As little as a decade ago, the idea of marketing to students in a consistent and strategic way would have seemed laughable. As Paul Russell, publisher of student magazine Fresh Direction, says: “Nine years ago, advertisers would hear the word ‘student’ and immediately define them all as peace activists with no money and no brand loyalty.”
The media through which this marketing-unfriendly bunch could be reached looked equally down-at-heel. Professionally published magazines for students didn’t exist; indeed magazines for the youth market were still in their infancy. And magazines by students, produced on campus by student unions, often looked tatty and flimsy, suffering from lack of colour and an over- reliance on photocopying machines.
A number of changes in recent years have conspired to turn this situation around. Perhaps most significantly, the development of desktop publishing has meant small operations can produce good quality magazines fairly cost-effectively. This is particularly significant for campus magazines which usually suffer from a chronic shortage of funds.
Amanda Dodson is editor of The Voice, the magazine of De Montfort University. She says: “Since the advent of desktop publishing, we have been able to produce a better looking paper with colour on the front, back and centre pages, better pictures and a more designed look. People are more impressed with The Voice now than they were a couple of years ago. And we are getting a better quality of advertising: local bars, clothing and record shops and even some national ads from the likes of Tesco, the banks, British Rail and large retail chains. The ads pay for about one third of the paper and we intend to increase revenue significantly.”
There are also more students than ever before in higher education, and perceptions have shifted since all the old polytechnics became universities.
“Advertisers have re-evaluated the student market after years of people like me haranguing them about its potential. This has a knock-on effect. Once one advertiser is on board others will follow,” says Russell.
This change of view is, in part, due to commercialisation. Russell says: “The efforts of individual colleges have to be self-financing now. Everyone has a clearer business sense. For example, ten years ago local breweries might have put in a couple of thousand pounds and said ‘have a good year’. Now all those local breweries have been taken over and their advertising is centralised. It’s all much tighter commercially.”
There has also been a boom in professionally published magazines for students. “Over the past few years, increasing numbers of professional publishers have decided they want to position themselves in a single publication with a wide distribution and access to lots of students. You only have to look in Brad and you’ll see hundreds of magazines that claim to have a tie-in with students. These include one-off publications like the Time Out Student Guide, spin-offs such as the student magazine The Guardian produces three times a year, and a host of regionally distributed dedicated magazines for students,” adds Russell.
Debby Cowen is market development manager at The Telegraph Group, which has worked hard in recent years to rid itself of its musty, older-reader image and to promote greater links with students. She says: “The student sector is an interesting one. A lot of companies see it as a lucrative market and many of the student magazines claim they are the best way to reach that market. On principle, we give most a try through advertising or promotions.
“It is easier to buy space in the professional magazines with a big distribution. The various campus magazines have no centralised buying office, unlike the student radio station network, which does. Nevertheless, campus mags are often just as good as the others, and we do get involved with them too.”
There are many impressive success stories in the world of professional student magazine publishing, but perhaps the boldest is the story of Raise, the only national, profit-making publication targeted at students. Raise was launched last year and is published twice each term. With a print run of 100,000, it is distributed in 73 university campuses nationally and in 33 Virgin Megastores. It is positioned as a general, lifestyle magazine with a slant towards art and design.
Its regular “Brit Young Things” feature provides a showcase for young talent, and its next issue features an interview with youth icon Chris Morris, presenter of TV’s Brass Eye.
Raise advertising and marketing manager Grant Parker says: “When Raise started it was hard to persuade people to advertise. They heard it was free and for students and immediately assumed it would be a tatty give-away, like the magazines people distribute at tube stations.
“Once we got into the agencies and were able to show them how well designed it is, they began to show an interest. We have got Coca-Cola, Beck’s and Levi’s, who never normally advertise in this kind of thing, and also things like the CK Be covermounts, which will be on the next issue.”
Fresh Direction is another striking success story. Established in 1990, it has a print run of 50,000 and is distributed in universities and other venues like bars, clubs and record shops in the London area. Russell adds: “We have always sold ourselves as a premium product. The only competition when we started was from the Time Out Student Guide, but rather than going after all their advertisers we went after our own.
“Instead of going for the local night-clubs, bars and theatres, we had, alongside features on food and confectionery, ads for snacks, frozen food and pasta.
“We didn’t do any research, we just pointed out to advertisers that many students are not used to shopping or cooking and certainly can’t afford take-aways every night. We have done promotions with the most unlikely people, and sampled a range of products from Fisherman’s Friends to Tabasco sauce.”
Even the NUS has opened up to the benefits of commercial enterprise. NUS Services, an established consortium owned 25 per cent by the NUS and 75 per cent by local student unions, has begun to focus its efforts on marketing and promotional activity.
It now produces the Sub bag and mag, a thrice-yearly magazine and sample bag containing discount vouchers and a range of sample items from soft drinks and shampoos to confectionery and alcohol. Now in its third year, the mag and bag goes to 350,000 of the UK’s 1.6 million students.
It is largely the drive and determination of magazines like Raise and Fresh Direction, and the handful of others like them, that has pushed many mainstream clients to get involved with student publications as a starting point for more committed student promotions.
London’s Capital Radio, for example, has a mutually beneficial agreement with Fresh Direction. Capital gets its logo on the magazine and on all of its correspondence, and writes the first three pages of the issue. The publication gets airtime on Capital to promote itself, which Russell estimates is worth about 80,000 to 100,000.
Virgin Our Price has run a student discount promotion for two years. It focuses on a discount card which students can use to get money off Virgin music store products.
Simon Dornan, Virgin Our Price local marketing and PR manager, says: “All our marketing is targeted to youth, and originally we didn’t see students, who form ten per cent of that market, as a separate entity. When we realised we could tap into them with a discount-based promotion, we initially ran the promotion in store. However, we found that where stores had, on their own initiative, made local contact with student magazines we really saw the benefits.
The Telegraph is involved with Fresh Direction; from occasional advertising to the sponsorship of the magazine’s regular sports section and the joint running of a roadshow, which will visit 28 Freshers Fayres this September. The paper has been cultivating a younger profile for a while and, to that end, does a lot of promotional work. It sells to students for just 15p.
Indeed, the Telegraph is so convinced of the power of student publications it has decided to produce one of its own.
Says Cowen: “We are looking at a student supplement this September. The other publications we are involved with promote our student activities but our supplement will give people a taste of the paper and what we are about.”
Clearly the student magazine market is poised for growth. Its success is a testament to the power of niche marketing, the benefits of desktop publishing and the personal drive of a handful of far-sighted individuals who saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it.