Navigating the Politics of College Marketing

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One of my clearest memories from college was the night of the 2008 election. I was a freshman and not only was I new to college, it was the first political process I’d been exposed to and it was the purest display of excitement I’d ever seen. It was pure jubilance.

So, when we started working with candidates and advocacy groups at flytedesk, I was surprised to hear a lot of people say, “that’s great, but college kids just don’t care that much and they don’t vote.” Not only was it a wild departure from brand advertisers who are 24/7 obsessed with reaching 18-24-year-olds, but it just didn’t feel right.

Of the billions and billions of dollars to increase voter turnout and persuade people to change affiliations, maybe 2% is spent reaching young people, if that. Yet studies show that if they vote in their first three elections they’ll vote for life. Big numbers today, and big numbers tomorrow.

So, why should marketers care?

From an advertising perspective, this is the world’s greatest opportunity. An enormous, high-impact, moveable audience wanting to absorb, engage, and get involved.

Advertisers are all over social media, searching for an authentic way to communicate with young consumers. However, to truly reach them, they need to go where they actually live, breathe, and learn.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19.9 million people are attending college this Fall. For many of them, this is the first time they will live on their own and begin to make decisions that will shape the rest of their lives – who they are, what they believe in, what brands they use. By 2020, Generation Z will be 40 percent of all consumers and will command a whopping $44 billion in buying power.

Whether it’s a big election or a billion-dollar brand launch, one thing is clear –this audience is unavoidable and the future of any brand.

Show Up

Obama aligned an entire generation around “Yes We Can,” but after he left the White House, the college vote fell flat. Although 2016 saw the rise of “Bernie Bros” and an interest in our future, neither Hillary nor Trump were successful in garnering excitement from student voters, as reflected at the polls. Why? Both presidential candidates neglected student voters and bypassed on-campus visits, therefore failing to connect with them and earn their trust. In Hillary’s case, her lack of presence could have cost her the election.

However, during the crucial 2018 midterms, something else happened. Campaigns mobilized on campuses around the country to secure votes. It’s no coincidence that young adults showed up in force. According to a recent Pew Research study, the midterms had the highest youth turnout in over a quarter of a century. Among Generation Z, 30% of those eligible to vote (those ages 18 to 21 in this analysis) turned out in the first midterm election of their adult lives. Generation Z and Millennial voters are expected to be a more significant part of the 2020 electorate than Baby Boomers in sheer numbers alone.

Political campaigns in the 2020 elections know this and are dedicating important campaign dollars to college campuses. So, what are the implications for marketers? College kids will vote and spend money if you invest in them. To build trust, marketers must take a page from the political playbook and realize that it’s not just about showing up for first-time voters and young consumers; but showing up in a new way that is relevant, and with scale. It’s not just about one-off events or stunts- it’s going the distance to keep the conversation going and thinking in the long-term.

Get smart about data

The ad world’s obsession with data-driven insights may feel safe, but it depends on what you do with them. Although data is hyper-accurate, it may take you down the wrong path if you fall prey to data that’s too fuzzy around the edges. Because when it comes to bigger, better ideas, it’s all about being data-informed vs. data-driven. In the case of politics, pollsters know that older people vote. And that traditionally, people of color and young people do not. Doesn’t it make more sense to go after the next generation of voters as opposed to the usual suspects?  Rather than letting sleeping data lie, go on campus and engage young people despite what you think you know about them. Advertise on college media- from newspapers to on-campus signage – to connect with young people where they actually are.

We co-conducted a study with Blue Labs to research voter turnout on campus.

Our data not only showed that students were more positive about political advertising on campus, but also revealed a more than 2% increase in voter turnout for those campuses who had a strong college media presence vs. those who did not. That’s a big deal.  Because of our methodology, our access to voting records allowed us to correlate the likelihood of college student voting with actual voting. That’s data worth dreaming about. And it’s attribution where it matters- the end result.

Folks in advertising are generally a pretty engaged group but I see a lot of richness in exchanging ideas between the political world and the corporate world.

59% of college students believe the 2020 election will be more important than any other election in their lifetime. They are paying attention and they are listening. If politicians are rethinking their stereotypes on how young people are apathetic and anti-consumerist, I think brands should too. Investing in students and in that extraordinary college moment is key to reaching them in those formative, life-changing years. Though insights from data are essential, unlocking authentic creative opportunities requires more than numbers.

As we gave birth to great performance marketing tools, I know I was one of the people that saw the world as a spreadsheet and proclaimed that brand loyalty was dead. Today, we either say that brand loyalty is dead or the only way to stand out with Gen Z is to find your brand purpose. Both are untrue.

Because when you unpack them, students are just as brand loyal as previous generations and when you ask them what brand purpose means to them, all they want is for brands to have good environmental practices and be transparent. It’s about believing in them so that they can believe in you too.

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