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Summer's behind us, fall's here, and across the US students have descended upon college campuses for the new academic year. With those students comes a huge amount of economic power: The US boasts more than 21 million college students, who have a total discretionary spending power of $120 billion per year (according to re:fuel College Explorer by Crux Research). Their impact on the economy is unquestionable.

Not surprisingly, then, marketers are increasingly excited about the opportunity to market on college campuses.

If getting in front of student audiences is something you're thinking you might want to do, here's a quick refresher course on how to win on campus and make the biggest splash with your own brand—or a client's.

Find the right contact

Do you need to deal with student affairs, recreational sports, the athletic department, the college bookstore, some other department, or all of the above to get the permissions and access you need?

Knowing whom to contact at the university is crucial to ensuring you get the requisite approvals to accomplish your marketing goals. The "right" contacts vary by campus, so don't assume you'll deal with the same departments across different schools.

If you're not sure whom to contact, we recommend starting with the student affairs office; the people there can usually point you in the right direction.

Understand your target

Like the general public, college students cannot just be lumped together. They constitute a broad and diverse target. Are you talking to freshman or seniors? Males or females? Intramurals? Greeks? Does your target live on campus or off campus? Does the school offer two-year or four-year programs?

Understanding whom you are targeting is critical to reaching them.

Engage campus influencers to spread the word

Whatever the goal of your program, word-of-mouth among students is vital to increasing awareness of and engagement with a brand.

The key to generating strong word-of-mouth is finding the right influencers to spread your message. You want people who are really plugged into life on campus, and those who have very active social media networks; of course, you want students are also authentically passionate about your brand and thoroughly familiar with it.

It is also important to compensate them, whether with cash, product, or school credit. They need to feel accountable as they lead you to success.

My firm's experience has taught us that a good spot to find influencers is the Greek system. It tends to be a tightly knit and socially active world in which word spreads fast. Consider, though, that the Greek system can be polarizing. You will probably want to also engage with high-influence students outside it.

Just be sure to keep your brand's positioning firmly in mind when reaching out to campus influencers, whether Greek or otherwise.

Become part of the campus community

Think long-term when strategizing about how to increase engagement with your brand on college campuses. Students are hit with messages from hundreds of brands daily. So think about how your brand can become more than an impression and instead become part of the campus community.

In our experience, the more a brand commits to being on campus, the more the university will support its presence there. Plus, the longer your brand is on campus, the more opportunity you have to engage meaningfully with a greater numbers of students, boosting awareness of your  brand and students' affinity with it.

Get students involved to help market your brand

What better way to make students aware of your brand than to ask them to help you market something connected to it, such as an event?

A few years ago, we helped one of our clients produce a road race at a major university. The second year we went back, we asked students to help us produce the race, giving those who stepped forward major responsibilities. Doing so not only gave the students increased ownership of the event but also provided them with a valuable learning opportunity. And it allowed our client to interact more closely with the students, generating greater insight into what students wanted and valued.

Be authentic to your brand, but don't be pushy

Whatever you decide to do on campus, be authentic to your brand; students can sniff out a phony in an instant, and negative word-of-mouth travels quickly on campus. Faking it will have a counterproductive effect.

While being authentic, you also need to ensure that you're meeting the needs of students. Sometimes, you may have to find a middle ground between your brand positioning and what students actually care about. Find that middle ground, and you'll win.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Mousseau is EVP/GM, Midwest, at MKTG INC, an alternative media and marketing services firm that specializes in building brand advocate networks, offline and online, to drive market share and profitability for clients.