Millions of college students went back to school this fall and are no longer having their needs met through traditional on-campus housing. This is why off-campus student housing is a booming business. The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that by 2025, total undergraduate enrollment will reach 19.8 million students, with an additional 3.5 million students pursuing graduate degrees. So, the market’s there and growing, with investors vying for the chance to get in on the action. But once in, how can you set yourself apart from the competition and get the most out of your college housing experience?
There’s no real textbook answer, but Nelson Brothers may have found the winning formula for success in this evolving niche. In only two years, the company has grown 275 percent and houses more than 7,000 students in nearly 40 properties across 13 states. “Students are setting trends in fashion, social media, and tech. To market to them, you have to be ahead of the curve,” says Patrick Nelson, Nelson Brothers CEO. “What’s cool to us might be old news to them.” Here are five secrets Nelson Brothers has discovered that can boost your success.
- Give gifts!
Millennials, just like everyone else, like a freebie. But millennials are more interested in feeling out the culture of an organization bidding for their attention. This tech-savvy generation can shop the internet at lightning speed for whatever goods strike their fancy, but a virtual tour just doesn’t cut it when it comes down to selecting something as personal as a living space.
“Lots of people do giveaways. But we did this different,” Nelson says. “Instead of giving you an awesome gift, we’ll give you a cool gift if you even just take a tour. That’s when you do Stance socks.” This clothing label is popular among millennials for its salute to the spirit of individualism, a core millennial motivation.
- Keep on giving—and help employees and startups.
Building your reputation as an “it” student housing community involves more than the promise of cool gifts. Genuine generosity goes a long way, especially when it engenders positive impact on a greater community level. “We reached out to employees. One created a line of clothing called Foxtrot that he was trying to get off the ground. We gave him an order of 10,000, and got Foxtrot circulating from Oregon to Arizona,” Nelson says.
Demonstrating a true interest in offering young people awesome opportunities gives them a sense of belonging to something bigger and greater than themselves, another millennial value. One thing millennials don’t like is to be sold to. What better way to convey an altruistic ideal and the essence of your company than helping launch young entrepreneurs?
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- Be a trendsetter.
When it comes to millennials, any product or service they consume has to be cooler, better, and more attractive than anything else in the market. Nelson says, “You have to stay ahead of the marketing curve, even in being the coolest.” For Nelson Brothers, this meant implementing using geotargeting, a method of micro-marketing based on a search querent’s location. “If someone near a certain university where we have a presence searches ‘student housing’ on Instagram, for example, a story will come up, one that is designed to be a real story that carries some weight and not just a run-of-the-mill ad.”
- Launch a viral video campaign.
Nothing grabs millennials’ attention quicker than a video spreading like wildfire on the web. With the right concept, something quirky and funny but not over-the-top, you might strike Internet gold. Nelson Brothers did just that with their grandma campaign: videos featuring a quirky grandmother listing off all the reasons she hates the company (i.e., positives like being so affordable and close to campus that her grandchildren don’t want to live in her basement). “She’s the most interesting mascot in the world, and the series has gotten over a million views. Nobody gets that in student housing,” says Nelson.
- Start early and build a brand with incoming students.
“Building your reputation and solid brand recognition at the high school level is a huge advantage,” Nelson says. Getting your brand out there in connection with your student housing community is a big deal when it comes to the scrupulous millennials. Finding ways to gain exposure at the high school level can be as simple as handing out cool, useful gimmes at job fairs, or more inventive campaign-based approaches—“Is that the grandma from the viral videos I see holding a Nelson Brothers protest rally at the championship game?”—are the trick to winning a sliver of mental space in the average millennial’s mind.
With so many incoming college students and accelerated growth in an increasingly competitive housing market, creative marketing is key. By appealing to your target demographic in their language, showing you’re up to speed on their values and needs, you’ll earn the street cred you need to kick your competition to the curb.