How to Win Over the Back-to-College Crowd

Learn how to attract college students to your small business when it’s back-to-school time.
Students gravitate to freebie tactics, which creates a cycle of peer-to-peer marketing. (Photo:

If you live near one of the 5,300 colleges in the U.S., chances are you’re about to experience an influx of students in your town. And this is good news, because of one simple equation: More students in town = more customers in your business = increased revenue.

But getting the students from their dorm rooms to your business is not exactly that simple. You need a little expert guidance. Here are five ways you can attract college students to your small business.

Offer freebies

We all love free stuff, but college students really, really love free stuff. If you offer freebies like food, samples and swag at your business, you will create a word-of-mouth cycle that will reap rewards for you and ensure a lucrative year.

Related: How Even Small Businesses Can Offer a College Scholarship

“Sixty-three percent of students gravitate to tactics that involve free food, free samples and swag items/premiums,” said Melvin Coronado, director of consumer insights and research at Refuel Agency. “These items are within the Top 5 ad types – alongside social and peer recommendations – that have caught their attention in the past school year.”

Citing the company’s most recent survey, the 2018 College Explorer, Coronado said that as a result of these Top 5 freebie offerings, 41 percent of students go on to research the brand or product further, and 1 in 3 mention the brand to their friends and family.

“This creates the cycle of peer-to-peer marketing, which keeps students actively engaged with the brand,” Coronado said.

Be expressive and interactive on social media

Since expressive communication is part of the social fabric of Generation Z – the age bracket of most college students – you’re going to want to be social media savvy not just from an advertising perspective, but from an interactive perspective, too.

“Gen Z students are typically resistant to marketing that doesn’t allow active participation,” Coronado said. “They expect brands and retailers to have a social presence. Ads and branded content should help students express who they are, not tell them who they need to be.”

So, don’t just fill your Instagram page with photos, specials and offers. Interact with your followers; give them a chance to get to know you, as a person. That way, when they think about stopping in, it’ll be as comfortable and natural as visiting a friend.

Related: How Restaurants Can Market to Gen Z

Offer free Wi-Fi


College students will spend more time at your small business if Wi-Fi is available, and around 50 percent of customers spend more money as well. (Photo: Stay_Positive/Shutterstock)

It sounds like a no-brainer, but if it was, every business would offer free Wi-Fi. And they don’t, for several reasons: they don’t want to pay for it; they don’t think they’ll have enough foot traffic to justify the expense; or they don’t want customers staying for hours and not buying anything.

Well, guess what? Do it anyway – especially in a college town. Steven Scheck of Inspire WiFi, a network provider for the multifamily, hospitality and healthcare industries, says customers are bound to stay longer if they can remain connected. And by and large, they’re not just hanging around, taking up space; as many as 62 percent of businesses pointed out that the customers spend more time in their facility or shop if Wi-Fi access is offered, and around 50 percent of customers spend more money as well.

“We live in the age of smartphones,” Scheck said. “So providing free Wi-Fi can provide a significant advantage over others.”

Post flyers around campus

It sounds very low-tech and maybe a little old-fashioned, but guess what? College students still love flyers, and college campuses still have plenty of places to post them. Furthermore, while they’re loading and unloading boxes and walking back and forth from their dorm room to Mom or Dad’s car, there are plenty of spots you can post flyers to catch their tired eyes.

“This strategy is pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work,” said Amy Daniels of storEDGE, a marketing company for storage facility owners. “Create professional-grade flyers and post them in university offices, dorm room lounges and hangouts around the university (with permission, of course).”


To win the hearts of college kids, make sure you have an engaging and interactive social media strategy and offer student discounts. (Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock)

Offer student discounts

Consider offering a discount to college students who present their student IDs or making it part of your e-commerce. Why? Because that’s what students are looking for, and they’re much more likely to spend their money with you if you have one.

In a study of 400 college students conducted by digital verification platform SheerID, 64 percent of college students said they want to receive emails about student discounts; 55 percent said that stores should post their student discounts prominently on their websites; and 82 percent said a 20 percent discount will get their attention.

Related: Why Your Restaurant Should Offer Student Discounts

And … don’t forget to greet customers with a sincere, heartfelt “welcome back!”

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