Marketing to Students: Poster Advertising 101

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This is another article I compiled for publication on Student-Marketing. The site is still in development and I hope to be going full steam ahead by July when second semester starts in Brisbane.

The information I’m about to present must be understood within context, otherwise you might be wondering what’s going on if you duplicate what I do and don’t get the same results. For the purpose of this article I’m going to use a business I promote, BetterEdit.com, as the primary example. I’ve been running poster advertising campaigns for BetterEdit for at least two years full time and on and off for nearly five years. The BetterEdit primary target market is university students, and within this group, the subset of international students coming from English as a second language backgrounds is the main niche. Universities are therefore one of the best, if not the best location to place posters to reach this market (well duh!).

Before you even start your poster campaign you should make an assessment of the locations you intend to advertise. If possible research statistics on the demographics you aim to target and make sure they match the university demographics. In general you are only permitted to poster very few places because local laws prohibit postering just anywhere. You can try, but chances are your poster will be removed within 24 hours or even worse, you will be fined.

Laws vary from city to city. For example, downtown Toronto Canada until recently had a fairly liberal open policy and the city is covered with posters mostly on telephone poles, public garbage bins and walls. In Toronto you can target specific demographics based on where you poster. For example you can reach professional workers by placing posters in CBD areas dense with offices and lunch time eateries. To target the Asian community do some runs at Chinatown. However no matter how much research you do the best way to get results is to take action. Put some posters out there and see what happens.

For the purposes of this article it is assumed you have an interest in reaching the university student population and this is the market you will target. This is the easiest market to reach with posters because campuses contain many poster boards.

Some of the variables to be considered when poster advertising include:

  • Time of year
  • Demographics at a university
  • Poster positioning
  • Poster market competitiveness
  • Poster design
  • What you advertise

I’m going to leave the posters design to another article and the last variable, what you are advertising, is your decision. If you consider your product or service relevant to university students then chances are a poster advertising campaign will get you some positive results.

Time of Year

This is a particularly important point when it comes to universities. Not all universities have the same timetable and there are many events that will impact the performance of your campaign. Obviously you should time a campaign to be when university semester is on, which is usually for a twelve week period two times a year. Summer semesters can be good too, but remember campus student numbers will be way down.

Within a semester you can further break down timetabling into many different periods. There is the start of the semester when nearly all students, old and new, attend the campus (this tends to thin out a little towards the middle as students drop out or choose not to attend lectures), exam blocks and study weeks when there are not as many students on campus, holiday periods, and assignment periods (assignments are generally due just before mid-semester breaks and exam blocks). The specific dates and times for all these events are available from University homepages – try the academic calendar links at our statistics page.

All that being said your best bet is still to get out there and poster everywhere. While you do this you will get a feel just by seeing how many students are out and about and what type of students they are. You can usually tell the difference between local and international students and of course staff stand out as well. Remember though you need to go back again and again before you really get a feel for something. Don’t make any concrete assumptions until you have spent at least a semester monitoring your target areas.

Demographics

This is a variable that you can assess before and during a poster campaign. You can usually obtain some stats about university demographics from public government publications. For example the Australian Department of Education, Science and Training provides statistics on previous year enrolments in universities broken down by a bunch of important variables, including institution, home country, number of international students enrolled, offshore attendances and total enrolments by university. I have found these details invaluable when choosing which universities to target because I can isolate the campuses with the highest international onshore enrolments.

You can use ‘common sense’ assumptions when travelling a campus to break down the demographics even further. For example I have two posters for BetterEdit, one that says ‘Essay Editing’ and one that says ‘Thesis Editing’. Generally theses are written by postgraduates which if you keep your eyes open you find have their own particular areas on campus like postgraduate common rooms, or areas with a lot of postgraduate offices. In these areas I place more of the ‘Thesis Editing’ posters.

You can apply this principle and break down demographics in a whole manner of ways. You can find students by discipline (faculty/subject areas) or by what a student is doing, for example, eating in food areas, studying in libraries, waiting for classes outside lecture halls or waiting for transport to and from university.

Insider tip: In my experience the large outdoor carousel poles that are covered in posters are not worthwhile for small business. For basic A4 posters I do not recommend you waste your time with them, I don’t. For large corporate business with big marketing budgets – movies, video games, food and beverage companies etc that can afford to print massive full colour glossy posters and plaster them all over the poles it can be effective. The problem is they compete for space and sometimes it only takes a few hours before a new poster takes over, then a few hours later another. That’s a lot of money to spend on very little ‘face time’.

