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Picture Gen Z college students and you probably won’t imagine fat wallets. It’s all ramen and thrift shops, right? 

The fact is, more than half of students earn a paycheck, and 60 percent of student spending goes to discretionary items. Even more importantly, today’s cash-strapped student is tomorrow’s financially independent consumer. 

That’s why Student Beans built a business around connecting brands with 18- to 24-year-olds through its student verification and marketing platform. The platform enables brands to securely run and promote their own student discount and loyalty programs. The company additionally offers an extensive network of global media touchpoints and conversion optimization tools to help merchants turn Gen Z shoppers into lifelong customers. 

We thought we’d tap into this wellspring of Gen Z expertise and learn about how Student Beans helps brands build relationships with students. 

Impact’s Richa Dani spoke with Chris Mockford, Head of Affiliate at Student Beans, to get the campus buzz.

Richa Dani: For those unfamiliar with Student Beans, can you tell us a little bit about what Student Beans does?

Chris Mockford: Student Beans is a technology company which offers a media service — and our ultimate mission is to empower students to thrive. Gen Z is at the heart of everything we do here at Student Beans. As your next generation of consumers, they’re loaded with potential, which is why we want to create lasting relationships between Gen Z and brands. 

Our suite of solutions helps brands to find, attract, engage, and convert verified students – and that’s just the start. Our extensive network of global media touchpoints, along with our conversion optimization tools and student insights, work to drive repeat purchases, building the habits that turn Gen Zers into lifelong customers. 

Richa: From major league baseball teams to airlines and beauty brands, the brands you partner with are remarkably diverse. Is there a common thread, or does everyone simply want a piece of this audience? How do you choose which brand partners to work with, and are there any specific partners you would love to add to your roster?

Chris: Absolutely, brands across the globe are beginning to see the true value of Gen Z consumers — and it’s not surprising, given they’re unlike any generation we’ve seen before. They’re digitally connected, financially savvy, and have more choice when it comes to shopping than ever before. As students, the older cohort is developing spending habits and brand loyalties daily, which is why so many brands are now recognizing their potential. This is where we come in. As a business with over 16 years of student marketing experience, we have expert knowledge and insights to help brands make that crucial first impression with Gen Z students. 

Ultimately, we aim to partner with brands that share our values and brands that resonate well with the Gen Z audience from the get-go, or at least have the potential to grow and thrive in that area. Of course, we’re always looking to connect more brands with student consumers. Whether you’re just starting out or have a fully established presence in the retail world, we work to create bespoke solutions that fit your business model. And our client list is ever-growing! We’re thrilled to have just recently welcomed some great names to the Student Beans family, including UberEats, NET-A-PORTER, and Starface World.

Richa: In addition to hosting brand deals on your own site, Student Beans has an affiliate publisher network. How do those relationships work and how do you manage them?

Chris: Globally we work with a number of high-quality publishers whose audiences align with our key student demographic. Student Beans acts as an exclusive gateway, allowing our publisher partners to access student discounts from the brands we work with. Our publisher partners promote these exclusive offers to their audience and then the commission is shared when a sale is generated. These are really win-win partnerships as they drive greater sales for brands, as well as become a new revenue stream for our publisher partners.

We have a separate team that is responsible for finding the right publisher partners as well as managing the ongoing relationship.

Richa: Can you tell us a bit about how your media solutions and loyalty platform work together for brands? And where the Impact platform fits into the workflow?

Chris: We use our verification solutions as a way of bringing students into our student universe,  where we have a community of over 6.5 million students. Once we get them through the door, we nurture our users with our media solutions, including content from brands that’s relevant to this unique audience. From the first step of verification, the affiliate networks facilitate the relationship with brands and Student Beans to establish lifetime loyalty. 

Richa: How do you keep control of discount offers so brands can protect their margins?

Chris: We pride ourselves on our expert technology that helps brands protect their profit margins by preventing fraudulent behavior from nonstudents. We have our own conversion optimization tool that acts just like a student card. Unlike a student card, it’s instant and secure and determines, in real time, if one of your customers is a student. We verify students wherever they shop — on your website, on our website, via app or desktop, online, or in store — and instantly give them access to an exclusive student incentive if they’re successfully verified.

This creates a ton of benefits. Brands will never lose a purchase to an unverified “student,” which means you can watch your student revenue increase with peace of mind, knowing that you’re targeting and building rapport with the Gen Z audience.

Richa: Discounts are clearly attractive to this audience while they’re in school, but what about after graduation? Do you transition them to something else to maintain engagement?

Chris: There’s no uniform way to summarize the financial situation of students. Some have a significant disposable income, others are struggling to make ends meet — and many more fall in between these two poles. As Gen Zs, though, this student cohort is financially savvy — and 91 percent will buy a discounted product over a full-priced one. Which is why offering a discount now can pay really off, not just now but for years to come.

The journey to lifelong loyalty starts with awareness-generation. Using our Gen Z-centric media suite, we capture the attention of student consumers at the start of their purchasing journey, convincing them of your brand’s value before they graduate. Once students graduate, their earning potential skyrockets, giving them even more spending power as they move through critical milestones. By this point, brand loyalties have been formed — and students take these with them past their college years. 

Richa: Student Beans powers a global network of students in over 100 countries. When Student Beans began exploring partnerships in other countries, did you face any obstacles when it came to your global expansion? What have been your biggest overall challenges and how have you overcome them? 

Chris: There are always unique challenges when expanding into different countries. One example that springs to mind is our growth within the APAC region over the last few years. During this time, Student Beans has excelled in connecting brands across this region with our extensive student user base. We saw particular success in China, which formed the basis of our international strategy last year. 

