Big Marketer on Campus -- How to Win with College Activations

Winter’s here, the 2nd semester has started and colleges and universities across the U.S. are bustling with students returning to campus. The U.S. boasts over 20,000,000 college students.  They have a total discretionary spending power of $207 Billion, which makes their impact on the economy unquestionable.

In light of these numbers, it’s no surprise that brands relish the opportunity to activate on college campuses.  So, I wanted to provide a quick post on how your brand can win on campus.

Find the Right Contact

Do you need to deal with Student Affairs, Recreational Sports, the Athletic Department, the College Bookstore, some other department or all of the above?  Knowing whom you need to contact to get the lay of the land at the university is crucial to ensuring you get the many approvals required to accomplish your goals.  The “right” contacts vary by campus so don’t assume you’ll deal with the same departments across different schools. Failing to get the right groups involved early in the process can delay, or even derail, your program.  If you’re not sure whom to contact, I recommend starting with Student Affairs as they can usually point you in the right direction.

Understand Your Target

Like the general public, you cannot lump college students together as they represent a broad and diverse target.  So understanding whom you are targeting is critical to reaching them. Are you talking to freshman or seniors? Males or females?  Intramurals? Greeks? Does your target live on- or off-campus? Is the school a 2-year or 4-year program? You need to consider these elements when determining the best tools to reach your target on campus.

Engage Campus Influencers to Spread the Word

Whatever the goal of your program, word-of-mouth among students is a vital tactic to increase awareness and engagement.  The key to generating strong word-of-mouth is finding the right influencers to spread your message. Make sure the influencers are authentic to and passionate about your brand.  They must be well connected on campus with very active social media networks. Also, it is crucial that you train these influencers about your brand. It is also important to compensate them, whether it’s cash, product or school credit.  They need to feel accountable as they lead you to success.

My experience has taught me that a good spot to find influencers is the Greek system.  They are tightly knit and socially active which can spread the word fast. But remember that they can also be polarizing to other students so be sure to keep your brand’s positioning firmly in mind when reaching out to campus influencers, whether Greek or otherwise.

Become Part of the Campus Community

Think long-term vs. short-term when strategically approaching engagement on college campuses.  Students get messages from hundreds of brands daily so think about how your brand can become more than an impression by becoming part of the campus community.  In my experience, the more a brand commits to being on campus, the more the university will support your brand’s presence. Plus, the longer your brand is on campus, the more opportunity you have to create meaningful and relevant engagements with students, which will increase brand awareness and affinity.

Get Students Involved to Help Market Your Brand

What better way to make students aware of your brand than to ask them to help you market the brand or event?  A few years ago at MKTG, the marketing agency I worked at, we helped one of our clients produce a running race at a major university.  The second year we went back, we asked the students to help us produce the race, giving them major responsibilities to help run the event.  This gave the students increased ownership of the event while also providing a valuable learning opportunity. And, it allowed our client to interact more closely with the students, which created greater insights about the event and the student participants.

Be Authentic to Your Brand But Don’t be Pushy

Whatever you decide to do on campus, be authentic to your brand because students can sniff out a phony in an instant.  Trying to fake it will create the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish when negative word-of-mouth spreads across campus.

But, while being authentic, you also need to ensure that you’re meeting the needs of students.  Sometimes, there needs to be a middle ground between your brand positioning and what students actually care about.  Your goal is to be flexible and find the perfect balance of authenticity while leveraging the interests of students.  Don’t just push your objectives if the students really don’t care. Find this balance and you’ll win.

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