Here’s How Brands Can Connect With College Students Throughout the School Year

Making an impact online is key

As students across the country head back to school after a few months of relaxation, global media agency UM partnered with Chegg to help brands better understand how they can connect with 18 to 24-year-olds as they make the transition away from beach vacations and back to papers and exams.

For brands looking to target this group, who will spend $163 billion on non-essential items in the next year, connecting with them as they head back to campus is important, but UM's study found that the back-to-school season isn't the only time to make an impact with college students. There are other key milestones and times when brands can connect.

Of the roughly 600 students surveyed by Chegg, 75 percent identified doing well on their first test as a milestone, while 71 percent said getting their first bad grade is another meaningful moment. Other milestones include the first set of final exams, moving into a dorm and registering for classes. 

Some brands that students associate with memorable college moments. Chegg/UM

"We know that there are numerous points throughout the college experience where brands can connect with students in memorable ways," Danielle Malloy, director of marketing solutions at Chegg, said. Meaningful moments extend throughout the college experience including things like signing a lease for the first time and a student's first college relationship. 

So what do brands need to know about college students' media and social media habits in order to make that connection throughout the college experience? 

For one, traditional ads aren't necessarily the best way to reach this demographic. According to the study, which has analyzed similar data over the past few years, students are less likely to notice TV, magazine or radio ads than they were three years ago.

Research shows students today pay less attention to traditional advertising. Chegg/UM

But there is an increase in attention to online ads. Chegg/UM

"Fewer students are likely to notice traditional ads on TV and radio and magazines, and more likely to notice within mobile apps or on Facebook. There's definitely been a trend there and part of it could be that increasingly students are not engaging in traditional TV. They're using streaming services," Malloy said.

In 2016, 46 percent of students are relying solely on streaming services, a 15 percent increase from 2015. Overall, of the average 56 hours spent consuming media each week, nearly half of those hours are on laptops, followed by mobile devices and radio (due to the rise of streaming).

Of those ads, there has also been a shift in what types of ads students respond well to. Humor and authenticity are no longer the best ways to reach college students, according to the data.

Humor and authenticity are not always the best ways to target students these days. Chegg/UM

Instead, 88 percent said they are more responsive to brands that give back to the community, while 70 percent feel that the brands they buy from need to focus on responsible business practices. "Students aren't looking for real-time customer service. What they were looking for is corporate values where companies are seen giving back to the community and they generally follow responsible business practices," Graeme Hutton, svp, group partner, research at UM, said.

Added Malloy: "If a company has big business practices, if they are environmentally conscious, [whatever it is], students are really aware of how brands are advertising. It's something that they look at, it's something that they will think about and make their decisions accordingly."