We recognized early on that the Chinese market is multifaceted, and took steps to resonate with tech brands, marketplaces, and luxury retailers alike. Through the relationships we cultivated and the research we conducted, we set up student programs for leading brands that had never before considered the global student market — including AliExpress, Huawei, and LovelyWholesale, to name just a few. 

We set China firmly within our sights with a three-pronged approach: cross-border ecommerce, marketing Chinese brands to Chinese students, and bringing international brands to the Chinese market. With this approach, we hope to continue building even more strong relationships with exceptional brands across the region. 

Richa: What shifts did you see during the pandemic in terms of what or how students were buying (other than lots of takeout!)? How did your brand partners fare as a whole, and are you seeing things getting back to normal?

Chris: I think takeout was a popular choice for many of us during the height of the pandemic, let alone hungry student consumers! What we found most interesting to learn when liaising with our student insiders was that the majority of 16- to 24-year-olds — 43 percent to be exact — spent more money during the pandemic. Thirty percent maintained their usual levels of spending while just 27 percent actually saved money. Clearly, students were looking for a pick-me-up during lockdown — a way to treat themselves while the world was turned on its head by COVID-19. As such, brands with an online presence were definitely faring better, especially during periods when physical retail was suspended. Brands within fashion, health and beauty, homewares, and fitness were some of the stronger categories. On the other hand, it’s been a tough time for other industries like travel and entertainment.

However, since the easing of restrictions we’ve definitely noticed a surge in pent-up demand among Gen Z consumers and across all retail sectors. This in turn means a lot of brands — in-store and ecommerce — have experienced a much-needed lift in sales, which is great to see. As for the remainder of the year, I think we’re set to see some more retail success across our brand partners. With big events like back to school, Black Friday, Halloween, and the gifting season approaching, the fall shopping period is certainly one to get excited about. Plus, after a year like 2020, we predict that Gen Z’s pent-up demand will continue well into the holiday season this year. 

Richa: What’s your research telling you about upcoming trends with Gen Z? What’s in store for back-to-school 2021? What kinds of content do you see resonating with 18- to 24-year-olds and getting the best results for your brand partners right now? 

Chris: We’re always keeping our finger on the pulse when it comes to Gen Z — and our recent learnings uncover some interesting insight into topics and trends that have really risen to prominence in recent months. A big concern for this demographic at the moment is climate change and sustainability. We’ve found that a huge 95 percent of students think it’s important that a brand cares about sustainability and protecting the environment — and we’re seeing more and more of our brand partners making changes in that area as a result. 

For the back-to-school season, we’re expecting this year to be bigger than ever. Last year’s back-to-school period was tough for students to say the least, but there are some positive takeaways that are set to feed into the new academic year. From speaking to college students, we’ve found that many enjoyed the hybrid model of learning and would like to see a good mix of the digital and physical on campus this year. From the social side of things, the campus buzz will be strong — and we hope to see a lot of brands taking advantage of this by getting out to activity fairs, college sports events, and anything of that nature. 

In terms of content, you really can’t go wrong with TikTok. It truly is the ultimate online community for Gen Z and we’re seeing more and more brands getting involved. TikTok resonates well with young people because it’s seen as a more authentic platform — and a safe space for Gen Z digital natives who enjoy absorbing cool and quirky content. It’s ever-growing popularity among young consumers has also seen the platform develop into a place for shopping inspiration. #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt is a rapidly growing trend that brands need to get involved with.

Richa: What advice or best practices would you offer brands for using paid social and sponsored content to reach consumers in this demographic? Is a different strategy required for these digital natives?

Chris: It’s important to know on which social platforms you’ll find the most Gen Zers. When it comes to the social media platforms used most often by Gen Z students, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok secure the top three spots, while YouTube is collectively used by the most Gen Zers. Gen Z is a generation of content creators, so visual platforms are by far the best place for brands to engage with this consumer cohort. 

When it comes to social media ads, we’ve learned that the majority of students (57 percent) think Instagram has the best ads, followed by TikTok and YouTube. Interestingly, college students are more likely to choose Instagram while high school students are more likely to respond well to TikTok and Snapchat. So it’s a good idea to expand your presence across a range of platforms to achieve the best levels of engagement. 

When thinking about your strategy, authenticity should be at the helm. Ninety-five percent of 16- to -24-year-olds think it’s important that a brand is authentic, so implementing your own tone of voice, a level of transparency, and relatable content is key. Micro-influencers are a great way to build up Gen Z engagement — as long as they align well with your brand. 

Richa: Finally, what are some of the biggest takeaways you’ve learned from partnerships and what are some predictions you have for Student Beans in the future? 

Chris: We’re growing at a rapid pace here at Student Beans. We’ve secured fantastic partnerships over the last 16 years as a business, which have really fueled our ambitions to expand internally with new hires across the business and globally with our brand partners. We’ve recently announced the launch of our In-app Connect function — a new way for brands to verify Gen Z students within their app ecosystem — and we look forward to seeing how that progresses in the coming months. Plus, we have more exciting things on the roadmap, including our ambassador partnerships kicking off this fall (watch this space!).  

Ultimately, we will be continuing our mission to empower students to thrive because at Student Beans, students come first. We know we can get brands to a point where they can welcome this new audience, and we look forward to building more partnerships and welcoming more brands to the Student Beans family in the future. 

Impact can connect you with great partners like Student Beans and audiences of all ages. Just reach out to a growth technologist at grow@impact.com

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