HomeBlogThe 10 Best Marketing Strategies to Reach College Students

The 10 Best Marketing Strategies to Reach College Students

Author: Mary Lister
Last Updated: January 25, 2024 | Vertical Marketing Ideas

One of the best purchases I ever made was signing up for Spotify Premium in college. I even remember when it happened, in March 2014. I had just signed a job offer for after graduation and Spotify released premium pricing for students. It was beautifully serendipitous and we’ve been in a committed, monthly-fee relationship everx since. In fact, now I pay for a family plan and have gotten all my family members (and maybe some roommates) hooked on it.

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Moral of the story: if you market to college students early, they can become your most loyal customers. Look at Apple! The shiny-fruit company consistently gives discounts to college students, creating lifelong Mac users.

If you’re not completely convinced that college students are a valuable market, here are some stats before we dive in…

Why market to college students?

College students are a huge demographic in the US, consisting mostly of 18 to 24-year-olds. These young adults have spending power: the 15M group spends more than $200B annually. Not only are they age-stable, but they also are geographically stagnant for 4-5 years. That means you have a lot of time to develop branding and marketing specific to this group to see what will really stick.

While this is most likely already living in the back of your mind, Gen Z is the tech-native generation. They are constantly online (especially during quarantine), consuming content, shopping, and engaging with peers. And they’re cleverer than previous generations when it comes to advertising: almost 70% of Gen Zers use ad blockers. But don’t despair; if you do get through to these college students, 94% said an exclusive offer would get them to shop at a brand more frequently. Here are our best tips for reaching college students through the power of marketing.

10 effective ways to market to college students

1. Leverage trials and samples

Let’s just address the elephant in the room outright: college kids love free stuff. I can’t tell you the number of events I attended in college because they offered free food. What better way to hook some long-term loyal customers than offering your product for free?

There are a few ways you can actually get your free samples or trials in front of your audience; try coordinating with residence life to have a move-in kit available for the fall semester or sponsored study break during midterms or finals. If you’re a food service on Seamless, GrubHub, or DoorDash, you can offer a discount for first-time diners; once they get a taste, they’ll keep coming back for more.

how to market to college students grubhub

2. Offer targeted discounts

Just like personalized ads, discounts specific to your audience are a great way to engage them. Everyone wants to think that their school is the best—what better way to reinforce that than advertising “For a limited time, Villanova students get free fries with every cheeseburger.”

If you want an easier, more direct way to get feet in the door (or online orders), offer discounts if a student provides their student ID at the time of purchase. You can often get those types of deals listed in a coupon catalog handed out in Student Unions or in Move-In Day packets. Free advertising for all!

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3. Write clever copy

Have you hung out with college kids recently? If you haven’t, you’re missing out. I truly learn new words every time I’m around the youths. Since college came into existence, kids have been creating their own lingo for academia and partying (and I’m really trying to make “groovy” come back into style).

While I wouldn’t recommend trying *too* hard to speak their language, catching students’ eyes with clever marketing and ad copy is a must. Whatever you do, don’t be lame. Not sure where to start? Here are some tips for writing creative copy that may help.

4. Mind your social accounts

If you’ve run social ads before, you probably already know that it is a great way to reach Millennials and Zillennials. When it comes to marketing to college students, make sure you’re leveraging those platforms; even if you don’t have the budget to spend on ad campaigns.

There are easy ways to engage college students on social media.

  • Leverage user-generated content; encourage your customers to tag your products in their posts so you can easily re-post.
  • Spend time liking and commenting on related posts; this will help the algorithms show your account to more potential customers.
  • Announce new products or releases on your social accounts; if you’re a big, national brand, think about making an account specifically for the college crowd you’re serving, e.g. “VillanovaDominos” or “MaybellinePHL.”

5. Try out traditional tactics

Don’t worry about going old school when it comes to advertising. College kids are still pinning coupons to their fridge or digging them out when it’s time to order food. Think about sponsoring on-campus events, or having an on-campus pop-up shop in the middle of the main through-way to get the most out of student foot traffic.

how to market to college students coupons

I can’t tell you the number of coupons just like this that were stacked in my kitchen drawer in my college apartment. They came in handy when we didn’t want to go grocery shopping or cook, but still needed to stick to a college kid budget!

6. Host a giveaway, raffle, or competition

If you’re trying to build up your social following or your email listserv, or simply get a lot of students engaged with your business, host a giveaway. You’ll need to make it tempting enough for college students to actually give away their information and/or money to win. That could be a Sonos speaker system to boost the music at parties, covering the cost of a parking pass on campus, offering a lifetime of free sides (french fries forever!), naming a product after them, the list goes on and on.

how to market to college students 5k

You can also pay into the competitive nature of college kids! Just like emphasizing exclusive discounts for colleges, if you have more than one university in your area, make a little friendly competition like this 5K did.

7. Engage student ambassadors

Pay attention to the students who are loyal patrons of your business. Whether that means engaging with them in your store or restaurant or keeping track of recurring orders online, make sure you’re acknowledging their loyalty. Think of your student ambassadors as nano-influencers.

Make some ambassador kits, including simple pieces of swag like a t-shirt, bottle opener, water bottle, etc. and arm them with materials to give away to their peers. This can work best if they get referral discounts themselves!

While not college-student-specific, Aerie is great at leveraging user generated content on their social accounts. They are regularly #regram-ing content from their customers—which just makes it easier to fill your social calendar!

how to market to college students ambassadors

8. Consider social causes

I was in college during KONY 2012. What a movement. And let me tell you, everyone was talking about it. I mean professors, students, residential life, school administrators, food service employees, and more. It was the social justice cause of the year.

By nature, college students are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to save the world. And this generation in particular is invested in social justice. Reflect on an issue that affects the community your business is in. Not only will it make the world a better place to have another contribution to the plastic-free or BLM fight, but students will also be more inclined to give your brand a second look if their money is also going to a cause they believe in.

9. Look for college media sources

Meet college students where they are and with what they’re consuming. Most likely, the students you’re targeting have a student-lead newspaper, weekly newsletters, or even a popular online student forum or app. Reach out to those publications to sponsor a post or display ad.

SImilar to reaching out to student ambassadors, look for student-run social media accounts to offer sponsored posts. Most schools will have an instagram account for their mascots or an “overheard at *school name*”. ICYMI, TikTok is taking over the world; reach out to student organizations (believe me, the dance team definitely has a TikTok account) and ask to be featured in a video.

how to market to college students media sources

10. Influence their parents

In the instance that your price point is a little too steep for the average college kid, target their parents. The best time to do this? Move-in day and parents weekend. Yes, this gets a bit complicated during, say, a pandemic scenario. But it’s not impossible! Do not underestimate the tenacity of college kids to bribe a buck out of their loving parents.

If you’re looking for ways to get to parents, think about care packages! Emphasize how your product will help their child slay their midterms, finals, job interviews, presentations, you name it. Or maybe it will help them stay healthy, or make their tiny college dorm feel like home (my mother bought me *many* happy lights to make it through the winter).

If you’ve seen success marketing to college students, we want to see it! Even better, if you became brand-loyal to a business that targeted you as a student, tell us what got you!

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Meet The Author

Mary Lister

Mary is a content writer/strategist at Starry, Inc. and an enthusiast of all things Internet. When she’s not writing words for work, you can find her eating extra-cheesy pizza while planning her next trip.


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