Friday Q&A: Why Bellhops Uses Messaging Instead of Marketing to Reach Students

A lot of people dread moving: it seems to take forever, things get broken, and movers might not even show up when they’re supposed to. Cameron Doody and Stephen Vlahos, two students at Auburn University, thought maybe they could do better. So in 2011, the two founded Bellhops, a college-focused startup aimed at efficient moving services for college students.

Now, the company employs 75 people, along with 1,500 movers, many of whom are college students. They’ve successfully raised $28 million in startup investment and expanded to 25 cities by offering college students a start-to-finish move for $300.

We spoke with Bellhops founder Doody to find out how they were so successful at grabbing millennials’ attention, and what advice they have for other startups looking to target the college crowd.

What is your marketing strategy to reach the college market?

The majority of our marketing towards college students is targeted towards recruiting our outstanding workforce, which is made up almost exclusively of athletic college students working alongside moving professionals who drive our trucks (we call them Admirals). We have a campus ambassador program that focuses on recruiting from athletic teams, intramural organizations, ROTC, and others. We do very little digital advertising to find our workforces. We believe you have to go out and find the best candidates and meet them in person.

What we found with college students is that they are inundated with marketing. Everyone thinks about marketing to college students because they are such an influential demographic when it comes to trends. As a company marketing itself, you feel like you know what message will relate with students, you know where these students live… at first glance it seems like shooting fish in a barrel.

But then you realize that every company on earth feels this way, which is why college students are one of the most targeted demographics in the world. On the consumer side, the majority of our focus is on SEO, which means being able to be found on the internet by the types of people who make up your target market. You have to really speak their language and understand their needs. In order to effectively market to college students, you have to win against some of the biggest and best brands on the planet all competing for their eyeballs. It’s tough.

What marketing strategies work best for targeting millennials?

Millennials are a huge customer demographic for us: people moving into their first and second homes, living in apartments, young professionals who move frequently, young families, etc. You have to tell the right story, especially in the moving space, which is riddled with poor experiences.

Millennials want to hear that you can book online in a minute, have an outstanding workforce of movers that really care about what they are doing, and [operate] at a price point that makes sense. They want to buy into brands. They want to hear your company’s “why,” and they want to relate with you and laugh at your marketing campaigns.

What advice do you have for other small businesses looking to break into the college market?

Don’t treat the college audience like one big group who all want the same thing. Pick a very specific group of college students and really understand them. Understand specifically where this particular group eats, shops, parties, what they wear, what they watch, how they talk, and what they think is cool. Then formulate a strategy to speak to that group, and do it over and over again [with other groups] until you have covered most of your bases.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Missed last week’s Friday Q&A? Learn how a tiny cookie delivery company created a college empire. 

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