3 Takeaways from FutureM’s College Consumers Panel, “Tap into Gen-Y”

19 Sep 2011 3:38 PM | Deleted user
This post was written by Jay Acunzo, Melanie Collins and Jessica Andrade, college marketing specialists and account executives with CampusLIVE. Jay arrived at CampusLIVE from Google, Melanie from SHIFT Communications and Jessica from Yahoo!, after the Boston-based company received more than $3M in Series A capital.

The college demographic is one of the most important audiences a marketer can reach: a $300B market composed of students making lifelong brand decisions now, from the clothes they wear to the food they eat to the cars they drive.

Perhaps the three most common trends from FutureM’s “Tap into Gen-Y’s” student panel (held Monday at the Microsoft NERD), were these:
  1. On-campus brand ambassadorships are growing rapidly;
  2. Many companies are executing these programs poorly, or through the wrong channel;
  3. To truly connect with Gen-Y, brands must use new forms of campaigns that focus on honest engagement, adding value, and digital ambassadorship.
Gen-Y looks for true engagement that adds value to their lives. Some brands are missing the boat on the developing (and evolving) college ambassador trend.  Yesterday’s open discussion shed some light on the issues and areas for improvement in marketing to college students by any means.  Here’s a recap:

The campus ambassador boom.

As the New York Times recently revealed, over 10,000 college students will work across hundreds of campuses to promote brands (for money, swag or experience). Brands have always recognized the value of the college market, but only recently have significant resources been spent creating these programs. Rather than targeting college via traditional media or digital advertising such as banner or search ads, these brands are focusing more on interaction and engagement.

While college students may not make buying decisions beyond themselves, they are influenced by friends, have a broad social reach with an average of about 600 friends on Facebook alone (according to CampusLIVE data).

They also serve as brand “distributors.” By buying into a brand now, not only are they setting up their lifelong loyalty, but they ”distribute” and influence brand loyalty up and down market to people they are closely connected to -- their parents and younger generations. While plenty of brands understand the need and value of engaging the college demographic, in the minds of the students on the panel, the current ambassadorships may not have the intended results.

Right idea; wrong execution.

The most common refrain directed at brands from the panel was simple:

“How can you make my life better?”

To paraphrase, they stated that throwing free swag around or pushing ads online or offline in hopes the message sticks is a turn-off: “That just annoys us. And all it takes is for us to try something once and if we like it, we’ll probably stick with it. So be interactive and show us how you make my life better rather than tell us.”

They pointed to the on-campus ambassadors as the wrong execution of the right idea. Some -- like American Eagle -- set up experiences on campus that go beyond giveaways and friend-to-friend messaging, but for the most part, the panel agreed ambassadorships are more about the individual ambassador building a resume.

“I was a brand ambassador for Windows 7, and honestly I owned a Mac”, one student said (paraphrasing). “There’s no way for me to track what I do on campus, and I don’t know how the brand tracks it either.”

Another stated, “There’s no personal connection to brands on campus if they’re giving away free stuff. It’s just free. There’s no real relationship once the brand leaves campus.”

The good news? There does exist a means to create lasting experiences that do foster relationships, influence students among their community and create brand loyalty.

Everything comes back to digital.

There aren’t any silver bullets marketing to college students (many on the panel decried the frat-tastic or do-good labels placed across all college students), and each brand needs to find a unique blend of college-relevant and uniquely cool, useful or exciting.

But the students admitted they’ll typically give each brand a shot, provided they have the ability to interact, learn, connect and (yes) advocate for a brand where they spend the most time daily: online. They admitted:
  • They rarely watch much TV these days, and that their home base for media is their laptops (and, secondarily, their phones).
  • They’re hardwired to hate banners, pop-ups, pre-rolls, text ads and more.
  • They love contests with and against friends and peers (as long as the prizes are worthwhile), and would even readily upload photos to win (while videos require a much better payout).
  • Word of mouth and in-person is important, but it starts and ends with digital media interaction and engagement.
  • The panel was divided between their preferred social network, but most agreed that brand interaction is acceptable, even enjoyable. (One student raved about having open dialogue with the Bolocco social media manager, saying, “It’s like we’re old friends. He actually responds and we all love him at BU.”)
According to them, because they spend so much time online (92-percent of Gen-Y uses social media), that’s the place where brand recommendations from friends matter. Posting to a blog, Liking on Facebook, Re-tweeting a brand message -- they know these recommendations are powerful and meaningful, since college students manage their digital profiles carefully among their peers, potential employers and the public.

For brands to capitalize and reach this audience, they need to produce truly engaging moments, adding value to a student’s life and providing digital mechanisms to connect and interact. The rewards, however, are immense: brands create deeper loyalty, find broader reach, and ultimately build an army of the most powerful brand advocates online...if they follow the trend.

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