Zipcar deal, QR codes illustrate evolution of campus marketing

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Strolling across the quad of my college campus those many years ago, I was approached by a girl who looked like a friendly student — wearing a big smile and the traditional campus uniform of tee shirt, cutoff shorts and a ponytail — but this casual appearance belied her true intent. Using the lure of an electric alarm clock, she reeled me in, hooking me on one of the most dangerous addictive substances out there.

A credit card.

I signed up for the card without reading any of the fine print; I didn't even know if it was a MasterCard or a Visa. I wanted my clock and I needed to get going. After all, I was a very busy college student. That fine print I didn't read? I later found out the card came with sky-high interest rates, an annual fee and many other troublesome features parents would warn you about if you hadn't recently managed to get away from them under the guise of a higher education.

In my defense, I did really need an alarm clock. After all, this was before cell phones took on the role of ensuring sleepy or hung-over students attend their 7 am classes. I could have easily gotten one at RadioShack, but here was this girl, and she had an alarm clock right there… and didn't I need to start building my credit anyway? Sign me up!

It's reasonable to suggest that college students are not the savviest consumers. They are separated from their parents, many for the first time, and they often have pockets in which parental dollars are busy burning holes. But this isn't the only reason college students are a gold mine for marketers. It's also a brand's chance to gain a lifelong consumer.

Zipcar and the Ford Motor Co. are well aware of this. They made national news today when they announced an agreement that will put students in fully-loaded Ford Focuses at colleges nationwide. Nearly 50% of all Zipcars will now be Fords. Zipcar, which already has partnerships with 250 colleges and universities, will offer $10-off its annual membership fee for the first 100,000 college students who sign up, and will deduct $1-off the hourly rate for the first million hours of use at select campuses.  

As Ford Chairman Bill Ford told CNBC: “Think of it as getting the opportunity to give thousands of 18-to-24-year- olds an extended test drive… we'd like them to make a lifelong process of thinking about the Ford Motor Co.”

Ten dollars is not a lot of dough. It's only slightly more than the average cost of seeing a movie in a theater. But it's enough to perhaps develop the kind of lifelong relationship of which Ford (the man) speaks. An alarm clock was once enough. It's easy to understand why brands are going back to school.

There have been many changes from the original model of a direct approach on campus by a brand rep with a free gift offered in exchange for a signature, because students are wary of these old-school techniques.

Newegg is among the brands looking to capitalize on these techniques to put its products in students' minds and hands. Newegg is about to embark on what has become an annual tech road show to more than 100 college campuses, where it will demonstrate products and highlight back-to-school “essentials,” including cameras, software and computers. Complimentary giveaways and a sweepstakes lock-in the engagement factor. 

The Internet and, specifically, Facebook have become more popular avenues to reach pupils largely addicted to both, and although campuses are still being littered with direct-mail flyers, these now often include QR codes to entice students, who are, more often than not, tech-savvy smartphone owners.

The USA Today article notes that Red Bull — which, as of this moment, has a whopping 22,154,373 “likes” on Facebook and a substantial Twitter following — blends its very successful Web-based outreach with direct marketing, which comes in the form of free Red Bull Energy Shots for students (they generally retail for about $3). But the brand employs an expansive multichannel marketing strategy, using SMS texts to alert students to locations on campus where they can score free four-packs and offering free branded mobile games and phone apps.

American Eagle Outfitters is also using social media to connect its brand to college-age consumers, but it similarly hasn't abandoned its direct marketing method, which centers on providing free branded flip-flops to incoming college freshmen, along with a store coupon bearing an intentionally short expiration date.

Free flip-flops? If I was still in school, you would have had me at “free.”

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