Students: How to engage with one of the most challenging audiences in advertising

Thought Leadership
WARC recently published this article by our Strategist, Casper Vahlgren, looking at how brands can truly engage students – traditionally one of the hardest to reach demographics in advertising. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it below.

Students are often seen as a challenging group for marketers. They have little money, but a lot of future potential. They’re making choices – financially, socially, academically – that will affect their lives forever. Brands naturally want to be at the heart of these decisions and a good relationship formed with a student can lead to a loyal, lifelong customer.

This is why we’ve been working with HSBC over the last two years to reach students, with great success, picking up a Bronze Award and a Special Award for a Long-Term idea at the WARC Prize for Social Strategy last year. Below are some of the key lessons we’ve learned about this audience along the way.

The cost of education puts a massive pressure on students
The average debt owed by university graduates in England is £44,000 and this puts a massive strain on students. 65% of them say their diet suffers from their poor financial situation and 56% say their grades suffer.

All of this means that many students don’t feel they are getting the most out of their time at university; they feel they are obliged to focus purely on studying, rather than socialising, because of the costs. Research shows that 82% of students say they spend £20 or less a week on socialising, alcohol and cigarettes and 52% of second years cite lack of cash as a reason for socialising less.

A strong social life during university makes a big difference in later life and a diverse social network is the biggest predictor of future success. Therefore, brands looking to reach students should determine how they can alleviate some of this pressure and how they can inspire students to embrace the wider opportunities available to them whilst at university. Brands should find out how they can support students to focus not just on the academic side of the university experience, but on the social one, too.

A one size fits all approach doesn’t work
As an attractive demographic for a huge number of brands, students get bombarded with offers and messaging, particularly during their first few months. What many brands forget is that, as university progresses, students change. They are not a homogeneous group, and thinking they are all ’Gen Z’ers’ is a big error. Instead, brands need to segment their communication to better suit the different needs at the different stages. In addition, brands need to understand that they have different lifestyles depending on what they are studying, where they are residing and how far into their education they are.

Many brands seem to target students at the onset of university and then forget them after that. Very little brand messaging is contextualised, with a large focus on brand offers, but very few manage to put this into the context of the challenges the students are facing. For example, during Fresher’s Week, they might be confused about how to approach their new lifestyle, while they might have a severe lack of money halfway through term and then be hit by the melancholy of leaving at Christmas, when they’ve finally settled in. The brands that succeed in adapting and continuously providing the goods or services students want at any given time are the ones that will maintain affinity when they graduate.

They are suddenly faced with lot of unfamiliar decisions and responsibilities
A 2016 survey found that only 32% of students had regularly cooked for themselves before university and only 14% had regularly done their own laundry. Apart from the practical aspects of moving out, they are also faced with some very adult financial decisions. 4 in 5 wish they had had a better financial education and 2 in 3 don’t understand their student loan agreement.

Brands should recognise that what students need is support, not a sales pitch, when attempting to learn and cope with all these new facets of life. Rather than just providing the solution for them in the form of a product or service, show them how it enables them and empowers them to find their footing. Students want to become independent, and it’s key for brands not to speak down to them and try to educate them, but rather to be at their level.

Bank on their imagination and ambition
The majority of students (76%) say they go to university because of the prospect of improving future employment opportunities and 62% go to increase their earning power. But while students are ambitious and they have an overarching goal in life, they don’t necessarily know how to pursue that in the long-term.

Giving students a chance to live out their ambitions and get a taste for what they might want to do when they finish is a space with huge potential for brands. During the summer of 2016, University of Reading worked with NME Magazine to give 12 students an opportunity to interview artists at the Reading Festival. This gave the students valuable experience and skills, but it also gave them a taste of what it could be like to work in that industry. HSBC did a similar thing this year by integrating students and apprentices in the actual production of a music video shot with Lady Leshurr.

University is a stepping stone to achieving ambitions and the brands who help students along the way are in a stronger position to form a lasting relationship.