7 Things College Students Really Want From Brand Marketing

Izzy Hall

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Getting student marketing right is hard. Whether you’re a higher education institution wanting to draw in prospective students, or a brand giving out on-campus freebies and recruiting student ambassadors, engaging and connecting with this young community can be difficult.

Gen Z consumers want authenticity, whether that’s from brands’ social media posts or the online communities they’re socializing with. And as youth marketers, it’s your job to show students just how great you are without over-engineering or over-polishing campaigns.

So how exactly can brands and places of higher education catch the attention of young students and run successful marketing campaigns? And what is it that Gen Z college students really want from brand marketing? In this blog post, we share our seven top tips, all supported by insights and contributions from the industry experts who took to the stage during our Youth Marketing Strategy event in New York.

College students in a lecture

7 top tips for running successful student marketing campaigns

1. If you have the money, pay your students

Adam Grant, Founder and CEO of Campus Commandos, discussed this during his YMS NYC session 6 Things Successful Student Ambassador Programs Have in Common. Adam shared the idea that young people head to college to try and figure out what they want to do with their lives, making this the perfect time to reach out and engage with them via student ambassador programs. And, by financially compensating them for their time and attention, brands will be sure to benefit from this dedicated and passionate community of young people. More on this later!

2. Extend your reach to engage with Gen Z

This community of young students are digital natives, meaning that everything brands do has to connect to the social networking sites they use and the online communities they trust. By making your content and social media marketing stand out, Gen Zers will want to photograph it, share it, and take it to their own networks. In other words: user generated content!

3. Stay connected with personalization

Personalized communications and campaigns do work, and it’s something that Gen Zers have come to expect in social media marketing. But there’s a trick to it: ask too many questions, and young people will be turned off by the admin. Ask too few questions, and you won’t get the information you need to really personalize everything, such as the products they’re interested in.

“I think if you’re going to ask questions, ask no more than three”, said Sandrah, a Gen Z panelist on the YMS Student Beans panel What College Students Really Want From Campus Advertising. “[And] more people need to explore video applications, so you can really get a sense of my personality. Although the downside is the potential bias that you get from seeing what someone looks like… however I think it’s a great option.”

Gen Z college students talking

4. Gen Z wants to get a sense of who you really are – be authentic

‘Authenticity’ is a Gen Z buzzword for a reason. Student videos and flashy testimonials are far too packaged, unrealistic, and ‘perfect’ for Gen Z students’ liking. This cohort of young people want student marketing to show what campus life is really like, and the news sections and event listings on college and university websites are the perfect places for this.

YouTube was also a big discussion at YMS NYC, with talk focusing on the importance of having a strong brand presence on the platform. In terms of higher education, this is where prospective students will be learning more about you, whether that’s via your own channels or vlogs from current students.

5. Prioritise SEO

Whilst TikTok may be Gen Z’s number one search engine for most things, 37% of students are still using ‘traditional’ search engines to find their college websites (Ologie). Good SEO is, of course, important for all marketing campaigns, but when it comes to attracting the attention of prospective students, colleges, and universities need to pay special attention to this. Higher Education experts Ologie discussed this during their YMS NYC session Why College Websites Aren’t Working For Gen Z, suggesting that three lines of the metadata are what will draw young people in if they’re navigating student-targeted websites.

6. Discounts and deals

As our sister company, Student Beans will tell you, student discounts are the way to a young person’s heart – in fact, 45% of students look for student discounts every single time they make a purchase (How is the Rising Cost of Living Affecting Gen Z? guide, available on Student Beans now)!

And thanks to rising inflation, this is something that’s going to be more important to this year’s students than ever before, with 74% looking for cheaper versions of products they usually buy. “I love brands with a really good loyalty program, something that’s cheesy that you’re really gonna love!”, said Gen Zer Sandrah at YMS NYC. “Anywhere with a student discount, I’m gonna check it out!”.

Gen Z college students laughing

7. Student ambassador programs

Peer-to-peer marketing works – naturally, Gen Z consumers are more likely to trust recommendations and advertising from those that they can relate to and understand…which is why student ambassador programs are an absolute must for any brand wanting to attract the attention of students on campus. And remember, once you’ve earned their loyalty, you’ve got them for life!

Student Beans‘ Gen Z panel at YMS NYC spoke about student ambassador programs in detail, with one young person being an ambassador for Clinique and PINK by Victoria’s Secret. “Recently, with Clinique, we left some goodies on campus for other students, and also [did] social media content. For PINK, we go to Victoria’s Secret stores and invite students to come and shop. The first 20 students get a [freebie] or something”, shared Pamela. “I think having [student ambassadors] makes students a lot more comfortable approaching them. It got them really excited.”

And, referring back to point number one on this list, don’t forget to pay your ambassadors – it makes all the difference to their experience and how they speak about you to their peers: “Being part of the partnerships, you get a lot of free stuff! A lot of makeup, skincare, etc. You get to connect with people at the company and you get paid.”

Group of young Gen Z friends hanging out in a skatepark

So there you have it – seven top tips for running a successful student marketing campaign. Perfect for that Back to School season, which is just around the corner….

Want to learn more about the Freshers and Back to School season? Sign up for our webinar Reaching Gen Z During Freshers Week and Back to School Season now! This webinar will be bursting with actionable insights from our expert panel to help you deliver a successful campaign to make sure your brand resonates with the ever-evolving needs of Gen Z.


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