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How Digital Contagion Can Spread Your Brand’s Story to College Students

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Campaigns that go viral, or become contagious, across the internet can offer big wins to retailers. Understanding the forces that drive virality among 20 million college students can add as many as six figures of lifetime value, according to executives who spoke at LinkedIn’s Finance Connect conference. The trick is nurturing digital contagion among a specific consumer group—college students.

College students spend an average of $800 each on back-to-school products, according to a study by ad agency MRY (then known as Mr Youth). The study notes that college students are extremely connected, going online to find fellow freshmen within minutes of receiving acceptance letters, conversing and sharing on social media, and relying on each other for trusted tips on where to go and what to buy.

College students are three times as likely to follow a brand over a family member, and 43% have “liked” more than 23 brands on Facebook, the study says. If students support a brand and amplify its message, sharing that message multiple times by every individual who receives it, contagion grows.

With messages that spark enough sharing to become contagious, brands gain organic lift, inspire loyalty and achieve reach with members of affinity groups and targeted segments that paid messaging might miss. The effective cost per reach, per person, goes down. While there’s almost always unpredictability involved with crafting contagious posts, there are some commonalities and best practices.

The Path to Relevance

To become contagious, messages should be useful, relevant and positive, says Jonah Berger,a marketing professor at The Wharton School and author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” Tailored appeals that match students’ environment and needs work best, so brand marketers should:

Understand lifestyles. Know what, and who, is hot or not. Consider ways to counter the stress of study time near midterms and finals, such as offering tickets to local events. Tailor campaigns to urban commuter campuses differently from car-culture school, to large universities differently from smaller colleges. Consider how local climates and weather affect clothes, hangouts and ways of socializing. Greek life plays a role some places, and a big part of social sharing, but not in others.

Choose the right social networks. More than 98% of adults aged 18 to 24 use social media, according to consumer insight service Experian Simmons. Facebook is king. Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are royals. But a brand may reach some groups through Tumblr, Pinterest, Kik, YikYak and WhatsApp, all of which are popular on U.S. campuses.

Channel school spirit. Know the mascots, the sports teams and the school stars. Find influencers and brand advocates connected to a school. When actor and alumnus Matthew McConaughey appeared in a video giving students a ride as part of University of Texas at Austin’s ride-share safety program, it was viewed more than 555,000 times, shared 5,500 times and got 4,200 “likes” on Facebook within a week.

Tap rhythms of school life. Timing is key to being useful and cultivating shares. “Providing a tool for students to find the perfect roommate in August is destined to fail because it doesn’t take into account that roommate seeking takes place May through July,” the MRY study says. Know when class registration happens, when freshmen are looking for items that seniors are getting rid of. Find school-specific Facebook groups created for buying, selling and exchanging items.

Work across platforms. At any student union, screens probably outnumber humans. College students are avid mobile users but equally comfortable on laptops and connected devices. Brand must make it easy to share across every screen.

Make the right offers. Location-based brands should encourage check-ins. Some 66% of college students will look up a store if they see a friend check in from there, MRY says. And 71% have “liked” a promotion to receive an offer. College students will play games and enlist others to get points and rewards, and also share the information with others, writes Marc Sorel on the NAM Youth Marketing website.

Encourage co-creation. College students are always on, communicating, giving feedback, mixing and morphing their virtual environment, whether it’s .gifs on Instagram, videos on Facebook or filters on Snapchat. Younger millennials and college students expect to take part in designing new products, creating media to share, mixing, matching and getting notice, according to the firm Vision Critical. Spark more buzz with content creation contests.

To learn more about marketing to millennials in contagious, authentic ways, check out our Q&A with Purpose Generation.