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By Danny Glenwright

Proceed with caution this shopping season: advertisers are updating their tactics, and they’re geared at you.

The days of distributing coupons on campus, posting ads in classrooms and paying big bucks for newspaper and TV space are over, giving way to new, interactive marketing campaigns. Technology gifts, such as the new Xbox 360, iPods and satellite radio, are must-haves this holiday season, and demographer David Foot, author of the Canadian bestseller, Boom, Bust & Echo, says smart retailers are adapting their methods to better target students. In fact, about 50 per cent of advertisers’ marketing budget is geared towards attracting students. Text messaging to your cell phone and web-based ads are new marketing techniques used to shift away from one-way communication to an interactive “dialogue” between advertisers and students.

Online quizzes, surveys and contests are a few ways students are drawn into Internet-based marketing and these methods are proving to be increasingly lucrative. “The younger you are, the more likely you are to use the latest technology,” says Foot. “Students are challenging the traditional guys at the top to think more broadly and for the next five years it will be a growing market.” Melissa Elin, 22, a third-year food and nutrition student, says that while she finds many interactive ads time consuming, she admits she knows she is susceptible to advertising.

And considering the fact that students have spending power in the billions of dollars, it’s not surprising that advertisers are fighting for them so fiercely. Marketing specialists say the ordinary student budget looks like this: food, 32 per cent; debt, 18 per cent; automobile, 13 per cent; clothing, eight per cent; telephone, six per cent; and other, 23 per cent. It is the latter figure, in the area of 20-30 per cent, that retailers and advertisers are honing in on. One of this year’s most successful ad campaigns in Canada was Future Shop’s Ultimate Dorm Room Challenge.

Recently in Toronto — in a classic example of interactive advertising — six students were locked in a railway carriage for five days in Dundas Square. The container was outfitted with the latest technologies and the students communicated with the outside world via Internet blogs, chatting daily about a bevy of challenges and contests they participated in to win the ultimate prize: the complete dorm room and all the goodies inside.

“It was very successful,” says Pam Saunders, the communications specialist for Future Shop Canada. “It generated a lot of media attention and a lot of people looked at it online.” Saunders says the success of the dorm room challenge was a wake-up call for Future Shop communications, forcing the company to enter the era of interactive marketing. “Students know and read more about technologies than anyone else and therefore they’re easier to market to if you do it right,” she says. Future Shop and its sister company, Best Buy, now have interactive websites that allow holiday shoppers to easily find student-friendly gifts. Whole sections of their sites have been devoted to products students typically purchase. “We’ve defined who you are shopping for (this holiday season) and said, ‘let us tell you what to buy for students,'” said Saunders.

But Foot thinks most advertising methods have changed so quickly that many retailers haven’t caught on, leaving the door open for a select few companies to fill a growing niche aimed at university students, what he calls the echo generation, or children of the baby-boomers. Dawn Baxter, president of Alternate Source Advertising, admits it took her company a few years to realize trends were changing and after noticing students weren’t using the traditional campus coupon books, she switched her company’s methods to focus on web-based campaigns. “(The student market) is huge, quite honestly, on the grand scale,” says Baxter.

“These are the kids that are going to reshape the world and there is a lot of advertising geared to them now because in a few years they will be running the show.” Some retailers are even teaming up, hoping to draw shoppers into a website for one reason and keep them for another, according to advertising and retail specialist Dean Cowell. “Typically a college or university student is reasonably hard to reach because the feeling is that they are more advertising aware,” he says.

“To reach this group, you’ve got to become part of their lifestyle.” More than half of a person’s annual gift budget is spent during the holidays, and retailers know that many students are likely to shop for gifts in places they shop for themselves. Interactive and website marketing is not only cheaper than traditional methods, it also makes it easier for retailers to capitalize on this type of overlap shopping. And Cowell, who has been involved with developing advertising plans for brands such as Caramilk and Philadelphia Cream Cheese, says the interactive advertising medium has only just begun.

“Kids aren’t interested in print ads anymore, they’re moving fast and furious and you have to hit them where they’re going to be,” she says. “I think the new age technology is something that corporations and retailers have to incorporate into their ads to get the attention of students.”

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