College Student Marketing

By Marie Policastro

School’s in Session: How brands can connect with college students as they head back to campus

Marie Policastro, Director, Brand Partnerships & Research, Barnes & Noble College Marketing


As August ushers in a new academic year, college students are heading back to school ready to dive in to campus life, stocking up on school-branded clothing, technology, and textbooks. It is well-known that this demographic is an incredibly powerful market segment, equipped with high discretionary spending power. For brands that are competing for their attention, college student marketing should be more than just a lucrative target market for short-term revenue growth. The ability to reach this group during a time in their lives when they are beginning to establish their own opinions and preferences, beyond those of their parents, presents an opportunity to foster long-term brand loyalty and profitability.

Reaching this coveted crowd of young consumers remains a challenge for many brands, because students have become hyper-aware of targeted ads, since they are the constant recipients of a wide array of marketing communications at many different levels. To stand out on this competitive, omni-channel playing field, brands must learn to “Rise Above the Transaction.” Brands must choose college student marketing methods that resonate with students in their own, familiar environments, both online and offline. The keys to success include finding ways to engage college students in meaningful ways that enhance their social and academic experiences, and that are directly relevant to their generation.

Be in their world

Engaging students with on-campus activities may appear to be an easy way to access students, but keep in mind that millennials are savvy shoppers and tend to mistrust marketers that intrude into their world without permission. College student marketing should connect brands and students through the channels they trust by partnering with an established entity or group that is part of the existing social and academic fabric of their campus.

The campus bookstore is a powerful way to engage students as it is the epicenter of the student community, designed to support the academic, social and cultural aspects of campus life.  According to BNCM’s proprietary research community of students, the campus bookstore is where students go, not only to purchase academic materials, but also for school spirit items, convenience products,  technology, and for socializing and studying.

Brands often miss the opportunity to connect with students in a more meaningful way by implementing college student marketing programs for them without a strategic partner on campus. The knowledge, insights and access gained by working with an established on-campus partner allows marketers to better understand students’ motivations and behaviors, as well as campus trends, which can help them create powerful programs that establish relationships that will last throughout a student’s academic career and beyond college.

Experiencing is believing

Perhaps one of the most effective activities that successfully engages college students in their environment and impacts brand perception is experiential marketing. Cosmopolitan Magazine is a good example of a brand that effectively leveraged the on-campus opportunity to generate excitement for the Cosmo brand and engage the female college audience with advertising partners during back-to-school. Cosmopolitan Magazine reached out to Barnes & Noble College Marketing (BNCM), a full-service youth marketing agency and division of Barnes & Noble College. BNCM executed ten, dynamic promotional events at college bookstores across the country, under the campaign theme “Cosmo on Campus.” These events transformed highly-trafficked bookstore hubs into luxurious salons featuring hair consultations, mini-manicures, and makeovers, in order to effectively engage college-aged women with the brand. The program exceeded expectations, logging over 104 million impressions, more than 1,850 attendees per event, increasing brand awareness and generating a palpable excitement that was felt at each participating campus.

The Cosmo on Campus event also featured product giveaways and samples from Cosmopolitan Magazine advertisers, another powerful strategy for developing brand loyalty. According to a BNCM survey, 84 percent of students told us they are more likely to purchase a product after receiving a free trial or sample. Moreover, free in-store samples and samples sent by mail emerged as the two preferred methods of receiving information from retailers, according to the Student Watch Survey from OnCampus Research[1]. This was especially true for KIND Healthy Snacks, which engaged BNCM to develop a strategic sampling program that capitalized on orders placed on our bookstore e-commerce sites. KIND bars were placed in 500,000 boxes, which were shipped or picked up by students, providing an efficient and effective vehicle for getting a product in the hands of the consumer.

The result was a 294 percent increase in units sold for KIND in our bookstores and a 237 percent increase in KIND revenue directly from bookstore sales. KIND Healthy Snacks was able to effectively stand out in the crowded nutrition bar market and amplify its brand messaging by utilizing the unique connection BNCM provided through its national network of 700 campus bookstores.

New students, new customers

For freshmen students, especially, the back-to-school timeframe presents an ideal opportunity to reach students when they are celebrating the connection to their school. When Microsoft wanted to create a stronger brand presence on college campuses and raise awareness for its new-product launches and student discount offers, the technology giant partnered with BNCM for a dynamic back-to-school marketing program. In addition to a wide range of communication initiatives, in-store and online advertising was used during Freshmen Orientation, which was distributed to more than 675,000 freshmen nationally. The program generated a 15 percent increase in Microsoft’s online sales during back-to-school, a 192 percent increase in Microsoft’s in-store sales and 11,000 orders from unique promo codes.

Today’s freshmen want to be connected and they are looking for ways to become a part of their new community before they ever set foot on campus, jumping online from the moment of acceptance to interacting with future classmates and learn about the new experiences that lie ahead. From our student insight research, we have learned that during the time period from March through May, these students are accepting offers, making new friends online, and engaging in a flurry of school spirit-related activities, which is an ideal opportunity for brands to engage a captive audience.

When Symantec Corporation was re-launching its Norton line of products and services, and wanted to get the word out on campuses, it partnered with BNCM to roll out the “Deny and Protect” campaign. A customized program which incorporated online media across our network of 700 e-commerce sites, coupled with dedicated emails, gave Symantec mass scale and reach. BNCM also tapped into its extensive Facebook network to promote Norton’s product tie-in to thousands of college students and alumni. The results of this campaign were 50 million+ total student impressions and a 347 percent increase in Symantec online sales.

Brand loyalty, freshman year and beyond

In recognition of the growing trend that students are now becoming part of campus life almost immediately after they are accepted, brands that are able to seamlessly tie into the campus community right from the start have the opportunity to secure a new generation of customers. Furthermore, marketers that work with agency partners that have an established presence on campus, understand the drivers of behavior, and know the on-campus trends will have a strategic advantage when it comes to connecting with this student demographic in a meaningful way. Brands that, potential in helping students navigate their college careers, and create quality programs that help students navigate their college careers and transition into adulthood will earn long-term customer loyalty from this dynamic demographic.


About Marie Policastro:

With over a decade of experience in the industry, Marie is a leader and innovator in college student marketing. As the developer of the go-to-market strategy for Barnes & Noble College Marketing—a division of Barnes & Noble College Booksellers—Marie built a robust marketing portfolio, expanded Barnes & Noble College’s role as a leader in youth marketing, and helped her numerous brand partners form lasting connections with an audience of 5 million U.S. college students. With a focus on driving alternative revenue streams for the company, in her current role as Director of Brand Partnerships & Research, Marie heads a team that is responsible for all partnership marketing initiatives. Over the last 12 months, Marie and her team have executed more than 65 on-campus and digital marketing programs for companies such as American Express, Adobe, Microsoft, Hulu, and General Motors.

Marie also leads all market research for the company. Having recently launched Barnes & Noble College Student POV—an online research panel made up of thousands of forward-thinking college students—she has helped establish Barnes & Noble College as an expert in the use of millennial market research to drive business strategy and growth.

Marie joined Barnes & Noble College Booksellers in 2004 and is a graduate of Rutgers University.

[1] Student Watch: Behaviors and Trends of Student Consumers. (2012, August 12). National Association of College Stores. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from

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