Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

How Should You Engage Students with Your Brand: Free Samples, Guerrilla Marketing, or Friends’ Referrals?

The college student demographic is a tough shell to crack. How do you get them interested in new brands? What makes them tick? Students aren’t the clueless, narrow-minded, indifferent audience they’re often portrayed to be. Say what you will about Generation Y, but they definitely know what they like and what they hate!

I asked eight students the following question and provided them with three answer options:

“What would most attract your attention to a new brand or product…and why?”

1) Free samples

2) Guerrilla marketing

3) A friend’s referral

Do you have any guesses as to which option received the most responses? I’ll tell you which one it WASN’T: guerrilla marketing. Among the eight college students I surveyed, ZERO selected guerrilla marketing and one of them made it clear that he found the advertising tactic rather annoying. “I don’t want advertisements shoved down my throat when I’m minding my own business,” he said. “If I’m going to try a new product, I’ll do it because it’s something I might actually use. Or I’d try it if a buddy recommended it to me.”

That student’s response leads me to the answer you may have already figured out. Friends’ referrals are the most effective means if you’re targeting college students. Several students double-dipped and selected both free samples AND friends’ referrals, but the five who did so also specified that referrals were far more likely to get their attention about a new brand.

So how do you get a college student interested in what you’re selling and encourage him or her to spread the word to friends? Aside from giving away free product samples like they’re going out of style, you may also want to try cutting the hype and getting straight to the benefits of your product or service. It’s all about TRUST, and students are smart enough to know whether or not your ads are intriguing or just a load of bull.

You could also make a connection between your product and college students – how and why will it help them? As the previously-mentioned college student pointed out, he would try a new product if it was something he might actually use. So what good are aggressive marketing techniques if consumers don’t need or want what you have to offer? Highlight the benefits of your brand instead of blowing a bunch of hot air at your audience!

I’m no longer a college student, but I can tell you that I have no qualms about broadcasting a new brand to others. When I find a product I like, I tend to stick with it indefinitely and tell my friends to check it out. And you know what? My enthusiasm could start an invaluable chain reaction. It’s true that word-of-mouth advertising is tricky nowadays, but it’s unstoppable if you get over that initial hump and pitch your products with honesty and integrity. And that seems to be what college students are looking for in advertisements!

What gets YOU to try a new brand (whether you’re a student or not)?

Jill Tooley

Jill has been obsessed with words since her fingers could turn the pages of a book. She’s a hopeless bibliophile who recently purchased a Kindle after almost 6 years of radical opposition, and she loves stumbling upon new music on Pandora. Random interests include (but are not limited to) bookstores, movie memorabilia, and adorable rodents. Jill writes for the QLP blog and assists with the company’s social media accounts. You can connect with Jill on Google+.


  1. Joseph Giorgi

    Gen-Y students are savvy enough to know when a product or service isn’t worth their time. Growing up in the internet era probably has a lot to do with that. We’ve got most (if not ALL) of the information we need right at our fingertips when it comes to making purchases. But there are times when indecisiveness gets the better of us, and in times like that, I suppose positive word-of-mouth goes a long way.

    For me, personally, times like that are few and far between. These days, I do my research (and plenty of it) before I make any kind of purchasing decision, and I leave very little room for hesitation or uncertainty.

    Still, I do value my friends’ opinions, and I listen when they convey their likes and dislikes. I try to, anyhow. So, when they tell me to buy or watch or listen to something, I’ll at least seriously consider doing so.

  2. Scooby DOO!

    1. Offer Beer.
    2. Bring Red Cups.


    College kids are finicky, cheep, and very savvy. First thing you need to ask yourself, is this your target market? And if so, then does your product align with their wants, and needs? If no, then you are SOL. If yes, then consider a t-shirt that supports the college in some way (get permission) and then co-brand it with your product / service. Hand them out at all of the sorting events, and walla. You could also market to them with laundry tokens, or prepaid custom imprinted cards that bear your logo and are pre-loaded with “laundry cash”.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Logo-imprinted cards that are good at local food chains and restaurants would also work.

  3. JPorretto

    As far as recommendations (and user reviews especially) go, you absolutely have to consider biases. If someone is telling you about something, its usually because they think its either great or awful. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t be telling you about it in the first place. In reality, most opinions are more than likely to be of the “Average” variety. So as always, your mileage may vary!

  4. Kyle

    I am currently a college student and I have to agree that friend recommendations definitely sway my purchasing decisions. Although free stuff is never a bad thing! My only gripe with this post is that the question is somewhat close-ended with only three available answers. College students are very diverse and I believe some of them might have answers that vary from those offered, but informative post nonetheless.

  5. Bret Bonnet

    I have to agree with Kyle on this one. By limiting the response options to only three; the survey is kind of limited, but I know WHY you HAD to.

    I could have told you point blank that the majority of users, college students or not, would put more stock in a referral from a friend or person of influence over Guerrilla Marketing or a Product Sample.

    Why else do you think people like Snoop Dog get paid something like $5,000.00 to tweet something about a product to their thousands of followers on Twitter?

    Personal recommendations have, and always will be, the most intimate source of information; that is unless your friends our total d*cks! Chances are they are going to always refer or recommend a product only if they really like/believe in it.

    Great post Jill. I like the “hit the pavement” research/attitude you took with this piece!

  6. Yowhatup!

    College kids REALLY love free stuff. This is the best way to get to them But make it free stuff that they need and you will really be in good shape.

    Good post!

  7. Andrew Sauer

    I also have to agree with Kyle on this one. There are many things or combination of things that can influence college students decision making. Other than that great post!!

Leave a Comment

Copyright 2003 - 2018 Quality Logo Products, Inc., Registration No. TX7-524-201. All Rights Reserved.