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The US has some 18 million college students—tech-savvy trendsetters who spend more time together than any other social or professional group. To put that further into perspective, Generation Y (those born between 1977 and 1994) is now estimated to be the largest consumer group in US history.

Decision-makers in marketing departments all over the country might think of keg stands, spring break, and slim wallets when they hear the word "student." College students are treated like any other segment... or not focused on at all.

Yet, in 2010, the US National Retail Federation expected college back-to-school spending to reach nearly $34 billion. Surveyed parents estimated that their children were making 70% of the purchase decisions on their credit cards. That data reveals a clearly defined segment—college students—who have significant purchasing power.

If you aren't already doing so, you should be offering student discounts. Student discounts do not discount the brand; they drive loyalty and provide a positive brand experience. But don't stop at discounts.

Do you have a back-to-school marketing plan?

Many marketing departments seem to lack a marketing plan for continually marketing to the young and restless. Moreover, marketers speak the same language to the 60-year-old customer from Fort Lauderdale and the 21-year-old living in San Francisco, and they also use the same marketing vehicles.

So, how can you do better than most and effectively market to college students? Let's look at five simple steps.

  1. Admit you are old

    Most decision-makers are too old or disconnected to adequately understand the student demographic. Having a kid in college does not qualify. Being older than college students is fine... so long as you do not pretend to speak their language, understand their tastes, or tell them what to do.
  2. Keep things simple, and find someone young

    Having common courtesy and sending short messages are better than trying to be hip. All age groups respect honesty and brands that are true to themselves. If you can afford it, hire someone who has an Xbox or knows how to play beer pong. If you cannot afford that, how about an intern who can provide some insight?
  3. Embrace segmentation

    Before all else, segment your customers and identify which ones are college students. Do you do that? Only when you have that information can your marketing become truly effective. Armed with information, you can change the message, send relevant emails, create college landing pages, and design campaigns that look like they were meant for students.
  4. Provide an incentive

    Amazon provides free Prime subscription to students. Apple offers students deep discounts on its products. But offering student discounts is not the only option you have. Could you offer better service? Better terms and conditions? A free trial? Whatever your differentiator for the student segment is, make sure it includes an incentive.
  5. Use targeted marketing

    Create separate landing pages, email marketing strategies, social media accounts, and mobile applications so that you can segment your message. Present your unique value proposition in a channel dedicated to students.

Why are many brands doing a B- job of targeting college students? Why are they not seeing what Apple is seeing? Apple has enjoyed incredible success over the past few years thanks to its great product design, smart marketing, and robust product line. According to numbers from research firm Student Monitor and Fortune, Apple has gone from a college market share in the teens to nearly 30%, all in five years. And those numbers keep growing.

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Atle Skalleberg is the chief executive officer of Boston-based StudentUniverse www.studentuniverse.com, a technology company that offers students exclusive deals and experiences. Atle can be reached via atle@studentuniverse.com.