As college campuses reopen across the country, members of Gen Z overwhelmingly report a desire to participate in activities they’ve missed. Students are looking forward to “renewing live interactions and connecting outside of their screens,” says Mark Walker, CRO at Student Beans, a youth marketing tech company. For a generation marked by hyper-entrenchment in the digital world, that’s a shift worth noting—and embracing from a marketing perspective.
But here’s the secret sauce: while college students are enjoying IRL moments, their “natural habitat” is still very much online, which means brands should develop experiences that reach them across multiple touchpoints. To guide in that process, Student Beans has created a comprehensive article that covers four tactics for marketing success:
- Personalized student loyalty programs
- Gamification for the win
- How to hone your Social skills
- The art of blending the lines between physical and digital
In March of 2020, the world changed abruptly as restaurants and retailers closed their doors and schools pivoted to virtual formats. Members of Gen Z found their lives upended as they were isolated from schoolmates, friends, and often even family. But their resilience shone through as they leaned into familiar digital tools and reimagined favorite experiences online, from socializing and shopping to attending virtual events.
Fast forward to 2021, where a sense of pervasive optimism is sowing expectations for a return to “normal” for the upcoming school year. An overwhelming 84% of U.S. students look forward to participating in activities they’ve missed, according to research from Student Beans, a youth marketing technology company that creates lasting relationships between Gen Z and brands. More specifically, 66% of students in the U.S. are excited to attend in-person classes, and 63% anticipate they will more actively experience their college town or city this year.
“As much as Gen Z is involved in the digital world, they context-switch incredibly well, and right now they’re looking forward to renewing live interactions and connecting with one other outside of their screens,” says Mark Walker, chief revenue officer at Student Beans.
But of course, they won’t be abandoning their affinity for online interaction. That’s why marketers need to adapt their strategies to stand out “IRL” to take advantage of the post-pandemic reawakening while still engaging Gen Z in their “natural habitat” online.
Here are four tactics Walker suggests that can allow brands to deploy both digital and offline channels in a way that will engage this important demographic.
With most colleges planning to reopen for in-person classes, marketers have the chance to position themselves in the middle of the on-campus excitement as new and existing students celebrate the return.
Since they’ve been away from the campus experience they crave, Walker says that now is the time to double down on reaching them. “They are excited to exercise their freedoms, and brands want to ensure they don’t miss out on the positive emotions students will be feeling as they are back on campus.”
With this insight in mind, brands should develop experiences that help students feel comfortable as they look for ways to reacclimate into physical socialization, says Alexsandra Sukhoy, founder of marketing firm Creative Cadence and marketing professor at Cleveland State University. Since not everyone might be comfortable mingling, you can offer different levels of participation, from boisterous events on the quad to drawings students can enter from afar.
The goal is to get students to try your brand and associate it with these positive vibes. “This is a great opportunity to reimagine what your brand could and should be,” Walker says, noting that even brands that pivoted well during the pandemic found there were limits to what they could do with pixels. Based on Student Beans’ extensive experience with campus activations, Walker recommends considering events, competitions, and, of course, really cool swag to attract attention. In one of its most successful pre-COVID campus tours, Student Beans helped brands reach 35,000 students in just five days, collecting almost 2,000 student emails and generating 1,500 student discount codes.
ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DURING RETURN TO CAMPUS:
- Plan engaging activities – choose competitions or performances that get students involved.
- Generate excitement through at-event specials, from themed giveaways to discounts for future purchases.
- Tie in with existing activations, like game day festivities or a new student welcome event.
- Create a picture-worthy background to promote social media shares.
Student Loyalty Programs
Marketers know that connecting with young consumers is paramount as they aim to build habits and affinity early. “Gen Z doesn’t want to spend endless amounts of time searching and scrolling to find something new. They prefer to form a trusted attachment with certain brands they feel authentically speak to them, and they know will consistently deliver against their expectations,” Walker says, adding that student loyalty programs are an ideal manifestation of this mindset.
Discounts can play a valuable role in building loyalty; after all, while many members of Gen Z have abundant disposable income, they are still financially savvy. Student Beans research finds 63% of colleges student say they check for a discount either every time or most of the time they make a purchase.
Brands need to earn loyalty in the first place through their actions and delivery and then incent students to stay fans by providing discounts, particularly ones specially designed for students, Walker says. “It makes them feel even more valued and provides a logical reason for them to continue to shop with you rather than looking for new, competitive brands.”
A frequency aspect, where students receive a discount after a certain number of purchases, is one staple of loyalty programs. While these predictable rewards are appealing, a successful program should also have an element of “surprise and delight” built-in, says Jeff Fromm, a professional speaker on youth marketing and author of “Marketing to Gen Z.”
ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF STUDENT LOYALTY PROGRAMS
- Survey students to find out what rewards resonate with them.
- Help students feel special with custom rewards for college audiences.
- Add exclusive elements, such as a limited-time item or special access to bonus content.
