Capturing the College Market in 2013

Capturing the College Market in 2013
Group of College Students Enjoying a GroupRaise Meal Supporting an Awesome Cause.

Google ‘how to market a restaurant,’ and you will be bombarded with articles and blogs that hail social media as the almighty marketing tool. The powerful word of mouth and brand development opportunities offered by social media are highly valuable for restaurateurs, especially to lure members of the influential millennial generation. Simply running a Facebook page or Twitter feed is not enough to market to this generation online. Restaurateurs must first develop a firm understanding of what influences millennials.

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, refers to the 80 million Americans who are between 17 and 35 years old. College-aged millennials in particular are avid social media users and are undoubtedly at the center of current restaurant industry trends. They also represent a large proportion of your employees, which makes it even more critical to understand what will engage and influence them.

According to research carried out by the Boston Consulting Group and ad agency Barkley, this consumer demographic is defined as technology-reliant, socially conscious, and heavily influenced by their peers. They are also far less likely to remain loyal to the same brand as previous generations. So how should these traits influence your restaurant’s marketing activities?

Monitor Your Online Reviews

Millennials are very self-expressive and feel that their opinions should be heard. They have a profound need to document and share their experiences online, both with friends and strangers. More than half of the college students next door will go to sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon – which almost act as Wikipedia for restaurants nowadays – to read about your restaurant before planning their visit. Pay close attention to what your customers are saying on these sites about the quality of food, service of wait staff, and overall experience on these sites, along with what they are telling you directly via your restaurant’s Facebook page.

Avoid Offering Heavy Discounts Online

A common sentiment of millennial consumers can be summarized as, “I am 100% loyal to my brands but reserve the right to cheat on them.” Restaurants mistakenly use discount sites in an attempt to attract new customers instead of connecting with existing ones to maintain their loyalty. While attracting new customers through discounts may seem necessary given this generation’s lack of loyalty, this logic is flawed. Even if a customer loves the food, they might not return to the restaurant because it’s hard to pay double what they paid for the same meal two weeks ago when there is a new deal already waiting in their inbox. These coupon sites also drive competitors to slash prices in response, prompting low margins for the entire industry on the race to the bottom.

Support a Social Cause

Interestingly, though they are the most avid discount seekers, college students are extremely willing to pay extra for a product or service to support a cause that they believe in. They view their purchasing decisions as an expression of their values, and thus are more inclined to dine at a restaurant that engages in socially responsible activities. While previous generations prefer to donate to social causes directly, millennials prefer to play a more participative role in fundraising campaigns, treating it as a social experience. They especially like to share their fundraising activities and passion for causes with their social media contacts in part because it has the potential to raise other’s opinions of them.

As such, restaurants should leverage their philanthropic activities to build a strong brand with college students. Hosting and donating to customers’ fundraising campaigns is one such way for restaurants to do so. Hundreds of leading independent restaurants and chains have embraced this technique by donating 15% to 50% of their sales to causes selected by their customers through the rapidly growing Through this website, student groups and nonprofits around the nation get connected to community-minded local restaurants and participate in micro-fundraising for the selected charity of their choice by simply dining out with friends and family.

While donating a portion of sales from a large table may sound expensive and similar to offering heavy discounts, it actually boosts profits and customer retention in the long run. Since customers know that a portion of what they pay will be going to charity, they are more likely to order more food and spend more than they otherwise would. According to,  71% of these fundraising groups who dine at participating restaurants spend more than the average customer on their meal, with 96% intending to return for another meal. This practice also enables customers to pay full price for their meals without expecting discounts and allows you to promote your restaurant’s charitable involvement to friends and family via social media. In contrast to cheapening your restaurant’s brand with discounts, supporting your customers’ fundraising activities builds a positive brand image among millennials, while also giving back to the community.

Building a lasting relationship with college-aged customers can be tough, but utilizing social outlets like to support their causes is a surefire way to do just that.