The student thought process

I was a student once attending the University of Queensland in Brisbane. I often think back to my studying years to try and empathise with current students which helps me to better position poster campaigns. While I have no concrete facts I have intuitive assumptions I’ve made about what a student thinks about when a poster is in their field of view.

When a student is walking from class to class they are often thinking about their next destination or whatever major issue is currently bothering them (relationships, work, family etc). They often pass by poster boards and automatically screen out the input as standard “advertising” much like you might do now for commercials on TV. However when a student is waiting to enter a lecture or tutorial they can’t go anywhere, they are a captured audience and more inclined to look for stimulus to “kill time“. This is the best time when a poster can “make the pitch“. I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of pull tabs taken from posters that are placed in locations where students must wait or are stationary for long periods like refectories or bus stations. However outdoor boards that might have a lot more traffic passing by often don’t penetrate into the consciousness of the student.

A note on branding: There are countless articles on branding and small business branding too. I find this is a contentious topic, especially for small business and one that is difficult to assess the effectiveness of. How can you assess perceptions? Sure large corporations can conduct surveys and ask customers how they perceive a brand but this is still subjective data. Small businesses have even less means to assess these variables. Of course any in-depth discussion of branding is beyond the scope of this article.

You should not discount the effectiveness of branding when conducting poster campaigns. Some of the largest companies place posters that have little more than just a brand on them. It’s widely assumed by marketers that a brand loyalties that will carry through a person’s life are formed during university years and as such companies fight vigorously to be selected as the brand of choice. The long term runoff effect can make it highly lucrative. So while a poster placed in a high traffic area might not get a lot of direct responses, it can be effective at creating brand awareness to a lot of people even though direct responses may be reduced compared to other locations.

Case Study: I recently designed some posters for a new student community site called Yaz! (www.yaz.com.au). This name was deliberately selected for its branding potential. It’s short, easy to remember and unusual (cool) so has been adopted by the young student demographic. Consequently the posters designed for this campaign prominently displayed the brand name in the largest font before everything else. While BetterEdit posters promote the service (Essay Editing) and rely on direct responses from pull tabs, Yaz! posters promote the brand first and the benefits second. The effect, hopefully, is that people will remember Yaz! (as a source to trade second hand goods) when that need arrises in their future and will be able to easily find it by using Internet search (and so far my webstats show this is starting to occur).

Poster Market Competitiveness

I recently experienced an extremely competitive poster market in Toronto which has many business fighting for poster space because of the large population. Worse still there were two very significant indirect competitors to BetterEdit (essay writing services rather than just editing) that manage extensive poster campaigns over the city. It was hard to make inroads into this market and the costs were high. However despite the competitive actions of these two companies and the often little face time my posters received I still managed to turn a profit after postering for one semester at the three largest campuses in Toronto and I plan to continue when semester commences again in September.

How did I do it? Most importantly I managed my campaign which means I went back week after week and replenished my presence. I monitored how other posters were displayed and altered my display techniques using some of the advice from the top 10 poster advertising techniques article. The breadth of my campaign was also very significant. Certainly a lot of my posters were covered up, sometimes even within ten minutes, but because I placed so many posters at every possible location I could find I always had some posters enjoying face time. It’s laborious at first when you enter a campus because you must explore the entire area but once you have done your homework the benefits of in-depth campus knowledge make it worth it.

Every business should at least test a campus poster advertising campaign. The costs are minimal and the potential rewards make it well worth it. The worst case scenario is you spend a few hundred dollars on printing and a little time for minimal results. I can’t think of many other marketing techniques that allow you to test for a price that low with such a significant potential upside. Remember if you do decide to test take the process seriously. You must manage a broad, targeted, long term campaign before you can really say you have truly tested the potential. Placing your posters up once and then wondering why no one responded is not the way to go about it.

Yaro Starak
Poster Marketer

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3 Comments

  • Hey Yaro – thanks for the mention.

    What a great question: “How can you assess perceptions?”

    I suppose on a small scale, it’s not such a big task. Just ask. On a larger scale … not so easy I suppose. Asking a cross section of customers/prospective customers is about the bets you can do.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    mp

  • Yes I guess I’m dubious about assuming much when you use perception as the main gauge. It’s just soo subjective.

    However certainly by asking you can get a general indication of the perception which I guess will just have to do!

    Thanks for your comments too Michael.

    Yaro

  • Great article. We distribute flyers, posters and postcards in the San Francisco Bay Area. The campuses are extremely competitive.

    The coffee shops and laundry mats less so -but the more competitive places typically generate greater responses.

    David Alger
    Thumbtack Bugle
    MBA and Guerrilla Marketing Coach

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