How to Target and Market to College Students

Group of young students on their phones

If you believe the stereotypes, you might think college students only eat ramen for all their meals and live on free merch. But in fact, college students collectively have an estimated spending power of almost $600 billion. Once college students graduate, many can expect an average starting salary of over $50,000.

Marketing to college students helps your brand capitalize on a sweet spot in their lives, while they’re forming opinions about brands and before they have money to spend it. As a target market, college students are bursting with potential. If a brand can gain their loyalty now, they may have a customer for life

To help you learn how to market to college students, this guide explores everything from student lifestyles and advertising techniques to examples of successful campaigns.

What Makes College Students a Unique Demographic?

The demographic makeup of college students constantly changes. Today, most students are 19-23, and 40% of college students are 25 or older. They’re mostly Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X. In ten years, more Generation Alpha students will attend college, bringing their own lifestyles to the table.

Graphic of college student ages

No matter how this demographic’s makeup shifts, college students are all striving toward a degree. They may be making less than $20,000 on average in college, but they will probably have cash to spare once they graduate. The average starting salary for the Class of 2020, for example, was $55,260. In general, bachelor’s degree holders have a 3.5 lower poverty rate compared to those with only a high school degree.

College students are all in a transitional period. They’re all facing a heavy workload, struggling to balance their work and personal lives, and trying to maintain their wellbeing under all of this stress. Consider these key factors as you craft meaningful marketing messages for them.

Digital Natives: College Student Lifestyles

Despite their varied ages and backgrounds, college students share similarities. Their spending habits and focus on digital channels can help your team successfully target and market to them.

College Students Are Price Conscious—But Spend Across Industries 

Students have three main sources of income: parents, jobs, and loans. But they still don’t make much money. It’s no wonder 66% of back-to-college shoppers say that competitive prices are their most important considerations.

As you might expect, students spend most of their money on tuition, room, and board, but that’s not all they pull their wallets out for. According to a survey of college students, they also spend money on:

  • Restaurants (99%)
  • Trips (87%)
  • Beauty (76%)
  • Bars (70%)
  • Fashion (70%)
  • Electronics (60%)
  • Live music (59%)
  • Media (57%)
  • Fitness (38%)

Graph showing the top industries college students spend money in

Clearly, students spend their money in every industry. No matter what brand your business is in, there’s a good chance that targeting college students will be effective—if you can offer prices that fit their tight budgets.

College Students Are Constantly Online 

COVID-19 increased distance education enrollments between Fall 2019 and 2020 by 93%. As a result, students are taking their entire college careers online; online learning has become more popular. It’s no wonder that 48% of Americans from ages 18-29—prime college years—go online “almost constantly.”

Outside of schoolwork, students spend one to two hours per day streaming videos. They spend one to two hours on social media, which we’ll explore in the following section. Online shopping among college students has grown more prevalent over the years. Between 2017 and 2021, online shopping increased from 25% to 35% of the back-to-college spend.

These trends point to a demographic that prefers and demands online touchpoints. Reach them on online channels through ads that blend into their current experiences—think: streaming ads and display ads.

College Students Prefer Social Media and Messaging

Three in ten Americans leave their home state for college, and those who don’t jump states often move to new cities or dorms. That’s why students are all about staying close with friends and family. They prefer websites and channels where they can stay connected to people they know:

  • Social media feeds. Students rely on social media for everything from daily chats to information sources. Gen Z, for example, prefers to communicate over social channels. These channels offer advertising opportunities. For example, the most popular channel among 18- to 29-year olds is Instagram (71%). Entice students on Instagram with tools like Stories Ads and Reels.
  • Direct messages. Students’ favorite social media channels also offer direct messages. For example, Messenger for Facebook and Instagram is a popular messaging tool. Over 10 percent of Americans aged 18-24 use it, and nearly one-fourth of Americans aged 25-34. It’s a powerhouse tool for businesses with an Instagram presence—especially those who run Shopify stores. As we explored earlier, students enjoy shopping online. With a Shopify Instagram integration, your team can answer student questions on Instagram while reviewing their shopping history.

Visual of college students' top social media channels

  • Texting. Gen Z, Millennials, and Gen X all rely on texting to communicate, and their texting usage is growing compared to other channels. These generations are all attending college, so you can bet that this is a sure way to reach most students. After students opt into your texting service, connect with them via SMS marketing. With help from a text service for business, your team can send personalized messages to students that help them explore your products and connect with your team.
  • Over the Top (OTT) messaging channels. Free messaging-focused platforms offer college students yet another focused channel to message with friends, family, and their favorite brands. Nearly one-fourth of people aged 18-29 (the largest age group represented in college) use WhatsApp. While traditional ads aren’t welcome here, you can use conversational marketing techniques just like you would with texting.

Graphic listing college students' favorite messaging channels: Texting, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger

College marketing campaigns—and follow-up business communications—through these four channels are more likely to catch college students’ attention and engage with your brand.

8 Tips for Effectively Marketing to College Students

If college students are price-conscious digital natives who are passionate about social media and messaging then that’s where your brand should meet them. Explore these tips to find the best ways to advertise to college students for your brand:

1. Start the journey with social media.

As we explored earlier, college students are on social media. For college shoppers (specifically college students and families shopping for the fall semester) social media usage is most prevalent at the beginning of the shopping journey. They like to use it to browse products and explore reviews. Meet these shoppers with product discovery ads on their favorite channels, from Instagram to Twitter.

