Connecting With College Students in 2017: What Brands Need to Know

Connecting With College Students in 2017: What Brands Need to Know

August 9, 2017

College students are famous for being broke. But don’t let the ramen jokes fool you — even though they may not make a lot of money, they spend a ton of it. Their discretionary spending continues to rise, topping $207 billion in 2016. They’re buying everything from electronics and apparel to entertainment and rideshare transportation.

Shot of a group of students studying outside on campus

This September, Millennials — the largest generation on earth right now at 11.7 million strong — will brush shoulders with an increasing number of Gen Z peers (6.5 million and counting). The sheer volume of this population is reason enough to earn them a slice of your marketing budget. Not only is this demographic remarkably age stable, but college for high school grads is also on the rise.

What’s more, consumers usually start to form their own brand preferences during their college years. If you get on their radar early, you can expect a high lifetime customer value — especially once they start a career and have even more to spend.

If you don’t have a strategy in place for this audience, you should have FOMO by now. Luckily, we’ve done the legwork to find out the rising trends among 2017 college students. They may be more aware, more informed and more empowered than any other generation — but they are still just like any consumer: the challenge is to garner their attention and engage them with your brand.

The following insights from Refuel’s College Explorer™ Market Research Study show how brands can reach them.

From payments to streaming services, they’re moving everything online.

It should come as no surprise that online is key when it comes to connecting with today’s college students. Our research shows that they spend a monstrous 137+ hours a week on digital devices. But in the digital market, trends can change quicker than you can double tap. What are they doing on their devices as of late?

  • 89% of students are ditching traditional payment methods for online payment systems. Leading the pack is PayPal (55%), followed by Online Banking (37%), Venmo (14%) and Apple Pay (14%).
  • 84% use YouTube, Netflix, Amazon or Hulu. Streaming options are taking over television subscription services. Streaming also surpasses traditional radio among this group.
  • 1 in 3 students uses online food-delivery services at least once a week. Grubhub/Seamless is the most-used service, with 28% students reporting they regularly use it. Next in popularity are UberEats (20%), (15%), Blue Apron (13%) and Yelp Eat24 (13%).
  • 35% use ridesharing services at least once a week. Uber is king, with 73% indicating it’s their preferred rideshare service. Trailing behind are Lyft (30%), Curb (7%), Sidecar (7%) and Via (6%).

They’re most likely to download and use Music and Gaming apps.

  • Both Millennials (66%) and Gen Z (49%) say they’re most likely to use Music apps above any others. Which are their favorites? When asked which they use on a regular basis, Pandora is the most popular (42%), followed by Spotify (35%), YouTube Music (34%), Apple Music (14%) and Traditional Radio (14%). Compared to their Millennial counterparts, Gen Z students are more likely to use Spotify, Youtube Music and iHeartRadio. Ads here are resonating with students, with 56% reporting they’ve taken action after hearing online radio ads — from telling a peer about the product to making a purchase.
  • Gaming is the second-most popular app category, with 62% of Millennials and 46% of Gen Z indicating they’re most likely to download them. Moreover, college students are 2.1x more likely than the general population to download and use gaming apps. This arguably under-tapped territory presents a rich opportunity to introduce your brand to college students.

Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the social apps they visit most often.

After music and gaming, social media is the third app category this audience says they’re most likely to download and use. But when asked to name five apps they’re currently using most often, the top seven responses are all social media apps.

Of the ever-growing list of social apps to choose from, which are their favorites for keeping up with friends and brands alike? Facebook reigns supreme as the most-listed app, followed by Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook Messenger, and Pinterest.

Compared to Millennials, Gen Z students are more likely to use Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.

Social Media and College Students

Recommendations, social media and sampling tactics are top influencers.

At the end of the day, marketers want to know one thing: Which tactics will most effectively turn my prospects into customers? When asked, ‘In the past 30 days, which of the following have influenced you TO BUY a product or service?’ the top responses were:

  • 45% Recommendations from friends/classmates
  • 27% Social Media Ads
  • 26% Samples

When asked which types of ads they pay most attention to, these tactics also scored high on the list: Recommendations (46%), Social media ads (39%), Commercials (33%), Samples (32%), Blogger/YouTuber (27%), On-campus events (24%), Promotions (22%), On-campus outdoor ads (21%), Online video ads (21%) and Direct e-mail (20%).


College Student Advertising


If you’ve not yet prioritized marketing to college students, now is the perfect time to start as they gear up to head back to campus. These trends are just a few starting points to help inform your marketing strategy. Request your free copy of Refuel’s College Explorer™ for a more in-depth look at college student spending, technology ownership, media consumption and other important topics.