Capturing the college market: An interview with Adam Grant, Co-founder of Campus Commandos

College students operate on hectic schedules, slim sleep, and Spartan budgets, and they grew up in an internet of social media abundance. Understandably, their needs and interests require a little translating.

For that reason, we sat down with Adam Grant, co-founder of Campus Commandos, a college student marketing agency that allows brands from Uber to Coca-Cola to connect with some 10 million college students.

So, Adam, how do you approach college student marketing?

First, we understand that students are now mobile-first. Back in early 2016, internet usage on mobile surpassed desktop, and if you ask students, some even type their papers on their phone rather than their laptop. Everything is on their phone.

What that means for marketers is that students are searching everything instantly and are far more informed, and it changes how you market to them.

Let’s take the example of how both credit card companies and Greek life recruit on campus, then and now.

The old way for credit card companies was “here’s a free t-shirt” in exchange for something. They thought they could go into the quad with a table, a logo and some flyers, but that way is not working anymore. These students grew up with the internet. They can easily go online and compare rates, features, and benefits. They’re less reliant on a sales person and can do more research without engaging with the company. The Credit CARD Act of 2009 also helped to force the old way out. [Editor’s note: The Credit CARD Act of 2009 encouraged colleges and universities to limit on-campus marketing from credit card companies.]

Same with Greek life. Most students show up to college with an understanding of whether they want to go into Greek life already. Tabling with their logo doesn’t work for recruitment; they’re not going to get anyone new. Instead, they must figure out their ideal student profile. If their ideal student is interested in leadership, they need to table about leadership. That will attract new people, and then they can slowly mix in Greek life.

Similarly, credit card companies are now starting off talking about financial literacy. More brands need to be shifting from the old and into the new.

What strategies do you advise for marketers making this shift?

What you need to do is figure out what your ideal student, ideal message, and ideal time frame is.

I’ll give you an example of a suit company. Your ideal student is a business major, as they’ll probably buy more suits throughout their lifetime, and you’ll probably want to target sophomores, as students typically buy one suit and try to make it last. Your ideal time frame is not when they graduate, but rather in the weeks leading up to a career fair.

Your ideal message is that when you’re in school, you don’t know much about dressing for success yet. As a brand, you can showcase your suits right when students want to learn about them for the first time.

Once you have your ideal student, message, and time frame, you have the key to marketing to college students.

Does college marketing only work for select companies?

Only if you’re too focused on short-term ROI (return on investment). I do think a lot of brands get it wrong because they immediately think of sales. If you’re talking about college students, you should be talking about a lifetime value. They might not be a first purchaser, but if they know about you before they graduate, you’ve won.

Let’s take home alarms, for example: In college, you don’t buy a home alarm, but when you’re graduating college and buying your first home, and the only home alarm system you know of was the one that did a class competition, they’re top of mind. You can definitely go after college students if you’re not a college-focused brand.

How important is word of mouth?

If you can achieve that, that is the ultimate win. If their peers are recommending you to their friends, amazing. But some of that has to happen naturally as part of your marketing. Going out and saying that “we need to earn word of mouth” is like saying “let’s make a piece of content that goes viral.” It doesn’t really work that way. It starts with a good product that targets the ideals discussed earlier and it’s the combination of a lot of things going right.

Is the internet the only way to go for reaching college-age millennials?

Not at all. Different capabilities have strengths if used in the right way. I use student newspapers for events only.

It’s the same for email marketing. There are people out there that say that email marketing is dead, but I think it’s about how you’re doing it. If you segment for your ideal student by major, by year, or if you hit on your ideals, you’ll see a lot of success.

One way to get the attention of student consumers is to start a brand ambassador program. Read out Red Bull gave its student ambassador’s wings to get started.