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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 oldMost 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 youngHaving 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 segmentationBefore 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 incentiveAmazon 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 marketingCreate 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.

Among students planning to buy a new computer, nearly 50% said they planned to buy a Mac. Needless to say, those are staggering numbers. Apple understands the value of the college market. The company is committed to the idea that today’s savvy college students are tomorrow’s businessmen and businesswomen, doctors, engineers, and teachers.

Apple understands the importance of price differentiation; it provides incentives to students via a separate channel, The Apple Store for Education.

If the product is right and the perceived benefit is greater than the cost, student budgets are suddenly elastic. Apple’s computers are significantly more expensive than Dell’s, yet it now has a greater market share.

Ask yourself, what is the future value of all those illuminated apple computers in classrooms all over the world? Do you still think college students can’t be loyal? Apple clearly believes in students’ loyalty, and so should any company that believes in its own work.

Red Bull, maker of a popular energy drink, allocated the majority of its budget to marketing to Generation Y. Its efforts included cars on college campuses, free Red Bull at parties, extreme sports events, and the use of racy language. Those marketing tactics are no coincidence.

Now, you might be thinking, Well that’s Red Bull and Apple; that’s not like my company.

Think about this: At StudentUniverse, my company, we get deals for students from more than 50 airlines and numerous merchants; one-third of all US college students visit our site; and verified students can become members for free. Airlines establish a connection with students, drive incremental business, and fill seatsâ??all in a socially acceptable manner. (If you, as a business traveler, sat next to a student on an airplane who got a discount for her ticket, would you mind?). Most important, our airline partners are building relationships today with the students who will soon be their business travelers, thereby building loyalty.

So, how are you connecting with the uber-connected? These emerging adults have the money and freedom to start choosing which brands will lead them through college and into adulthood. Attract them now, or risk missing out on the next generation of college-educated consumers.