Why Your Brand Needs a College Peer Influencer Marketing Program

From left: Madison Krause, Liz Cerreto, Madi Kahn and Janie Smukler

From left: Madison Krause, Liz Cerreto, Madi Kahn and Janie Smukler


By Lauren Parker

 Erase from your mind the image of the broke college kid eating Ramen noodles in the dorm and dressing in ratty school sweatshirts. Today’s fashion-savvy college kids care more about what they put on and in their bodies than ever before, and whether they’re getting money from parents, side hustles or using online no-interest payment plans (thank you AfterPay!), they’re spending. And they’re scrolling social media—all day, every day—to see what their favorite college peers are telling them to buy next.

 Recognizing the growing importance of College Influencer Marketing, PR mavens Cindy Krupp and Janie Smukler founded 28 Row, an agency that connects brands with its growing roster of student influencers. The Accessories Council recently rounded up three of 28 Rows’ “rock star” influencers to offer their insights into working with this important market segment.

First, some stats: Madison Krause, 22, pre-law at NYU, @gaptoothginger, 4,154 followers; Liz Cerreto, 22, journalism and media studies at Rutgers, @lizcerreto, 5,980 followers; and Madi Kahn, 22, visual studies and consumer psychology studies at U. Penn, @madiizk, 3,013 followers.

 Consider this your Cliff Notes study guide, especially if you haven’t been on a college campus in a while!

College is the time for brand imprinting

“When you look at college students, this is the first time these women are living outside the house and making their own purchasing decisions,” says 28 Row’s Smukler. “They can become very loyal to these brands now.” And they want to start wearing or using products that the influencers they admire use. Junior and senior year students are particularly focused on fashion, as that’s when they’re looking for internships or full-time jobs and coming into their own.

Peer influencers are not brand ambassadors

Brands like Victoria’s Secret Pink and Express have brand ambassadors on college campuses, but those are long-term, mono-brand commitments that function more like a part-time job, often requiring students to set up tables on the quad and hand out fliers. Peer influencers, on the other hand, operate mainly on Instagram, work with multiple brands (as long as they are “on brand” with their own brand!) and are usually paid per posts or multi-post project. Influencers also tend to have that more authentic cool factor that an ambassadorship can’t always buy.

Communicate clearly, but for the love of god, do not use email!

Want to contact an influencer to wear and promote your brand? Send them a direct message (DM) on Instagram (insider tip: college kids don’t check their emails). Working with a reputable college influencer agency helps too, as the agencies will vet the product and make the best match, saving everyone time and money. But be specific in what the product is, what you want them to do, and how they will be compensated. And if you insist on a lengthy email diatribe, send them a text or message through social media to check it.

Keep your pitch true to the influencer’s brand

Not only will the influencer probably not take the assignment, but the post won’t feel organic if she doesn’t support the product. “Yes, a girl might have tons of engaged followers, but if she does a post for a vegan product and then someone snaps a photo of her in a steakhouse the next weekend, I will have to do an unbelievable amount of damage control,” says Cindy Krupp, noting that college kids are incredibly socially and environmentally conscious. It’s also helpful to not just research influencers, but her followers as well, as they’re the ones you’re actually targeting for conversions.

The offer has to be worth it

Brands must remember, college kids have school commitments too, so influencer projects must be worth their time. “A big shoe brand offered three pairs of shoes to post about them, but I had to post every Wednesday at a certain time and log like 18 hours of my day, where I’m walking in their shoes, etc. It was too controlled and too much effort and they didn’t give me the freedom to allow my creativity to shine through, so I turned them down,” says Madi.

Make it reasonable…and seasonable

“We’re in the freezing cold month of the Northeast and bathing suit companies are constantly reaching out to me!” says Liz. “Unless I have a trip coming up, I’m not going to take a bathing suit job.”

They’ll find a way to buy it

Some college kids have daddy’s credit card in their Marc Jacobs wallet, others are working campus jobs to help pay for tuition. But with billions of images on Instagram to covet, they will find a way to buy what they want. Madison did a photo shoot at Barneys in exchange for free product, and after her friends saw the post, they wanted to hit Barneys to go shopping. But that’s NYU. “At Rutgers, we’re a state school so they’re not spending that much money on clothing, but they will splurge and find a way to buy what’s up and coming,” says Liz, whose sponsored product posts retail in the $100 to $300 range. Millennial focused payment program AfterPay is also driving this market, with 25% payment up front and no-interest installments every two weeks. “When I see a dress for $240, but know that my first payment is just $60, I figure why not?”

College influencers have through-the-roof engagement rates…

Don’t scoff at follower rates that fall below the standard micro-influencer tally of 10,000. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about engagement, and these girls are boasting an unheard of 20% engagement on their posts. “We have larger reaches than we realize. We’ll be out and people will yell our Instagram name to us!” says Madison, who is as known for her witty captions as for her poses. “Someone told me, ‘My cousin was sending me your posts before I even came to NYU!’” And reasonable follower numbers mean that influencers will actually respond to their queries. “Is a celebrity with a million followers going to answer me if that weight loss product really helped her lose the weight?” says Liz. “But college influencers already know many of their followers so it’s easier to give real trusted information.”

 …that continue IRL

These influencers aren’t just engaging their followers on Instagram, they’re hanging out with them 24/7 in class, at the sorority house, at the gym, at the bars, on Spring Break. So if they genuinely like and wear your brand, it’s getting an extended shelf life way past the post. “I went to Australia and two of the things I wore have like 100 posts on Instagram now because I love it and keep wearing it,” says Madison. “We’re not getting paid 15K like a major influencer might, but keep in mind they’re going to do one post then sell or give the item away. We’re going to keep wearing it.”

 #AD can be forgiven if it’s not forced

Trust is a big factor among college peer influencers, and it goes a long way with the legally required #ad hashtag. When Kylie Jenner writes #ad on a post, most people just think of the $150K she made for a product she probably doesn’t care about. “As long as my captions for a sponsored post don’t stray too much from what I’d normally write, it will still feel authentic to my followers,” says Madi.

 Sororities are a key place to start

Sorority sisters live together in a giant house for at least a year and are incredibly influenced by each other. Savvy brands might do, say, a jewelry pop-up, inside the house, which is particularly effective as the girls will shop together.

 Many campuses aren’t even near stores so students have to shop online

Keep in mind, many college campuses are in rural areas so marketers should hit them where they are, on Instagram. “My friends at Penn State just don’t have a lot of stores near them, so they have to shop online,” says Madi. “They’re on Instagram and will use their friends to connect and ask questions before buying something they see. They’ll ask about what they thought of the product, or ask about the sizing of the item.”

 Browse, save, buy 

Instagram’s new functionality that lets users save posts they like and return to them is a game changer, making window-shopping (or screen shopping if you will), much stickier. “If I pick up a flyer at a marketing table on campus, it’s pretty much going to the bottom of my backpack” says Liz. Note that a 10% off discount isn’t going to entice all that much because it pretty much just covers the shipping. And unless it’s on a really expensive product, it won’t move the needle. A code of 20-25% off should be standard.

 College ain’t what it used to be!

If you went to college pre-Instagram and your head is exploding while reading this, you’re not alone. But these savvy students are changing the game for brand marketers, so study up!

Noor Nanda