Campus Commandos’ Adam Grant on Marketing to College Students

If you’re a certified geezer like I am (let’s say Generation X and older), then you have likely run into a brick wall when trying, at some point, to communicate with a Millennial.

My big communication breakdown moment happened last spring, when my second cousin Tyler turned 16. He had exactly zero interest in rushing down to the DMV to get his license and head out on the road, finally free. I think I was waiting outside the doors of the DMV before it even opened on my 16th birthday all those years ago. We went around and around about it and finally had to agree to disagree on the importance of controlling one’s personal mobility.

As my generation has slipped into middle age, often reluctantly, the new crop of twentysomethings, nurtured by the glow of LED screens, is ready to claim its chance to reconfigure the world. Even though I never thought of myself as being out of touch, that conversation with Tyler forced me to do some math (old enough to be his mother) and admit I might not be fluent in youthspeak anymore. We olds don’t need to fear Millennials, though—we just need to learn how to communicate with them.

It’s no surprise, then, that a cottage industry has sprung up around marketing to this younger demographic using tools they inherently understand, like social media. Facebook and Twitter have changed everything when it comes to tastemaking, and tech companies are trying to cash in by creating tools that bridge the gap between the old way of advertising and the new way. We recently updated readers on one such Detroit company, Quikly, and now there’s another Detroit company, also part of the Bizdom accelerator, called Campus Commandos, that is also attempting to crack the nut of marketing to young people.

Instead of moving the pitch entirely over to Facebook and mobile devices like Quikly has done, Campus Commandos has refined the old-school student reps model. “Our campus reps are pretty stealth—they don’t walk around with [identifying] T-shirts,” explains CEO Adam Grant. “The key to communicating with college students is, how will it add value? Students want to learn from their peers.”

In other words, as the old saying goes, they don’t trust anyone over 40, so the student reps blend in to the degree that it might not be immediately clear that they’re paid to push brands and products.

Grant says the first big test of the Campus Commando model occurred when the company struck a deal with HP to try to increase the number of calculators sold to incoming freshmen. Grant and his team tinkered with the messaging and realized the old material wasn’t resonating with students at all. So they reframed the calculators as “the only approved cheating tool” allowed in exams, unleashed a team of campus reps to infiltrate orientation, and eventually achieved a 60 percent increase in online sales of two different models of HP calculators.

They also embarked on road trips with eBay during the last month of spring semester, when everyone is moving out and throwing perfectly good stuff into dumpsters because they’re overwhelmed with exams and relocating. Campus Commandos reps would pull up in a car to apartment buildings in the midst of all this moving activity and explain to the residents how to sell their stuff on eBay. “With eBay, there was no magic formula,” Grant says. “It was more doing research and having the network available to test it.”

Grant says Campus Commandos, which has a full-time staff of four and reps on hundreds of campuses nationwide, will run traditional and social media campaigns for brands, and will even get brands into classrooms. The company is the first startup incubated at Bizdom to earn enough revenue to pay back Bizdom’s investment.

Grant says Campus Commandos’ next project is a mobile app that builds on the company’s network of student reps and activates them when companies need to recruit for internships or events. Say an organization wanted to connect with students to help carry out a successful campus event. The Campus Commando app would have a database of students with their skill sets pre-identified ready to match with the event tasks that need to be completed. “Honestly, it’s probably the future of youth advertising,” Grant adds.

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