- Encourage social media posting with unique hashtags for each reward level.
- Create a referral program to motivate students to invite others to join.
Gen Z loves gaming — Student Beans research finds that 75% of 16- to 24-year-old students play a mobile, console, or computer game at least once a month. That’s higher than the number who use a music or video streaming service or watch cable TV.
Transplanting that similar challenge/reward factor to the marketing strategy of gamification is a winning way to reach this demographic. “It’s human nature to enjoy the instinct of competition, which gamification offers, and then combine it with socialization,” Sukhoy says.
Domino’s, which has always benefited from robust on-campus marketing, retooled its 2020 strategy to highlight gamification, working with Student Beans to develop a digital scratch card competition designed to better engage Gen Z by preserving the focus on interactivity. The activation was so successful that they increased their market share by 10% in six months, far ahead of schedule. For other brands considering a gamification element, Domino’s Customer Acquisition Manager Kathy Connolly-Livings suggests starting small to see how people participate, and then building out the element accordingly.
Sukhoy advises that brands determine their main KPIs, such as whether they want to extend their reach with the demographic or launch a new product. “Gamification can become very expensive if you don’t put a ceiling on your budget and know exactly what you’re measuring.” For that reason, she recommends brands hoping to break into gamification work with someone who already has extensive experience and who can help them create a successful activation that delivers solid results and return on investment.
Walker finds that success in gamification comes from addressing three distinct areas: First and most importantly, make the game fun and engaging with strong visuals and interesting game mechanics that will make it challenging, yet achievable. Second, he recommends making the game meaningful by offering an interesting prize. Finally, make the game relevant to your brand’s voice, products, and services to preserve the authenticity that is foundational to Gen Z.
ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF GAMIFICATION
- Determine the metrics for your program’s success – who are you trying to reach and what behavior do you want to incent?
- Create an activity that is relevant to your brand’s voice and products or services.
- Work with a partner with experience to create a successful activation.
“Gamification can become very expensive if you don’t put a ceiling on your budget and know exactly what you’re measuring.” – ALEXSANDRA SUKHOY, Founder of marketing firm Creative Cadence and marketing professor, Cleveland State University
There’s no question that social media is where you can find Gen Z, from Instagram to TikTok to Snapchat, and that’s where brands should be, too. Student Beans research finds that 65% of students turn to social media to get ideas of things they want to buy.
Gen Z looks to each platform to fill a different role: They might use Instagram for shopping and inspiration, Snap for more day-to-day private communication, and TikTok for entertainment — although it is quickly becoming a selling star in its own right, as highlighted by its #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt channel.
These nuances underscore why brands must avoid lumping these channels together into one strategy that spreads the same content across all channels. Instead, each channel requires very different themes to meet Gen Z’s expectations.
For example, Instagram tends to be much more polished and curated, whereas TikTok is more genuine and unvarnished. A brand might want to create aspirational photo shoots to post on Instagram, while on TikTok, they could use a “day in the life” aesthetic featuring real students using their products in everyday situations. Geofilters on Snapchat encourage followers to share content organically — and can be turned into promotions for those who participate.
But it’s wise to have your content vetted by a fellow member of Gen Z before posting. “If a brand puts out content that feels disconnected to the channel’s tone, Gen Z is likely to decide it doesn’t fit into their consumption pattern and tune it out,” Fromm says.
“Brands have to think through their social media strategy carefully and create content — or work with influencers who can create content — to customize it specifically to each channel.” “Share-worthy” content typically happens organically, but Fromm reminds brands that members of Gen Z are also curating their brands on their social media channels, so they will share content that they feel captures their emotions and beliefs.
As brands consider possibilities and experiment with an ever-expanding portfolio of strategic options, Sukhoy invokes hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote about finding success by skating where the puck is going, not where it has been, especially as it relates to social media.
“Marketers have an incredible amount of data they can use to determine where the puck is headed. Their job is to already be there so when students go looking for something, they can fill that void.”
ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
- Decide which channels you want to concentrate on; it’s better to do a good job on one or two platforms than a mediocre job on more.
- Devote ample time to engaging with users who like, share or comment on your content.
- Assemble an ad hoc panel of Gen Zers who can help confirm your content is on the mark.
Blending the Physical and Digital for Success
As college-age kids flock to campuses, brands have a unique opportunity to blend physical and digital worlds to win hearts and minds and foster future loyalty with Gen Z.
From notes, the best brands don’t even think about physical and digital as separate entities, either in their language or team structures. “It’s a mistake to have one group thinking about retail operations and another about digital commerce. Those teams have to be integrated so the consumer experience is blended. Gen Z will reward the brands that make an effort to reach them authentically through all the touchpoints that matter to them.”
But don’t ignore one strategy at the expense of the other. “If you’re only playing on one field or the other, you’ll find you have one hand behind your back when it comes to your ability to reach this key demographic,” Walker says.