Marketing Students: Catch them if you can

Brands hungry for new consumers are steering away from university freshers' fairs, which often turn out to be crowded free-for-alls. Instead they've narrowed their focus and targeting them directly online, says Ciar Byrne.
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The Independent Online

They are tomorrow's cash-rich young professionals - a marketing dream - but today they are notoriously tricky to reach. Such is the allure of students however, that brands from The Sun to Snickers are targeting university campuses.

The latest round of freshers' fairs, which has become a showcase for brands as well as the more traditional university sports and leisure clubs, has just come to a close. But many advertisers are now shying away from these overcrowded events and turning to more innovative strategies to win students' hearts and minds.

Media Planning Group's Kate Cox, who has overseen the launch of a new mobile telephone service for students, Dot Mobile, says: "The tried and tested approach to student marketing is to go to freshers' fairs. If you go into that, you spend an awful lot of money and they are crammed with brands giving away free stuff. We have said wait a bit and do something more integrated into students' lives." Dot's solutions include advertising on door hangers that students can use in their halls of residence and advergaming - computer games that promote the product, developed in conjunction with MSN Messaging and Hotmail.

There are 167 higher education institutions in the UK catering for 2.4 million students - 4 per cent of the British population. Students account for one third of all 18-24-year-olds, but this gives marketers a dilemma as they have very similar habits to young people who are not in higher education in terms of the media they use. Both groups watch Hollyoaks and The X Factor, read glossy magazines and go to see the latest blockbuster movie. So why would, for example, a cosmetics brand target students separately when it can easily reach a vast number of young women through a £60,000 campaign in Elle ?

Rapid turnover is another problem. Many student unions have appointed student marketing officers, but these are generally sabbatical posts, held for just one year. Student newspapers also have a constantly changing staff. No sooner has a brand struck up a relationship than the relevant person has moved on. Anyone wishing to create a national campaign must repeat the process dozens of times across different campuses.

"It's a logistical difficulty that quite a lot of brands shy away from. You have really to want to do the student thing," says Cox.

The shift online has been one of the biggest developments in student media in the past decade. Research by the specialist youth marketing agency Face shows that students spend 3.7 hours a day online on average, considerably more than the 2.3 hours they spend in the pub. Asked which brands they most identified with, the survey group of 1,000 16-25-year-olds ranked Sony, Google and Microsoft as the top three.

The Sun has been quick to catch on to this trend. The paper has long targeted students, but this is the first year it has moved much of its spend online. One of the main ways of promoting the newspaper's 20p Monday to Friday price promotion is email broadcasts inviting students to submit their own photographs together with a witty "Sun pun" caption to a dedicated website in return for the chance to win a free laptop and BT broadband connection. The newspaper was able to target new students courtesy of Ucas, the body that processes university applications, which now sells its email list and website presence to national brands.

Job Muscroft, sales and marketing director at Face, which advised on The Sun's student communications strategy, says: "With email you can target the types of students you want, primarily students at the newer universities [in The Sun's case]. That means your spend is very targeted and accurate in terms of timing. It needs to coincide with in-store promotion. It allows students to interact with The Sun's microsite, sending in their own photographs."

In common with other brands, The Sun is keen to hook students while they are young. "The key thing with most newspapers is habit forming," says Muscroft. "Students start creating new purchasing habits as soon as they move away from home and have control over their own spend. The Sun has a lot to offer in terms of celebrity, which is key for students. It's a social lubricant, something to talk about in the student union bar."

Interactivity is crucial in reaching out to this generation of students, says Face managing director Andrew Needham. "Marketing to people online allows them to be much more creative. It's very important that self-expression and personalisation are put at the centre of any form of communication that brands have with their audience. Ten years ago brands were much more in control of the content they decided to put in front of young people. That's shifting to the end user."

This is a message that Sub TV has taken on board. In just three years, the company has established clusters of plasma screens on 92 campuses, offering brands the chance to advertise via a national network and students the opportunity to broadcast their own material, from promotions for student union events to animations. Individual universities can choose a weekly playlist of 10 songs that will be given highest priority on Sub TV's music channels, while students can send messages that will be shown alongside individual tracks. Brands advertising on the television service, which reaches 1.6 million students a week include Three, Vodafone and Snickers. Managing director Pete Miles says: "If you are a student in Swansea it relates to your life. If you're in Edinburgh it's still Sub TV, but more suited to your location."

"It is this whole concept of a consensual media. There was this horrible expression 'a captive audience'. We have got an audience which has the desire, opportunity and talent to create content."

Other companies tapping into the student market include Redbus and Rockbox, which run a national network of on-campus posters, Boomerang, which distributes postcards, and Bam marketing, which supplies unions with printing facilities. The student brand ambassador is also enjoying a comeback. In the 1990s, companies started to employ students to spread the word to their peers about a brand. With so many campuses to target, this turned out to be uneconomic for individual brands, but companies including Face have now recruited students to work across a portfolio of brands.

The age-old bribe can have its place too. "It's no hidden secret that students love free stuff, so anything with a good freebie attached is bound to attract attention," says Richard Kendall of the Student Press Association. "The best freebies are either 'cool' or really worth having - giant inflatables, shopping vouchers, discount cards, queue-jump tickets, that sort of thing. A free pen printed with your company logo won't really cut it."

Perhaps most important of all is that, thanks to tuition fees, the traditional image of the student as a beer-swilling layabout is outdated. Muscroft says: "A lot of this is down to the funding issue. Students have to work a lot harder. A lot of them are working part-time."

A new breed of creative workaholics spending several hours a day online - now there's a group worth marketing to.