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Advertising & Marketing

How College Students Connect (or Don’t) with Brands

Peer opinion influences college students’ purchases more than advertising

Amid their interest in millennials, marketers look to the 19 million-plus US college students as an audience worth courting. After all, it is a mostly millennial subset that already deploys considerable spending power and (with degree in hand) will be poised to outearn and outspend noncollege millennials for decades to come, according to a new eMarketer report, “US College Students 101: Updating Fundamental Facts About This Diverse, Digital Cohort.”

An October 2014 Student Monitor survey probed students’ preferences in the media through which they learn about products and services. Internet ads got more mentions than TV ads, albeit not by a vast margin. Email messaging had a significant constituency, despite the popular notion that young people regard email as hopelessly old-fashioned. Not registering in double digits (and, hence, not included in the chart here) were ads in campus or national newspapers, printed catalogs and information on a company’s Facebook page.

The proliferation of social networks and mobile messaging services has provided college students (and others) with social options beyond Facebook. But Facebook remains the social venue where students are most likely to interact with brands, according to a July 2014 survey by ID.me, where 86.2% of US college students said they followed brands on the social network. (One caveat: This poll was conducted via Facebook.) The Facebook-owned Instagram was runner-up, at 43.3% of respondents.

Smartphones and tablets also come into play in students’ shopping, especially for research. But as a July 2014 survey for the National Retail Federation found, this tendency has plenty of abstainers. More than four in 10 respondents said they did not plan to use their phone or tablet for researching or buying back-to-school items.

Given the high incidence of mobile usage among students, brands naturally see it as a channel for reaching this audience with ads. Research by Ball State University, as summarized in an April 2014 release, might prompt second thoughts. According to Michael Hanley, advertising professor and director of the university’s Institute for Mobile Media Research, “research continues to show young people are annoyed by mobile ads. About 65% of students report receiving mobile ads, and 70% of them don’t like it.”

Regardless of medium, advertising is just one of many influences on students’ purchase decisions, and not the most important. When an August 2014 Fluent study asked students to say what shapes their back-to-school purchase decisions, the top of the list was populated by peer opinion and money-saving offers.

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