Under the skin of the undergrad

The annual rant that A-levels and GCSEs are too easy is once again in full swing. Many critics argue the education system is failing, and CBI director-general Richard Lambert has lambasted the Government over school-leavers’ academic abilities

Students are playing a leading role in the youth market, their Web-centred lifestyles forming the pattern that the rest of the market will follow. The challenge is to make a mark on this savvy group of consumers

The annual rant that A-levels and GCSEs are too easy is once again in full swing. Many critics argue the education system is failing, and CBI director-general Richard Lambert has lambasted the Government over school-leavers’ academic abilities and the repercussions for prospective employers.

But the fact remains that last year, 44% of 18-year-olds went to university. Research from youth marketing agency Face offers a window into student lives and paints a different picture of students to that of the stereotypes so loved by the media. Entrepreneurial and confident with a lifestyle fuelled by and utterly dependent on technology; relatively disenchanted with mainstream politics but interested in “issues”; independent but not overly selfish with a surprising level of altruism; optimistic about their own future but concerned about the planet, according to the results of the study.

Whether it’s for socialising, keeping in touch with friends and family, building new relationships, or for entertainment, work, study and shopping – this student generation lives and breathes technology. It does not support their culture, it is their culture: 60% of students say the internet belongs to their generation.

This year, 70% of students spent more time online than last year and 83% of them say technology makes their life better, with an almost total reliance on the Web as a research tool. This is understandable given that most of them have converted to broadband: over 95% access the internet via broadband (up from 82% last year) and over a third are using wireless hardware.

Even when it comes to managing finances, the internet dominates, with 60% of students banking online and 27% saying they do all their shopping via the Web. The sectors attracting most of their cash are alcohol, clothes, mobile phones, CDs/DVDs and tickets for events/leisure.

The research from Face shows evidence of some key developments, and students are leading two important trends within the wider youth market. The first is their rejection of mainstream media – an overwhelming 74% of students would rather lose their television than their computer. This isn’t that surprising when you look at the amount of time they spend in front of their laptops (and two-thirds of them have one): a weekly average of 23 hours online compared with 17 hours watching TV. Newspapers fare badly too: more than half of students expect to buy newspapers less frequently and even more of them source news online.

Secondly, students lead the way in social networking. With 51% of undergraduates having logged onto a social networking site “in the past week” (up from 34% at the same time a year ago), they are driving this social phenomenon, which until recently was dominated by US networking sites. For instance, last week the first British social networking site specifically for UK students was launched. Called Univillage, it enables students to connect with each other even before they arrive on campus, and allows them to create profiles, share music, photos and videos. Initial take-up has been impressive – a 62% response rate to the launch campaign so far.

The importance of technology in terms of maintaining friendships goes even further: 75% of students consider the internet important in maintaining relationships, with nearly 73% of them using MSN every day. If making friends online is now the norm for students, it won’t be long before this extends to meeting partners or even “sexual relations” – 18% of them say they have met a long-term partner online and 25% say they have had “sex” in an online environment.

This has two important implications for youth marketers. First: for youth marketing strategies to be more effective, marketers need to understand better the influence students can have in the broader youth market. When TV and press dominated, it was easy for marketers to ignore students as a specific group and run generic “youth” campaigns. But young people’s and especially students’ growing preference for consuming media digitally, together with their desire for more personalisation, means brands need to segment their campaigns more than ever before.

The second implication is that students are not only a large and growing section of the youth market but also a distinct community who spend as much as their non-student peers in almost every category. Brands that focus on word-of-mouth marketing can quickly achieve a “social epidemic” with this lucrative market. With an average starting salary of &£23,000 and the potential to earn almost double the income of a non-graduate over their lifetime it is becoming impossible to ignore them.

The challenge facing marketers is to harness this hugely influential group of consumers and adapt to the way they live their lives. They are already two steps ahead of most marketers and brands.

Andrew Needham, managing director of Face, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

These findings are predictable and support our research on the increasing time spent online. Community networking appeals to a need for a sense of belonging. Univillage has tapped into a rich vein of interest in online communities. Generalist sites like these can be successful for connecting people on a basic level. New communities will soon appear, revolving the “passion” in young people’s lives. We’ve seen it in MySpace with music, Joga.com with football, and so on. Youngsters will graze general sites – but they invest real time in areas they are passionate about. Brands usually have a particular area of expertise, focus and interest, and can match it around these passions. The brand can provide the forum around its message. That means real research opportunities and real connections. Brands as the new media owners? We think so.

Laura Sirett, head of research, Dubit

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