2. Focus on starting conversations, not sharing ads.

The best channels for marketing to college students are those that they already use: social media messaging, third-party messaging channels, and SMS. They require a lighter touch than traditional ads. Use conversational marketing, a strategy that focuses on sparking conversations with students and helping them discover your products through messages that invite them to engage.

3. Target your marketing content carefully.

Speak to the entirety of your audience when you’re targeting college students. Remember that while most of them are 18-24 years old, many students are older; they may have kids or work full-time jobs in addition to attending school. Focus on similarities all students have: the stress of being in a transitional period, desire for more balance between work/personal life, and the challenges they face maintaining their wellbeing.

4. Entice students with free trials or low-cost subscriptions.

Students like to spend money on nonessentials as well as essentials, but remember: they’re still price-conscious. There are countless sites, articles, and apps dedicated to helping them find discounts. Offer them a special deal throughout their college experience to wet their whistles. After the college experience—when they have new jobs and income—they will be primed to upgrade to your usual subscription or price.

5. Rely on word-of-mouth advertising.

As we mentioned in the prior section, students search for and trust information shared on their social media feeds. Try word-of-mouth campaigns to boost your brand’s popularity on campus. For example, recruit student ambassadors to spread the word about your business through their social media accounts, on-campus events, friend groups, and more. You can also try marketing on college campuses with free products and events.

6. Show your brand stands for something (that you genuinely care about).

Gen Z, currently the largest group of college students, is passionate about making a difference in the world. For example, Gen Z is more likely to make a purchase if an ad mentions mental health advocacy (71%), public health and safety (66.2%), sustainability (65.8%), racial equality (58.9%), or LGBTQ+ acceptance (53.5%). If your brand has a mission or supports a charitable group, focus a college marketing campaign on promoting it.

7. Embrace the college life cycle.

Students celebrate the same college-centric events every year. Create campaigns around these popular events, including back-to-school, Halloween, homecoming, fall break, Thanksgiving break, winter break, spring break, and graduation. You can even create campaigns around not-so-celebratory events, like syllabus week, midterms, and finals.

8. Provide accessible touchpoints along the way.

Conversational marketing campaigns, which we mentioned earlier, help students discover your products and services. In addition, your team should offer conversational support. This strategy involves offering fast, one-on-one chats through popular messaging channels, like college texting. It empowers your team to provide a student-first experience from beginning to end.

Successful College Student Campaigns

Here are five heavy-hitting college marketing campaigns—both online and on campus—that rock the student population today.

Red Bull

Red Bull is a proponent of marketing to college students on campus. They employ brand ambassadors called Red Bull Student Marketeers to encourage product testing, facilitate Red Bull events, and make sure the brand is always visible on campus. Energy drinks are well-suited to college campus marketing—an important factor to consider when deciding whether your brand will fit in on site.

Red Bull student marketeers

Madewell

Madewell offers a classic teacher and college student discount. A third-party site (SheerID) verifies student IDs, and in-store shoppers simply share their student ID card. They don’t advertise their discount through traditional ads. Instead, they feature it on its own webpage and let its popularity speak for itself through college discount articles and word-of-mouth.

PINK

Pink encourages students to join Pink Nation, an online group of youths passionate about the brand. These student ambassadors directly connect with Pink marketers, meet with them, and use what they learn to create an active online community. They also help Pink’s marketers understand what’s in fashion, helping them shape product lines and paid advertising campaigns.

Apple

Apple converts students into brand loyalists with Apple education pricing. They extend their generous offer to parents, faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers—ensuring more early conversion. They release education ads around late summer to capitalize on back-to-college shopping, publicizing freebies like AirPods with purchases of big-ticket items like Macs or iPads.

Spotify, Hulu, and SHOWTIME

Spotify’s Premium Student subscription offers a free trial, followed by a $4.99 monthly subscription. Students also get Hulu and SHOWTIME in the bundle—an irresistible deal for students who want cheap entertainment. Students learn about the deal through relevant, hip digital and audio ads.

Spotify discount for college students

Cheat Sheet: Marketing to College Students

Marketing and advertising to college students requires cutting-edge tactics. These price-conscious, digital-first consumers have preferences that are unlike those of any other group today. Given that college students are always on top of the latest trends, these preferences are always changing.

As you create college marketing campaigns:

  • Track learning shifts (e.g., online learning, nontraditional student attendance)
  • Keep up with students’ new favorite digital channels (e.g., new social media platforms, messaging channels)
  • Stay in touch with the collegiate spirit (e.g., vibe shifts on and off campus)

As this demographic changes over time, your tactics will have to change, too. Stay flexible, and embrace one constant: college marketing will require your most innovative campaigns.

 

Interested in marketing to other key demographics? Find more advice on our blog.

Sophia Huneycutt
Sophia Huneycutt is Heymarket's lead writer, producing everything from articles to eBooks. She works closely with Heymarket's product and customer service teams to help convey the latest business texting best practices. A B2B technology writer since the mid-2010s, Sophia has also worked with brands like Microsoft and Indiegogo. Her dying potted plants wish she'd stick to writing in her spare time, too.
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