Target’s Online Video Campaign to Turn College Kids into Lifelong Paying Customers

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Why did Target stream video for four days of hip personalities living in a fake dorm on a set in Los Angeles? Enticing college kids into decorating their dorms with Target merchandise is only part of the answer.

For retailers like Target, the back-to-school period is enormously important. The National Retail Federation reports that back to school is the second biggest season for consumer shopping (the Christmas winter holiday season ranks first, of course). The CEO of JC Penney described the back-to-school period as “our Olympics.” Understandably, stores have been rolling out back-to-school promotions earlier and earlier to try to beat out the competition and get the attention of shoppers first.

In some ways, though, the importance of the back-to-school period transcends mere sales rung up on registers during the few weeks before school starts. That’s because of who is calling the shots during this season: kids and young adults who have the potential of turning into lifelong customers.

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While parents make most of the buying decisions (OK, at least some of the decisions) for younger children, kids who are heading off to college generally have a different level of control over back-to-school purchasing. And because one’s first experience with new levels of buying power and freedom is guaranteed to make a memorable impression on students who are going off to college for the first time, the stakes are higher for retailers trying to connect specifically to the back-to-college crowd. These retailers aren’t just trying to sell some merchandise in the short term. They’re hoping to create bonds that’ll keep these consumers as fans of the brand for decades to come.

“It’s really important for us to build that relationship with these future guests early on,” Rick Gomez, senior vice president of marketing, said to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “If you get them into Target and understand the brand and what we have to offer, we can create guests for life.”

Gomez’s comments were prompted by the topic of Bullseye University, a curious marketing experiment that took place last week, in which Target streamed video for four days of five YouTube personalities hanging out in a fake dorm designed and decorated by Target. As AdAge reported, the campaign is directly aimed at college-age millennials, who everyone knows are comfortable in the digital space. The interactive “dorm” was created on a set in Los Angeles, and anyone could send messages to the five “students”—people like Chester See and “Meekakitty,” who have their own YouTube channels (and their own followers). Consumers could shop online by clicking on merchandise on their screens.

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Target will also introduced Live Dorm Rooms in August and September on five college campuses around the U.S.: “freestanding, glass-enclosed structures will be occupied by a student and fully furnished with products from Target,” as the retailer describes them.

Target seems to be going to the trouble of such an unusual and extensive marketing campaign at least partially because studies have shown that millennials don’t react like older people to traditional marketing. Instead, millennials can tune out old-fashioned TV and print ads (if they even read print), or perhaps even mock or be turned off traditional marketing techniques. Carol Spieckerman, president of the Newmarketbuilders consulting, told the Star-Tribune that she found the Bullseye University to be “a little disjointed.”

That may not necessarily be a bad thing when trying to connect to college kids. The streaming video certainly doesn’t come off as slick or blatant marketing, so it’s possibly perceived as somehow more authentic than a regular old TV ad. Incorporating hip YouTube characters who have become popular for being cool and genuine helps the effort as well. And notice above that Target is reluctant to refer to millennials as customers or even “consumers,” using the term “guests” instead.

Target has put a lot of time and effort into creating products that’ll get a good response from the millennials—who are probably the most heavily studied consumer demographic in history. “We spend a lot of time looking at how they behave,” said Target’s Gomez, discussing Bullseye University with USA Today in early July:

Among things Target learned: College students often eat standing up. So Target designed a plate with a lip that prevents spilling. And because they also like drinking their cereal and ramen noodles out of the bowl, Target designed a big one with a handle.

“That shows how Target is trying to understand the Millennials,” he says.

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Again, Target doesn’t just want to understand this group: It wants to win them over in a big way right now, with the hope that one day they’ll be bringing their kids to Target for back-to-school shopping.