Reflecting on our student study, as our 100 Freshers graduate
Two years ago we concluded our year-long qualitative research study following 100 students through their first year of university. Through conversations, video diaries, photos and questionnaires, our recruits documented their life as a Fresher, resulting in some significant findings for the brands who seek to connect with them.
This week the majority of our students graduated, and we took some time to recontact them, to reflect on the 10 learnings we made back in 2016.
1. Start early
As Freshers, our students explained how thinking about life at uni begins from the moment A-level results are announced. In terms of planning, shopping and seeking advice, late August and early September are critical, meaning that the brands who wait until Fresher’s week are missing a trick. At PrettyGreen we recognise the value in recruiting students early, with A-level results day being a key moment for communication.
2. Acknowledge practical needs
Only 32% of the students we surveyed had regularly cooked for themselves before university, while just 14% had regularly done their own laundry. The practical needs of students are well recognised, yet many brands only choose to engage with the student social scene. As graduates, our students reinforced that the practical needs never go away, so the brands that can offer a real-world helping hand will be greatly appreciated.
3. It’s not all about Freshers’ Week
Between sorting out their NUS cards, getting registered at the library, signing up to the clubs and societies available, making small talk, drinking and unpacking, our Freshers explained just how little time is left for brands during Freshers’ Week. Now, nearly 3 years on, our graduates talk of how it is the longer term activations which have made an impact – the classic brand ambassador schemes and tried and tested NUS discounts have brought students back to brands time and again.
4. Students settle in fast
Whilst the freshers we questioned felt that the first week at uni was a very long one, by week two, a huge 87% claimed to feel “completely at home” in their new surroundings. Therefore brands seeking to aid the settling in process must be aware that this period is brief! As graduates, our students are barely able to remember that ‘lost feeling’ of joining and told us that being treated like a seasoned student, vs. singled out as a lonely joiner was what they were after, even in their first term.
5. A mid term opportunity
Our initial study found that a significant need arises around the middle of the first term, when 30% of the students we spoke to experienced delayed homesickness. Be it due to food supplies from home running out, money dwindling or the reality of work setting in, late October and early November were a point where brands could make a difference. Our activation for GiffGaff, offering free haircuts, capitalised on the mid-term moment, offering something of genuine value at precisely the moment it was needed.
6. Reconciling old and new lives
Within the intense new world of university, our Freshers told us how their school friendships became temporarily displaced, with many feeling they were living two lives. This emotional space of helping students reconcile their old and new worlds (be it family, friendships or partners) remains a potential untapped space where brands could help. As graduates, our students were able to reflect on the enduring nature of this issue, with 80% having kept the their ‘two lives’ largely separate throughout university.
7. Regressing for the holidays
Whatever the break, leaving university is bittersweet. Home comforts are appreciated, but most students have mixed feeling about going home, even for a holiday. The greatest irritation of the returning students, throughout their university career, was being made to conform to old rules. Having experienced independence, home life can seem to stand frustratingly still. The rich opportunities for brands that acknowledge the needs of students as they head back home, as well as during term time, will be operating in a powerful space.
8. The importance of campus culture
Each university has its own strong culture which is deeply nuanced – from nights out, to campus food, sports team rituals to internal lingo, brands can easily get it wrong by taking a generic approach to their communication. For the brands wanting to develop deeper connections, selecting which universities to work with and researching well is critical. Our students talked about the ‘cringe factor’ of brands trying to talk peer to peer when they just don’t ‘get it’. Developing relationships with students ‘on the inside’ (e.g. as ambassadors) will have immense value.
9. Summer gets (a bit more) serious
From Freshers to postgraduates, the summer is an academic push with a unique sense of pressure. This, however, is immediately followed by the end of term filled with celebrations and partying, as the students get ready to say goodbye for an extensive summer break up of to 13 weeks. Rooms are generally emptied, or student houses cleared, leading to melancholic moments. Our graduates reinforced that brands can gain relevance by acknowledging the end-of-an-era feeling for students that occurs as year one draws to a close.
10. The enduring influence of home
For most students, relationships with parents flourished rather than faltered during their time away. Many parent/child relationships move through an important transition when university starts and there is great potential for the home/family relationship to progress to a new level, revealing greater influence from home than many brands imagine.
As we concluded back in 2016, University life is a rich and fertile ground for marketing, but it has to be played correctly. From shifting emotional and practical needs to the nuances of student culture, there are huge rewards for the brands who take the time to make credible connections, and a pile of wasted budgets for those who don’t!