and business intelligence software products to verified college students in 44 countries for free. Not only do the students graduate with a proficiency in their software, many turn into paying customers who then bring their data visualization and BI tools and expertise with them into the professional world.

The same is true for subscription companies like YouTube and CBS All Access. Students who sign up using an exclusive discount and engage with the brand’s offerings during college are more likely to convert to full price when they graduate because they want to maintain the benefits of being a subscriber. Subscription companies using gated student offers have seen graduating students convert to full price at rates as high as 98%.


The Lifetime Value of Marketing to College Students with a Seeding Program

If you market for a software or subscription company and you’re wondering what returns you might actually see with a seeding program we created a calculator using the industry-standard formula. Just enter:

  • The number of students you think will take advantage of your offer.
  • The annual fee you’d collect if they were paying full price.
  • How long you typically retain customers.

Then choose a conversion rate and see the lifetime value of your student seeding program. Something to keep in mind: a recent survey by Deloitte found that college students have a 10-year customer lifecycle preference and that companies using SheerID to verify their exclusive offers typically see conversion rates between 75% – 90%.

Digital College Student Verification With SheerID

Companies that use gated offers to market to college students need  to verify an individual’s eligibility for their promotion, and using digital verification does that and more. With digital verification, students happily provide their personal information to receive the discount, and their eligibility is instantly verified.

This opt-in exchange also gives brands data they can then use for nurture and retention programs.  Direct connections like these are particularly valuable to software marketers, who can use them to establish student programs and communities in a way that isn’t possible when their companies only engage in blanket licensing agreements at the university level and don’t collect the data needed for personal engagement.

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