How has the pandemic changed campus marketing?

What are brands doing to reach college students during the pandemic who may not be on campus?

What is the best way to market to students in 2020?

COVID health and safety restrictions have required brands to change their on-campus marketing strategies in seven main ways. Before the pandemic, most brands encouraged socially interactive strategies to engage students, particularly in-person events. Now, successful brands have learned to capitalize on the fact that students’ lives have moved almost entirely online.

Many of the tactics we will focus on in this article omit the need for person-to-person contact, but try to maintain the social aspect of college marketing.


#1 Sampling

Handing out product samples was once the gold standard of college marketing. Brand ambassadors would hand out samples at campus-sponsored events or host their own events where students could try out products.

With COVID changing everyone’s behaviors, traditional sampling is no longer a safe practice. Some brands have adapted to the changing environment and found ways to safely sample their products. For example, Campus Commandos developed a solution: replace ambassadors with vending machines.

Students now enter their contact information into a vending machine and receive a free sample along with a coupon to purchase a full-size product.

Not only is the vending machine a safer way to distribute samples, your company is able to remotely collect students’ contact information to allow for more targeted marketing efforts!

Virtual events are another solution to the sampling problem. Brand ambassadors can organize events using videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom to promote products to their peers safely.

Again, by requiring registration to get the link to the virtual event, your company gets student emails for additional marketing.

What about the samples? Your brand ambassadors can mail them out to attendees!


#2 Student Ambassador Training

Before 2020, you trained brand ambassadors at your company’s headquarters.

There was a lot of in-person interaction and ways to provide engaging training to your students. Now, the amount of in-person interaction from past years’ trainings is unsafe. But how do you engage students virtually?

Be creative and find ways to provide thoughtful interaction points throughout the onboarding process.

Victoria’s Secret PINK sent each of their trainees a bag for each day of training. Each bag contained an agenda, free branded gifts, and items the trainees would use throughout that day.

The brand worked hard to make training feel innovative and connected through the use of virtual events that might otherwise be held in-person, such as a tea-making class and group yoga.

The good news? Virtual training proved to be equally as effective as in-person training, but at a fraction of the cost. Virtual training is here to stay.


#3 Application Process for Online Ambassador Programs

How could the hiring process change? Online influencers are beginning to approach brands, instead of the other way around.

Influencers see the value in working with brands and want to pick which ones they work with.

In prior years, brands would approach influencers or post an opening for a brand ambassador. Now, influencers are seeking out these opportunities themselves and you should pay attention.

Influencers evaluate brands based on two primary factors:

  • Their online presence – social media and website
  • Perks companies offer to influencers, such as travel, pay, and access to free product

You must now consider how your brand’s projection attracts influencers in addition to customers.

Some brands have fully embraced this change and have created a hashtag to use for recruitment. For example, E.L.F. created #beautyscape. Influencers add this hashtag to their social media posts and E.L.F.’s team will review posts and contact influencers with information on how to proceed.


#4 Digital Footprint

How can you recruit the best employees?

Pay attention to their digital footprint, particularly now that students’ lives are lived almost entirely online. Although the term “digital footprint” often has a negative connotation, companies are beginning to see the benefits of a more curated online life.

Students who post regularly on social media leave a wealth of information for potential employers to review. Those that maintain professionalism while posting and enjoy a large following are often excellent choices for brands to partner with.

An example of a brand in the real world using this approach is Ghost Protein Powder. Ghost uses the Campus Commandos App to search students’ Instagram posts location tagged from campus recreation
centers. The students whose posts show high engagement are now on Ghost’s radar for recruitment opportunities.


#5 Welcome Week Events

What is the best way to market to college students? At one time, the answer would have been during in- person events such as Welcome Week.

Now, many of those events have been canceled or moved online, forcing brands to innovate while still offering valuable digital content. Here are some ideas of digital content other brands have created:

  • Advise students how to interview via Zoom
  • Offer self-care tips, such as a meditation guide or advice from a therapist
  • Provide information on registering to vote
  • Deliver interactive DIY projects students can do in their home alongside a brand representative
  • Create digital content related to your product/service that will drive interest to your brand
  • Run a contest on social media, awarding the winner with a coupon or free product

Not all innovative college marketing needs to be done online in these times. One airline worked with a college’s student housing association to sell care packages to parents that would be sent to students. The care packages include information about the airline’s internship program.

Welcome Week during a pandemic can still be a worthwhile marketing opportunity if you are creative.


#6 Innovation

How do you expand your brand’s reach while in a pandemic?

How can you ensure the future success of your company?

Now is a good time to research opportunities you may never have considered before. Focus on marketing activities you have heard are gaining an audience, popularity, and profit.

One example of an innovative pairing is food delivery and eSports. A popular food delivery service worked with eSports to poll the audience of online broadcasts to decide what commentators should eat for lunch. The winning item was delivered, live on air, along with a discount on a future order to everyone who voted.

Innovation can come in many forms, but the main point is that this is an opportunity to work on your business. Brands that fail to innovate will not make it.


#7 Mobile First

What is the best way to connect with college students?

Their phones! Throughout the pandemic, phones have been a lifeline to maintaining any sense of normalcy for college students. Brands that have effective and engaging mobile apps are doing well with the college demographic.

Young people expect brand connection to be seamless and natural, and for that to feel authentic, it needs to happen through their phones.

Some examples of brands using mobile apps to connect with college students are:

  • Victoria’s Secret – PINK Nation
  • Under Armour – Map My Run, Map My Walk, My Fitness App
  • JBL Audio – JBL Party Box, SoundSteer, My Headphones

Producing a good quality app can take years of research and planning. Brands that don’t already have an app are behind without the luxury of time to catch up.

Campus Commandos offers an app that companies can use and customize for their needs.

A few of the companies using Campus Commandos’ app are:

  • Coca Cola
  • Pimco
  • Vitamin Water

Companies with an engaging mobile app will be most successful in their attempts to market to college students.

student content creators

Final Thoughts on How the Pandemic Changed College Marketing in 2020

These were seven ways college marketing changed in 2020. The pandemic and the accompanying health and safety restrictions forced companies to innovate to continue reaching college students during this time.

Most innovation required online solutions, making brands’ and students’ digital footprints more important than ever. Some trends will stay beyond the pandemic, such as virtual interviewing and onboarding as well as the use of mobile apps for marketing.

Remember, guidance and circumstances are always changing so make sure you have a strategy to ride this tidal wave. If you need help with creating a marketing plan, customizing a mobile app, or have questions about any of these points, please reach out to us at


Who is Campus Commandos?

Our college marketing agency functions to serve two purposes; to provide opportunity for college students, and to market products and services on behalf of brands to students on college campuses and universities across the United States. Contact us to learn more.