Guest Blog: James Rix- New academic year, new students – a new audience for brands

James Rix - littleJames Rix, Founder, Wicked Student Nights and StreetPR

Great results in the A Levels recently – which means lots of new students starting next month, which for you, as brand marketers, means the chance to connect with a new generation of consumers with money to spend.

But for me, and the people who work for me, it means three months of mad 20-hour days, organising freshers’ events at universities and colleges and in pubs and clubs up and down the UK and running marketing campaigns for brands targeting the new student cohort.

When I started out, handing out flyers for club nights on the streets of London, I didn’t know I was marketing to students. As far as I was concerned, I was just trying to get a bunch of other 18- and 19-year olds to come to my parties. Back then, my motivation was fun and finances.

Nowadays, our September/October arrangements are on an industrial scale – but we never forget that the events we organise and the campaigns we run have to be fun, so students want to come back or engage with the brands we’re promoting.

Over the past 15 years, myself and my business partner Fergus have learnt a few things about marketing to students – after all, we’ve run thousands of events in dozens of university and college towns and cities up and down the UK and we’ve helped hundreds of brands. More recently, with the growth of social media as the main way students communicate with each other, we’ve had to add those skills to our repertoire…

So here are nine top tips for marketing to students:


  1. Research, plan, focus, execute


Marketing to students is all about creating a campaign, not a series of largely unrelated happenings. A campaign which is planned properly and executed well will yield results for years and years to come. Done badly, and by the time you realise it, you’ve lost a year and have to start again.

Who is your product, brand or service’s ideal student user? Ask yourself this, then think and act like them. This will save you time and money and mean you get a better return on your marketing investment.

Do you appeal to the entire student body, or to a section of it? For example, if your brand is for sporty students, then focus on them. Don’t waste money trying to hit everyone if half the student population will never be interested.

Are you essential to their day-to-day life, or are you a luxury? How do you become indispensable?


  1. If you act like everyone else, you’ll end up like everyone else


Buying a stall at freshers can seem like a good idea – but it’s really just standing in a big room with 100 other brands, ideas and activities with a bunch of excited kids and all shouting at once. How on earth do you expect to be heard, especially when some people have big budgets and offer free chicken, pizza and drinks which will always take the limelight. While your product or service might be life changing, important or just plain, helpful it is very difficult to compete in an environment like this. So why compete there at all?

Most brands who do the “freshers’ fairs” come away feeling, on reflection, that it wasn’t that effective… Be smart and look at other options.

What you should be trying to do is create an ‘on the ground’ campaign – probably across multiple universities and possibly even multiple sites within each one – which uses staff who resonate with students (they could even be students themselves!) and interact with them in places they frequent and feel comfortable in.


  1. New students are like smart sheep


The ones who arrive at uni for the first time are scared but at the same time they’re newly independent – but with independence comes a new set of rules.

As a result, there are lots of boring activities and ‘must do’ sessions that freshers will have to go to or do. That means long queues or gatherings will form in certain locations while they sign in, up or on. It’s a fantastic time to spend quality time with your target market during what is a major period of change for them, one when they’re more open to new things, and a seriously untapped opportunity.


  1. Everyone loves a freebie…


Look at your desk right now. See that branded pen? The message pad? The notebook? I bet some of you even have the funny mug. We’re all the same. We like a freebie and we will hang on to something that’s useful.

Students are no different – except (in most cases) they’ve left home and they have NO IDEA what the hell they are doing, going, seeing or when, so they are really grateful when someone gives them something that helps them get a handle on what’s happening…

Start your relationship by giving them something helpful – and loyalty will follow.

In our events business, one of our key freebies is a nightlife map which we update every year. We put all the key nightlife venues in London on it. The students love it and keep it. Of course, we have our full events calendar on it plus ads and a buying trigger with offer. A simple idea and its extremely effective.

In the past, we’ve worked with clients who have handed out branded pens, pads, blankets, common room snack bowls, rain macs, umbrellas, sports bottles and much more. It gets taken, it gets used and it creates awesome brand awareness. I’ve seen stuff still being used around universities three years after we handed it out!


  1. I know I said give stuff away – but get some data in return


These days, in marketing, data rules. Whenever you’re running activity targeting students, get their data! Face to Face marketing staff can collect names, emails, addresses, phone numbers and whatever other data you need as they hand out freebies – you can go old school and get people to fill in a paper form, or you can use a tablet or a mobile app. Alternatively, drive students to a website and get their data that way. You could incentivise with the offer of money-off coupons or the chance to win something…

Don’t forget to make sure data collection, storage and processing follows the latest rules and regulations – so that means learning all about GDPR right now.


  1. Measure results and plan your follow up


Measure your results from each location and make sure you have follow up messaging ready to go. You won’t be the only brand trying to talk to students – there will be a lot of competition.

We’re talking about emails, phone calls, text messages with relevant offers that reflect the information they’ve already given you. Create, implement, measure, adapt, repeat.

Think about what offers you can make to get your newly signed up students to recommend you to their new best friends, so they become another channel for your marketing.

Be prepared to change your messaging and definitely factor in A and B split testing –but have all your communications plans laid out well in advance. Don’t just come up with new stuff on the fly – anticipate what might happen and be ready with your plans.


  1. There is safety in numbers

I know I said you won’t be the only brand trying to target students at the start of the new academic year – but that’s not always a bad thing. Obviously, you have rivals who you’re competing with, and when they’re present on the same campus, there’s no point talking to them. But if another brand is complementary to what you do, then how about working together?

Look for brands and companies that have a similar audience profile to you, but who are selling different things. Build your message together, pool your combined resources, work out a strategy that delivers results for both of you, make sure you agree your messaging long in advance – and then go and be fruitful together.


  1. Hire the right people for the job

If you’re planning on marketing to students in Freshers Week or after, make sure you get agencies and service providers working for you who are expert at reaching students in the academic environment. If you need to, get several experts in to handle the different bits of your campaign.

Don’t let a creative agency tell you they do staffing, unless they do millions a year in it, as simply put it won’t be good enough. Big creative agencies have a habit of saying they can handle all the different elements in-house – but these days, marketing has become so complicated that only a very few agencies really do have everything you need under one roof.

The bottom line is: use experts, be prepared to pay the right price and you’ll get the results you need.

Since this is all about marketing to students, ask to see examples of their previous student-facing campaigns – and then ask them how they worked with students in the various universities and colleges they were targeting and whether they employed any of them – either for the campaign or long-term.

  1. Be smart about Social Media

With students, social is REALLY important. If you’ve got an on-the-ground message, you need social as part of it – from announcing your locations to running your competitions.

You should look at creating “in the community” content for each academic institution you’re active at – it should be usable across the rest of the year.

Make sure your social is done well – which means you can’t give it to the intern in your office just because they’re always on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Again, you need an expert, and you should be looking for a social agency that understands the student market and can demonstrate a track record in talking to them.

Students need a bunch of information – and social media platforms are a great way to communicate with them. In fact the moment A Level results are announced, what do you think people do? They jump online and start researching the university and town they are off to – jobs, restaurants, gyms, sport facilities, cinemas, events, where to live…

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