Reaching the cloistered few

I'm a boomer. In fact I'm a leading-edge boomer, which is a nice way of saying I'm on the older edge of boomerdom. As such I get to have boomer 'life experiences' a little before most of my boomer brethren. The most recent 'life experience' filling media pages and airwaves relates to the act of delivering the first-born to the gates of some university somewhere in this country. Surely you've read the bittersweet columns and articles about the dreaded double cohort.

I’m a boomer. In fact I’m a leading-edge boomer, which is a nice way of saying I’m on the older edge of boomerdom. As such I get to have boomer ‘life experiences’ a little before most of my boomer brethren. The most recent ‘life experience’ filling media pages and airwaves relates to the act of delivering the first-born to the gates of some university somewhere in this country. Surely you’ve read the bittersweet columns and articles about the dreaded double cohort.

We drove our daughter to McGill last month and I took the opportunity to spend a few hours touring a university campus…something I haven’t done since I graduated from Western over a quarter of a century ago.

I found myself surrounded by beautiful, young, smart 18- to 24-year-olds and I watched them deal with old and nasty university administration staff with grace. I watched them learn how to cope with all sorts of new situations with good humour. And I watched them deal with their own peers with kindness and patience. I was very impressed and a bit curious.

Are these kids still an elite minority of society? Does the university dollar investment still pay off? Are university students a valuable target group and if so, how might marketers reach them?

A university education is still the purview of the privileged few. Just under one third of 18- to 24-year-olds have the luck or the bucks or the brains to go on to college or university (PMB). A much larger proportion of high school grads move into the job market and a significant, unfortunate group immediately join the unemployment lines. Amongst all people in Canada, only 9% have a BA and only 5% have a post grad degree.

That extra, expensive education is definitely worth the thousands of dollars spent on tuition, residence, books and other fees. PMB quantifies the material benefits accruing to those who hold only a simple Bachelor’s Degree. The graduate earns more, travels more, invests more, spends more, drives fancier cars and buys nicer clothes. In some cases 50% more…in some cases 100% more than average.

I’d argue that education is the most powerful demographic characteristic separating consumer ‘haves’ from target group ‘have-nots.’ Contacts, job interviews, jobs and above-average salaries all spring from higher education.

The recently released 2002 Performance Indicators for Governance Report (University of Toronto) notes that 38% of undergraduate students come from lower income parents (under $50,000). In other words, a university education can overcome a low-income background.

Forward-thinking marketers will consider the university crowd a worthwhile subsection of their target group definition. They’ll try to reach the student now and turn them into a customer later.

But reaching them now is easier said than done.

The university and college crowd are all but invisible to mainstream marketers. When the kids go to university, they actually enter into a world beyond our world. They are cloistered geographically into residences and student ghettos. And they are cloistered in a media sense as well.

The 200-GRP-per-week TV campaign delivers little or no weight against the university student. They don’t have TV sets. The 300-GRP-per-week radio campaign delivers next to no weight against the student body. They don’t drive cars.

They don’t spend their money on newspaper and magazine subscriptions. If the ads don’t appear in the freebie urban weeklies, the students remain ‘unreached.’

Ah, but the Internet…now that’s quite a different story. At McGill, the number-one preoccupation for students was getting online as quickly as possible. All rooms in residence had high-speed connections. The McGill server had to be accessed in order to finalize course selection and class schedules. Assignments are downloaded. Research is accessed. A huge proportion of student communication occurs via e-mail, not the telephone. And most telephone communication is wireless in nature.

Once they get connected, they immediately turn their attention to getting a low cost transit pass. In Montreal, for example, $25 gets you unlimited access to the transit system for a whole month, if you’re a university student that is. No wonder students are heavy transit users.

‘Going to the movies’ is, of course, the one other distinctive media usage habit exhibited by university students. It’s a cheap, safe date.

The university phase is such a strange time in the young person’s life. For three, maybe four years, these mostly 18- to 24-year-olds leave their parents, siblings and life-long homes, and move in with their peers in geographic isolation.

As a result of their new lifestyle they fall immediately into a radical new media lifestyle isolated from the main mass media. The laptop and the cell phone are their principal channels of communication. The transit system and the movie theatre are the only vestiges from a prior media lifestyle.

Only through specially designed plans can marketers reach them. They cannot be viewed as a media target group subsection. They cannot be treated as a media afterthought.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.