Building Brand Connections Beyond Back-to-School

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How Barnes & Noble College uses digital and in-store marketing to support college students throughout their academic career.

As a new school year begins on campuses across the country, this semester is particularly significant. Colleges nationwide are welcoming Generation Z. And with that new cohort comes new attitudes and expectations of what their college experience will be like.

This group, widely described as those born as early as 1990 or as late as 2000, comes with fresh thinking about how they searched and eventually chose the college that was right for them. Their choices were informed by their attitudes and preferences as they relate to advertising and media messages, as well as how they want to engage with brands.

As the official retail partner for 751 campuses, we’ve learned some valuable lessons from students—we do live on campus with our more than 5 million of them—as well as their parents. That up-close access and opportunity to be part of their daily conversations has fueled our strategies and success. It’s also elevated our brand to be more than just a bookstore and more of an essential support system for this new generation of students.

This understanding happened very organically. Our industry is undergoing tremendous change. And as consumer behavior and preferences change, we recognize the need to better understand the motivations behind those emotional drivers and behavioral shifts. Our initial research findings were so pivotal to our strategies that they led to the creation of our own research platform, Barnes & Noble College Insights, and its Student POV (“point of view”) community, where we connect with nearly 10,000 students two to three times a week. 

Through this “voice of the student” research, we’ve learned about their hopes and fears for their college and post-college lives—both inside and outside the classroom. This insight has given us real-time visibility into how we can capture their attention and advocacy, and it’s fueled our brand positioning and customer engagement strategies in some very exciting ways.

For example, we’ve uncovered more about the emotional triggers for our incoming students and how stressful the transition to college can be for both them and their parents. We found that early outreach from their bookstore, from the moment of acceptance on, not only calmed their concerns about being prepared for class, but it also allowed us to rise above the transactional relationship and position our bookstores as a complete support system for their success.

As the official partner of the school, we are able to interact early and often with this group as they begin making decisions on their own and start forming their own brand loyalties. Our New Student Connection initiative is a fully integrated marketing program that supports the complete journey of the college student. It allows us to reach out to newly accepted students and their parents through targeted emails, social media, and student blog channels with custom created content, both from us and our brand partners. The strength of our research capabilities allows us to quickly measure and adjust the delivery of highly targeted and relevant messaging, speaking to every step of our students’ first year journey.

These early digital touch points help us drive awareness and, ultimately, their loyalty. When 80% of these students told us, in our follow-up research, that the physical store experience mattered, we brought the brand experience to life through high-energy events with record attendance, drawing crowds that circled through the student union and beyond. Our VIP Shopping events, exclusive to new students, enable student interaction with our brand partners through exclusive activities, sampling, and engagement in our stores at key milestones in their journey, such as parents’ weekend, homecoming, football games, and graduation.

These events also allow us to shine the spotlight on brands that are looking to connect authentically with the audience.  For example, last summer, we launched a national campaign for goodnessknows® snack squares that combined both effective marketing and product insight through sampling programs and events at 100 participating stores. With 720,000 samples distributed, along with live intercept surveys at key stores, our brand partner gained incredible insight into how students perceived their new type of snack. It’s the same kind of success we’ve enabled with brands as diverse as Chevrolet, Visa Checkout, and Cosmopolitan—delivering access to this crucial segment of consumers.

Our mission to support student success is in direct alignment with the mission of the higher education partners we serve. Our ability to gather deep insights on our students has helped us understand and evolve our products, services, and marketing strategies to forge a much deeper, more meaningful connection with our customers, reflective and respectful of their unique journey.  

About the author.

Lisa Malat is VP & CMO at Barnes & Noble College, a Barnes & Noble Education Inc. company. She oversees the Barnes & Noble College Insights platform, which regularly taps into its network of more than 10,000 students, parents, and faculty to better understand the thinking, behaviors, and expectations of current and future college students and other constituencies. Lisa provides strategic direction and executive oversight to our 751 campus stores in the areas of consumer and corporate marketing, learning and development, and in-store and e-commerce strategy and operational efficiencies. Prior to joining Barnes & Noble College in 1996, Lisa held several senior-level management positions at Macy’s, including roles in store operations, process re- engineering, distribution, customer service, and learning and development.

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