Online Exclusive: Marketing to the Campus Crowd

The following is an excerpt from the book “Marketing to the Campus Crowd: Everything You Need to Know to Capture the $200 Billion College Market” (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2004, hardcover, ISBN #07931-8600-5)

For an infinite number of businesses, college students represent a highly influential portal that can impact market segments far beyond the campus gates. Astute direct marketers should strive to move from merely informing this advertising-overloaded audience to actually infusing them with a sense of excitement; the latter approach generates that much-coveted recall, action and buzz. After all, early adoption and word of mouth, when leveraged appropriately, can exponentially boost your firm’s ROI.

In closely studying the college market for nearly two decades, I have continually observed that word of mouth remains the most compelling behavioral driver behind student attitudes and usage. Its influential force is far greater than advertising, promotions or any other corporate-driven channel. And why not? Genuine word of mouth, in contrast with promotional invention, derives from entirely impartial parties who are vested in students’ best interests and, in most cases, can directly relate to the unique elements of college life. Fellow students, recent graduates, faculty and parents are the most trusted groups because they are not likely to have a financial incentive in a purchase decision: There are no hidden agendas as only a student’s best interest is considered.

On the campus level, there is often a collective transfer of knowledge imparted from upperclassmen to lowerclassmen: which classes and which professors to take, what local bank to use and where to shop. This dynamic obviously includes virtually every other aspect of how, when and where students spend their money. Sales staff are instantly under suspicion as their imparted wisdom, in many instances, is unduly influenced by commissions. The ultra-savvy campus crowd is acutely aware of this transparent dynamic. Student representatives may mitigate such apprehension to some degree; however, it is still widely understood that they too are motivated by the desire to produce results.

Early Adopters and Category “Experts”

Early adopters play a critical role in marketing to the campus crowd, as do those incredibly important students widely acknowledged by their peers as “experts” because of their high involvement in a given category. In many cases, these two labels — early adopter and expert — can be applied to the same individual, but it is a far-from-automatic assumption.

Early adopters represent the first wave to try new products and services and are usually eager to voice their experiences to others. Similarly, category experts are frequently turned to for advice because of their extensive knowledge and insight. Student A may turn to student B for input on whether to buy a new textbook or a used one, as well as whether the purchase should be made at the school bookstore or through an online retailer. In another scenario, student B might influence the purchase decision and attitudes of student C (or student A) because of an in-depth category knowledge. And so on.

In a grand scheme, we are probably all early adopters in at least one category and fall along all other points in the adoption curve in most others. Try as we may, it is impossible to be on the cutting edge across all product and/or service categories. College students are no different, although there is heavier weighting (i.e., skew) toward the earlier part of the adoption curve.

The advent of the Internet has elevated the power of student word of mouth, essentially turbo-charging its potency to levels previously unimagined. Products can more quickly be discovered by early adopters, reach mainstream critical mass and just as easily fall out of favor with consumers. The classic rule of thumb that a satisfied customer will speak with one person but a dissatisfied customer will share the distasteful experience with 12 individuals is now obsolete, as the Internet has exponentially increased an individual’s ability to reach an infinitely larger audience in nanoseconds.

Companies can be flamed (or praised) in front of thousands in cyberspace with just a few keystrokes. A gaffe made by the manager of a local fast-food chain or electronics store — whether accurately depicted or not — can be broadcast verbatim to tens of thousands of highly impressionable consumers. Usually, such remarks leave an indelible impression because the writer took the time to share his or her experience. Ironically, many of these postings made on school servers may last longer than the student’s time on campus. (School servers are not wiped clean as often as one might think.) The following is an actual posting I found online:

DUDE 102*: Listen up ya’ll, don’t use [name deleted by author] whatever you do. I bought mine from them online and their customer service sux! I was on hold for over 40 minutes and gave up. They always talk about how their customer service is rated #1 by everyone. It’s all a load of crap. Watch out. I’m never buying from [name deleted by author] again.”

*Fictitious name

Obviously, the power of the Internet and word of mouth is undeniable. Typically, companies view these two behavioral drivers as exogenous by having historically lain beyond the control of the firm. However, astute marketing strategists are always on the prowl for ways to transform exogenous factors into endogenous ones (i.e., forces that can be controlled by a firm). When your profit and loss statement (P&L) is on the line, it is always better to try to shape public opinion regarding your corporate identity, brand image and market position rather than letting either consumers or your competition do it for you.

Recently, companies have been using early adopters to guide public opinion in their favor. Trendsetting students are given free merchandise or samples so they can (ideally) share their positive experiences with others. Viral marketing has come into vogue as a viable grassroots approach with strong potential impact. A Ford dealership for years has been giving a free month’s use of a Mustang convertible to a student identified by the school for either athletic or academic achievement. (To lower the insurance premiums, the car has the smaller six-cylinder engine.) Every four weeks, a new student is riding that car and promoting both the brand and the dealership.

The program generates great public relations for the company and an excellent opportunity to surround a product or brand with positive effect: If the football star or class valedictorian is driving a Mustang, then Fords have got to be cool. (Having lived next door to a top draft pick for the NBA in my adult life, I can tell you firsthand that he received cases of shoes in varying sizes on a daily basis based on this widespread assumption — too bad I’m not a size 13!)

Several clever companies, who shall remain nameless, have taken a proactive approach to shaping word of mouth by participating in chat rooms and posing as students! A company’s employees not only monitor the student banter but also continually post comments that are complimentary to their company and/or brand — possibly even to the detriment of the competition, I suspect. Although the ethics of such an approach are subject to debate (and neither endorsed nor practiced by my firm), companies should be taking every effort to both closely monitor and constructively guide student buzz to their advantage. This may not necessarily entail posing as a student online so much as ensuring that your marketing mix is yielding the right kind of conversational sound bytes. One might use keyword hits in chat rooms and blogs to guide the design of campaigns for the campus crowd as well as to measure the success of these efforts based on actual feedback.

Leveraging the power of early adoption and word of mouth among college students — and the larger young adult segment — is but one strategy in a direct marketer’s arsenal. By better understanding and managing this particular dynamic, you can more effectively create change in your favor to best meet your organizational vision and objectives.

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