How to Market Your Small Business to College Students

Updated on July 24, 2018
Tyler Buchanan profile image

Tyler is an avid writer and researcher in his Junior year attending Monmouth College

Every year, college students in the U.S. spend 60 billion dollars, making them a sizable consumer demographic. About 33 billion of this is spent on the back-to-school necessities students usually get before they go to college, but the remaining 27 billion is spent on the food, bars, movie theaters, clothes, etc. in whatever communities they go to school in. (Research by eCampus.com)

From the perspective of a college student, here are 4 ways that local businesses can attract a share of this spending:

Maintain an Online Presence

For college students, the first step to deciding what to do next in any situation is to “Google it”. So, for example, if you’re a restaurant owner whose restaurant doesn’t appear when they do that Google search, then you’re losing already. Local business owners should check to make sure their brick & mortar establishments appear on Google Maps, and should verify them if they do not appear already. Maintaining an online presence also means having a website, but if you want to win with the college students, the site needs to be mobile friendly—students are far more likely to be viewing on their smartphones or tablets than on laptop or desktop computers. When a site loads-up all distorted on our phones, we usually just swipe back and try the next one. It’s inconvenient trying to navigate sites that aren’t optimized for mobile viewing. Businesses who want to go the extra mile in maintaining an online presence should have at least one social media account dedicated to promoting their goods or services; Instagram would be a good place to start. Students check their various social media accounts several times per day or several times per hour, depending on the person. We often will follow the accounts of businesses we have an affinity for, and we notice when their promotional content appears in our timelines.

Be Affordable

Or at least have affordable options. Some people think there is a stereotype surrounding college students suggesting that they’re all broke, but I’m here to inform you that it’s not just a stereotype. Jokes aside, I recognize that this tip has its limitations: Some things only get so affordable, and so what I really mean is have relatively affordable options. College students consume a lot of things, and of those things they tend to consume the cheapest ones. Literally and metaphorically speaking, this doesn’t mean you can’t put the $26 New York strip on the menu, it just means you should also include the $7 mac ‘n cheese. To us students, significant discounts (like coupons or specials) are like an excuse to spend money, because in our minds, if we spend money where we have a discount, then that’s saving money. We might not jump on at 5%, but anything noticeable will have most students spending $5 with you just so they can claim they saved $1.

Keep an up-to-date Environment

Any business model that intends for student-customers to spend any significant amount of time at their establishment needs to have free Wi-Fi access, otherwise we are all just going to go to McDonalds instead. Increasingly, businesses like these are becoming hot study areas for students who get tired of libraries and dorm rooms, but as coursework has become more and more device-centered every year, network access has become a necessity for completion of that work. On top of that, so many businesses have free Wi-Fi now that when one doesn’t, it tends to provoke a “What kind of place doesn’t have Wi-Fi?” in the minds of college students. Cleanliness is expected no matter what population your customer base is made up of, but when marketing your business to college students, an aesthetically-appealing environment goes the extra mile. Even if your A/C is consistently way-too-cold we’ll keep coming back for the good vibes.

Demonstrate Involvement on Campus and in the Community

Everyone appreciates feeling like someone else took the time to think specifically about them, and college students are no exception. When a local business makes an appearance at a job fair on campus, we see that they considered us specifically, and it makes us more likely to do the same when we’re spending our money. The same can be said for simpler acts too—having later hours during finals season would be a great tactic for showing college students that your business is specifically in-tune to what they’ve got going on. When students begin to notice that your business is frequently associated with the activities and happenings around our campus, we are more likely to associate that business with our lifestyle as college students and spend according to those associations.

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