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How to advertise to students at Freshers’ 2022 and a general overview

If you work in student marketing this article is, possibly, a bit like showing your granny how to suck eggs. If not, you might find some interesting nuggets and insights in this general overview on how Freshers’ works.

What is Freshers'?

(Or Freshers or Fresher’s, no one has ever quite decided on a uniform way to type it so you will likely find all versions across media packs and online search.) It’s the period when students all return to campus in September. This is not as uniform as you might expect. Most Freshers’ Fairs take place in the last week of September up to the first week of October. Many students arrive well before this with most international students normally arriving first in early September.

Key point, if you are interested in international students, they are around first.

In all, there are around 2.5 million students in higher education at university or what we might think of as “Uni students” (according to the House of Commons Library 2020/2021). Approximately 25% of these are international students, two thirds of international students are not from the EU.

Just under 700,000 first year students started in September 2021 and this number has increased year on year since 2012.

So we can reasonably estimate that around 525,000 UK first year students will be starting university in September 2022.

Freshers' is not just one big commercial fair in a Students’ Union. It’s a period of one or more weeks where universities and unions put on a host of welcome events, club nights, introductions, etc. It’s generally an augmentation period mixed with social opportunities and, yes you guessed it, a whole lot of brands trying to reach students. And we mean A LOT! On top of this you have societies, Students’ Unions and the academic side of the Uni trying to engage students and gain sign ups for teams, groups, platforms etc.

Why Advertise to students at Freshers' and who does it work for?

The honest answer to this is that Freshers' advertising is not for everyone, but everyone wants to do it. True, this is a key period to reach students and perhaps form lifelong customers. If you run a pizza shop just down the road from campus, then yes, you probably need to advertise to Freshers', you will likely always see a Dominos at a fair if there is a franchise nearby. If your business model relies heavily on students and 18 to 24 customers, you should advertise in some way and gain attention over this period. However, it's also an extremely cluttered period. If you advertise on a tight budget or scattergun approach, are you really going to stand out against international brands giving away everything from free food to round the world holidays? In this case you might be better focussing your efforts a little later and making your campaigns stand out later in October or November when students have settled in and there is less competition for attention.

Freshers' Fairs for brands, pros and cons:

Pros: Instantly in the face of many arriving first years, chance to get feedback from students, make sales, gain customers.

Cons: Hard to get attention and need to be very clear on what you want to get from it to get a decent return. Brands tend to get good at Freshers' Fairs after 2 or so seasons and a lot of trial and error.

The author of this post has stood on many a Freshers' Fair stand trying to promote various products to students. I can tell you not all fairs are alike. There’s a huge variety and you really need to know what to expect to make the most of attending a fair. The worst thing you can do is buy a table and send two surly staff members to sit there looking bored.

Generally, branding is not so great at fairs unless you want to spend big and be the talking point of the show, by big I mean BIG, I've seen a bungee jump at a fair 😲.

What does work well is direct response, This is an instantaneous transaction, sign up for “this” and get “this”. And this really does need to be something good to stand out, like a long free trial period or a massive discount of local products or food etc. Amazon Prime is one of the best examples of this. They often give out something desirable and attainable like a free Krispy Kreme donut in return for signing up for a 6 month free subscription. "So I get a donut and I pay nothing for 6 months?" 3 years later they realise they are lifelong Prime subscribers ✅✅✅

How to make it work?

If you think about how many sign ups you need to get a ROI on the day, you really ought to be aiming for a sub 2 minute pitch or better, sign up and then on to the next student. Offering 10% off when you spend £50 on food is just not going to cut it, it will take 5 mins of chatting to get any interest. Whatever your offer is, it needs to stand out and be no-brainer value or saving with friction free sign up. If you can’t sign up quickly and you need a lot of sign ups, then attending a Freshers' Fair is probably not right for your product.

It’s worth noting here that many Freshers’ Fairs no longer allow data capture or sign up at events, check this first if that’s your main route. 📵📵

If you want to go BIG at Freshers', it’s a good idea to consider using an external student marketing agency who can help with your creative concept, book, manage and staff the events. They do this every year at scale and can really help you get the most out of it and tell you what works. Using older students to man stalls is a win win and students are far more likely to chat to them than some old suits.

Booking x20 Freshers' Fairs on your own is no small task and you may find yourself waiting a long while for confirmations from busy staff at Universities / Students’ Unions. Then you have to get to them and keep your game face on for weeks on end, likely surviving on free samples Irn Bru and Dominos…

Generally when booking fairs, it’s a good idea to also see what other media is available that can support your messaging. Students’ Unions often offer all sorts from solus emails, newspapers, sponsorships of welcome parties, team sponsorships etc. External companies like ours can also support this with advertising screens on campus and maximise your message.

When to book Freshers' Fairs?

If you are reading this now, on posting, sorry but you are most likely stuffed. If you want to do a Freshers' campaign at any kind of scale you need to start chatting to Unis around the same time as you are snacking on Easter eggs.

Where does RockBox fit into this?

RockBox has a network of advertising screens in over 100 Universities and Students’ Unions. 200+ unique locations in all if we count student halls and popular student pubs. Plus we have a great network in music venues which also have a huge student pull too. We offer a very direct way to be seen on campus in Freshers’ or any other time of year. If you are running a Freshers’ campaign, our screens can directly warm up students to your messaging or reach them after your events and drive a call to action. We can directly uplift all other touch points such as social engagement, fair sign ups and store visits. It’s a great way to maximise your overall campaign return. Or, we can run alone and provide great reach and branding to students. Got a great student offer online? We can tell them in a place they go to everyday, in their halls or in a local pub or music venue.

Does Direct Response work on RockBox advertising screens? Yes and no, it really depends on what you are advertising and what your creative is trying to achieve. We offer a space to directly reach a lot of students on campus, what you do with that space is up to you, we can tell you what we have seen work well and what might not.

Many of our clients use the screens for branding but still want direct response. If Bolt Taxis runs a branding ad, students see this and overall, if the client is tracking the campaign correctly, they should see an uplift in sales or sign ups from students vs campuses where the screens did not run. They should also see a greater response on digital campaigns from these campuses as the audience has already been “warmed up”. If you dominate a campus with branding, then you are going to see more clicks and engagement on socials which should lead to more sales and direct search.

You can get the most out of this by using contextually relevant messaging like this advert below, which ran with various artworks across London campuses. Students respond well to ads that have made an effort to connect with them. Anything you can do to personalise or "tag" a campus or city will go a long way. We do not charge extra to run different copy by location, and our design team can help you do this.

The above sounds great right, run an ad and just trust us it works? Obviously, in 2022 people want more measurable results than this. This is why we have partnered with mobile data led companies to track footfall around our screens in real time. What’s better, if it fits the campaign, we can also retarget this audience and extend the campaign to mobile devices. So we can tell you exactly how many people see your ads and we can also provide an option to deliver a direct clickable call to action.

Overall, Freshers’ is a busy busy time and it’s easy to throw money at it and get nothing back. RockBox has a team with decades of combined experience in student marketing. Feel free to reach out and we will be happy to give honest advice without just pushing our own screens (which we already know are handy!).

Don’t just take our word for it!

If you would like to chat please reach out on / 020 7907 0840


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