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How to Market to the Parents of College Students

By collegemktgrp | March 16, 2020 | Brands/Advertisers

College students in America have a combined spending power of over $400 billion. Each year, they spend about $60 billion on everyday perks like dorm essentials, school supplies, food, and video games (okay, maybe not strictly necessities).

Where do students get their spending money? A good chunk of it comes from their parents.

Over half of students who get an allowance from their parents receive about $2,000 a year — that’s $17 billion a year. And students are mostly spending this allowance on non-essentials like eating out, drinks, snack foods, and alcohol.

Then there’s the money that college parents spend on their university students. Back-to-school spending alone for college amounts to close to $50 billion every summer!

For brands trying to connect with college students, those numbers are a powerful reminder of the importance of connecting with their parents.

Why Is It Important to Understand Parents in College Marketing?

There are a few ways that parents influence the spending habits of their children:

1. Giving them money

Parents who have more money may be more likely to give more to their students. In general, wealthier parents means college students with more discretionary spending money.

2. Through their own habits

80% of college students get their spending habits from their parents. Students tend to use credit cards in the same ways, prioritize spending on similar categories, etc. Understanding how parents spend their money can give an insight into how their children will spend theirs.

3. Shopping with them:

When it comes to relatively big ticket items like dorm furniture, TVs, and cars, parents are more likely to shop with their college students to either provide advice and suggestions, and/or purchase the item for their student. A parent in this situation is just as much the customer as the college student themselves.

Marketing to College Students’ Parents: A How-To Guide

Integrating parents into your college marketing strategy can be an effective way to boost sales. But how do you take the leap from understanding them to marketing to them?

From retargeting ads and segmented emails to organic content and on-campus marketing, here are our top 5 tips for marketing to college students’ parents.

Target Parents with Ads

On online advertising platforms like Facebook or Google, there are different ways to target likely parents of college students.

About 70% of parents use Facebook regularly, and Google is the go-to search engine for all age groups, so these platforms are both good starting points for targeting parents.

Start by targeting parents age 35 and up of adult children age 17-22 years old (this is just an example age range, you can experiment with your own). Since 70% of high school graduates go to college, you can bet that a majority of those parents’ kids are in or planning to attend college.

You can further narrow your targeting by parents who like a certain school. It’s not guaranteed their child is attending that school, but it’s likely.

Another option is to use liquid assets data. Parents of college students are generally less likely to have a huge amount of cash wealth in their bank accounts. After all, they just finished raising children for the last 18 years, and now they’re likely paying for their student’s education.

By targeting parents of college age children — who have an interest in a certain school and under say $100k in liquid assets on hand — you can narrow in on people who likely have a child in college at the moment.

Further options to help you target parents include:

Lookalike audiences

  • If you have data on the parents who have shopped with you before, you can instruct Facebook to show your ad to a lookalike audience, aka people who share many of the same attributes as your customer base.


  • Show your ads to people who have visited your site before but did not complete a purchase.
  • By using a Pixel on the URL of a specific landing page or blog tailored to the parents of college students (e.g., “How to Deal with Becoming an Empty Nester” or a graduation gift guide), you can retarget the people who spend time on those pages.
  • Those people are highly likely to be parents of university students.

Household Extension

  • This allows you to retarget any device in the household of someone who visited your site.
  • Say a high school grad is checking out your products on their smartphone. With Household Extension, you can show ads for that same product to their parents.
  • When the student brings up this certain thing they really need for their dorm, their parents have already been exposed to it.

Tailor Emails to Parents

Email is a free and effective way to get in front of parents and stay in touch throughout the buyer journey. When it comes to parents, you need to have a plan for getting them on your email list, and segmenting them so you can send targeted emails.

A good way to do this is to offer a unique lead magnet like a graduation gift guide or a dorm essentials guide. This could also be a special discount code that parents can use to buy your product or service for their student.

Another option is to ask a short, optional question in your email sign-up form, like “Do you have children currently attending college?”

From here, you can send educational, enriching content to engage and build brand trust with parents. It may take some trial and error (or A/B testing) to figure out the kind of content they respond to, but aim for email subject lines, headers, images, video, and CTAs that speak directly to parents’ interests, concerns, and pain points.

Pro tip: You can use the email addresses of parents to retarget them wherever they are on the web. You can even track parents who open your emails or click on the links, and further segment your audience into “engaged” parents for more effective retargeting.

Write Parent-Specific Copy

Just like with any persona, your parent-specific content needs to speak directly to their challenges and interests. Whether it’s an ad on Facebook, a video on YouTube, your emails, or any other piece of content, if it’s intended for parents, you need to speak to them.

Appeal to their love of their children: “Product X will help your college student sleep better, eat healthier, get higher grades…”

Once you’ve reminded them how much they care about their college students, convert them with a parent-centric CTA that illustrates how your product or service will help their student. Your approach to this will totally depend on what it is you’re selling, but you can package your product or service in a way that makes it easy for parents to send a little love to their students. Offer discounts, care packages, and subscription services they can purchase for their student.

Build Trust with Quality, Organic Content

Organic content like blogs, photos and video are important to building trust with parents.

Think of this as top-of-funnel content, meant to raise brand awareness and build trust in your authority in your industry. This content will bring you leads that you can retarget to hopefully land more conversions.

Some parents respond to and share content that is helpful, like tips and gift guides. Others are more likely to engage with entertaining content, like witty memes, funny cartoons, and quotes. It may be a wise approach to provide a variety of content to connect with more parents.

Get On Campus During Move-In Weekend


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Most parents help their students move into the dorm. It’s the parents who shell out cash on food, furniture, electronics, and more.

This is your chance to get your product in front of them with on-campus marketing.

On move-in day, plan to set up booths at universities, with free giveaways, contests, and experiences like a photo booth or interactive game. It’s also a chance for you to collect emails and get more social media follows.

You can do this however you like: use a paper sign-up or a laptop or tablet, offer free swag in exchange for follows and emails, etc. Just remember, when you get those emails, include a question to segment parents into a separate group for later targeting.

You can also use old-fashioned print materials on campus, like posters and flyers, to spread the word about your brand.

Find more tips on marketing during move-in day and Welcome Weekend here »

Get Help Marketing to College Parents


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All of the above is maybe a bit easier said than done. And if it’s not your area of expertise, college marketing may feel overwhelming.

That’s why College Marketing Group was founded. We have decades of experience in connecting brands and advertisers with college students and their parents.

If you want to reach this valuable demographic but aren’t sure how to get started, we can help. Contact us today to learn more »

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