On-Line Marketers Target Students

By Gainer, Sarah | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

On-Line Marketers Target Students


Gainer, Sarah, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Jordan Weitz may not learn much about marketing as an English major, but as a college student he certainly knows about the buying patterns of one group - his own.

About a year ago, VarsityBooks.com, an on-line college textbook seller looking for grass-roots marketing help, hired Mr. Weitz to court his peers. At first it was just about books, but now he is selling other students on everything from office supplies to magazines.

Mr. Weitz, a junior at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is part of a segment that companies salivate to win over - the college demographic.

VarsityBooks sees him as the perfect man to help them figure out what, when, how and why students buy. Mr. Weitz, who is interning this summer at the Washington headquarters of parent-company Varsity Group Inc., is one of thousands of students recruited by the marketing company to help harness the fleeting attention of their peers.

Mr. Weitz said he is learning some skills that could help him find work if the market for English majors runs dry in a few years.

"You're actually doing something which you can use out there in the real world," he said.

Varsity Group is the latest entrant in a field of specialty-marketing firms that are using a combination of Internet technology and youthful energy to tap the lucrative college market. Other companies - like Boston-based Student Advantage Inc. and Snyder Communications, the communications marketing firm and owned by Daniel M. Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins - also have staked a claim in this arena, where spending patterns are heavily influenced by peer groups and word of mouth.

College students spend more than $100 billion annually on goods and services, making them a huge target for marketers, said Jonathan Kaplan, Varsity Group vice president.

"Too many companies market down to college students and that's wrong," Mr. Kaplan said. "We treat college students like the adult consumers they are and that's incredibly important."

But it's not just the money they spend that makes college students valuable targets for marketers. College-age consumers, 18-to-24-year-olds, are trendsetters for other groups.

"They are taste-makers; in the case of music, film, and entertainment brands and services, they can help market a brand," said Patrick Keane, director of on-line marketing for Jupiter Communications, an on-line research firm. Marketers also say college students - because of their age - are forming brand loyalties that often last a lifetime.

NEW MISSION

VarsityBooks.com was founded in 1997 by Eric Kuhn, then a 27-year-old who was pursuing a legal career. He wanted to provide goods and services to college students efficiently and cheaply, so he started a Web site to do just that.

Until June, VarsityBooks.com was focused primarily on convincing students to get out of their university bookstores and go on line to buy textbooks. The Web site is one of the most frequently visited by college students, posting more than 1 million individual viewers in January.

Like most booksellers, on line or off line, VarsityBooks.com quickly discovered that profit margins are low, and company executives decided they needed to expand the business to generate cash flow.

Still, getting the attention of so many students so quickly is no small feat, and the company decided to begin selling its marketing prowess to others. In June VarsityBooks.com officially changed its name to Varsity Group Inc. to reflect its new focus on marketing.

Mr. Kaplan called his company's transition a "natural evolution" because the business of selling books involves a great deal of marketing.

Varsity Group's new mission is to bridge a gap for major companies that have never before specifically tried to reach the market or are unsure of how to successfully corner it. …

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