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Marketing to college kids: It pays to sway

Marketing to college kids: It pays to sway

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In the coming weeks, school bells will once again ring out, proclaiming the beginning of the new school year in Southwest Virginia.

For college town retailers and restaurants, the chimes will be drowned out by a much sweeter sound: the cash register's "cha-ching."

Back-to-college is big business all over America. According to a July survey released by the National Retail Federation, consumers nationwide plan to spend more than $46 billion on sending kids back to college.

This year, because of the state of the economy, 44.6 percent of those surveyed said they plan to spend less, and per-family spending on clothes, shoes, collegiate logo wear, school supplies, electronics and dorm furnishings is expected to drop to a nine-year low of $589.20, according to the study.

But vendors who can effectively grab students' attention still stand to make big profits.

Ron Beverly, president of Lynchburg's Vision Marketing, has run many campaigns geared toward college students and stressed the importance of reaching students right out of the gate.

"Hit them early," he said.

Fast, free, food

If history is any indication, Mac and Bob's restaurant in Salem will be packed on Aug. 26, the night before incoming freshmen move into nearby Roanoke College, restaurant general manager Keith Griswold said.

For Mac and Bob's and many other businesses, the rush to reach out to new and returning students may begin before they even step foot on campus.

Salem Pizza & Subs, located just a block from Roanoke College, has provided coupons for the welcome packets that new students received as soon as they arrive.

Beverly said it's a good way to get a company's name out at little cost. Many colleges allow businesses to submit the content for free, he said.

But students will throw away a flier with little thought if the offer is not good enough, Beverly said.

He follows a simple mantra, crafted with input from Vision Marketing's own college interns, when marketing to students: fast, free, food.

"Students love free food, or food in general," he said.

Salem Pizza & Subs owner Jody Draper said the coupons he used to provide for Roanoke College student welcome packets worked well because they offered free, not discounted, food.

Draper offered a free small order of cheese bread with any purchase, no matter how small.

Draper said these coupons were popular, and he would get them back for about six months after they were handed out.

At a cost of about $4 per coupon, Draper said the free promotion generated enough paid business to make it profitable.

Mac and Bob's and Salem Pizza & Subs have also given away free food at Roanoke College's Maroonpalooza, a festival the school operated in past years to introduce students to local businesses.

Griswold said Mac and Bob's cooked up 500 free chicken wings for Maroonpalooza and gave out free T-shirts at the event.

Draper brought a variety of his massive 28-inch pizzas to the event and dished out free slices to students.

While numbers were not immediately available for business generated by Maroonpalooza, Griswold said the event -- and students wearing Mac and Bob's shirts -- went a long way toward getting his restaurant's name out.

Maroonpalooza will not occur this year, Draper said, and instead the school is giving students a "wooden nickel" token that will spend like cash at local vendors from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Aug. 29.

The token will be worth $5, and Draper and Griswold both will offer a menu of items priced in "nickels" for the event.

Free food marketing does not have to be exclusive to restaurants, either. Beverly said simply putting your name on food -- like handing out free popcorn in bags with the company logo -- can prove effective.

University Bookstore, the on-campus bookstore at Virginia Tech, gives away free ice pops along with items bearing the store's logo, such as mugs or water bottles, during student orientation in July and August, said Steve Glosh, assistant director for Virginia Tech Services Inc.

Beverly did caution about going overboard with freebies, saying that uncontrolled free promotions can quickly become overwhelming and costly.

He suggested leading with a free coupon, but also attaching other, less valuable ones, such as a buy-one-get-one or a half-off voucher, to keep students coming back.

Strategic advertising

George Daniels, store manager at Tech Bookstore in Blacksburg, plans to come out swinging this week with his strongest deals.

Daniels will offer deeply discounted "doorbuster" sales on select products from the moment Tech's residence halls open Wednesday until the stock runs out, he said.

The first few weeks of class are important for Campus Emporium as well, just two blocks down Main Street from Tech Bookstore. The difference between fall and spring is like day and night, web manager Meggin Hicklin said.

The store usually closes up shop at 6 p.m. every day during the spring, Hicklin said, but has stayed open as late as 11 p.m. on fall nights to accommodate football game crowds, and it will see heavy traffic soon after students return this week.

Hicklin said that while the student-run Collegiate Times newspaper and radio are among the store's main advertising channels, she sees online advertising as the most effective way to reach college students.

Campus Emporium has found success marketing from its Facebook page and with email campaigns, which Hicklin said have worked because they are accessible to on-the-go students.

"With smartphone technology, kids get the emails wherever they are," she said.

Beverly said Facebook can be great for advertising because interactions are highly visible on the network: If one person has 600 Facebook friends and interacts with a company's page, all 600 friends could see it, even if they are not connected to the company page.

Students aren't online every second of the day, however, so physical advertisements haven't gone out of style near campuses.

Beverly suggested advertising on buses and other public transportation that students frequent and said that ads in campus directories are also still viable.

But some of the most cost-effective advertising is done by foot, Beverly said. He cited bulletin boards and whiteboards around campus as great places to post fliers.

He said one of the better campaigns he's seen recently was done by a Lynchburg chiropractor who put coupons in about 7,000 Liberty University student mailboxes, all located in one place, without buying a single stamp. The materials only cost about $500, Beverly said, or about 7 cents per mailbox.

The best -- and worst -- advertising can be done by students themselves, however.

Daniels said that word of mouth generated by good service is the best advertising his business can produce.

But students also talk about bad experiences.

Beverly said that creating a positive buying experience right from the start is important, because students are highly social and bad experiences will get around quickly. A few students' dissatisfaction can become a big problem for a college town business.

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