Marketing Catalogs to College Students 101

More than 16 million U.S. college students are spending $96 billion each year as they go about forming what will be their lifelong brand and buying patterns. And plenty of American catalogers want to appeal to that lucrative and long-term market. But how?

Get them dancing and laughing. Just ask anyone who's worked with college students and they'll tell you “involve their hands and feet, not just their hearts and minds!”

Basically, branding works less with students. And institutional ads don't work at all because university students like to be engaged physically. That means novelty pages, scratch and sniff patches, and funky optical illusions and premium samples.

Can't afford that? Try testing a sidebar with amusing facts, humorous photography and hip culture tips. Games and contests will titillate the college student catalog browser as well. And don't forget about tying in entertainment or co-branded cultural or sporting events. Associating a company with sponsorship of a new movie or production of a new concert band always grabs students' interest.

Hand-to-hand contact on campus works too. Involve their culture, and your name will be popping up in their minds. And of course, like a lot of consumers, they are attracted to free samples, hip sweepstakes and deep discounts. But when crafting appeals to the college wallet, a company's catalog should emphasize the price break it offers over the fine quality of its merchandise. Today, the college kids' slogan is, “Show me the money!”

When it comes to college catalog distribution, one of the best ways to a circulate a book — especially a new one — is through the students themselves. Consider temporarily employing some of them to act as on-campus representatives. Relating to one of their own, students will always take notice of catalogs or samples handed out on campus.

Direct mail into campus mailboxes and e-mail straight to students' computers are two more ways to get noticed. But be sure to use a proven marketing firm that has proprietary databases of student snail-mail and e-mail addresses. With a daily average of only three pieces of mail in their boxes, students check each one with interest. In the electronic mailbox, more than 70 percent of students are using e-mail daily and many professors are now requiring it as a means of communications.

Today's college kids are hedonistic and in a hurry to move on to the next page. So when it comes to the cover, keep the models young and hip and use artwork that appeals to the college taste. South Park and The Simpsons are popular cartoon characters with students, so is the artwork of their peers. A contest for the next artist to appear on the cover would spark the attention of university students. Stick the five-Ws — who, where, what, when and why — into brightly colored pages on the Internet, or in print, and students will pay attention. Forget pretty pink: College kids want fire engine red.

Class by class, students exhibit some different interests. Freshmen are impulsive buyers who focus on short-term use. For the moment, they're happy spending all their discretionary income on pizza, beer and entertainment. But seniors are beginning to think about the long haul. With the real world scheduled for their next semester, they are looking for a car, furniture and a career. Graduate students are already there. With yuppies for peers, they're considering condominiums, career-wear and luxury vacations.

For more in-depth studies, check out, a company that tracks the lifestyles of university students on campuses across the United States. is another enlightening Web site when you are looking to understand today's college life.

Matt Britton is president and co-founder of The Magma Group, Boston, a national college marketing company.

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