Campus Media Group began in 1996 as an advertising business for college newspapers. The company, just like the industry it served, has been forced to evolve over its 19-year history. Chief Operating Officer Jason Bakker has seen nearly all of the changes. Bakker started working for the company as an intern shortly after the firm (then called FuturePages) was founded by a University of Minnesota student, Tom Borgerding. Originally, the plan was to create the first-ever online publishing platform for college newspapers, but advertisers were still seeking traditional placements, like newsprint banner ads. At its peak, the company saw 86 percent of its revenue come from college paper advertising. When the digital information age arrived, it came with fury. The company struggled from 2008 to 2013, but at the beginning of 2014, revamped itself.
Q: Contrary to the common newspaper narrative, you actually started as a digital company but were forced to work in the print world for a while due to demand. What happened there?
A: Our original service was to create a template for college newspapers to use online, but the ad agencies weren't ready for online advertising. We were too early. They kept wanting a full-page ad in the newspapers. So that's when we started collecting the rates and data on all college papers across the country. At the peak, our database included nearly 2,000 newspapers nationwide.
Q: But that quickly changed. What was that experience like?
A: We saw a lot of success with college print for a lot of years. And we were the leader in college newspaper rep firms. And then we started seeing this decline, a 46 percent year-over-year decline from 2010 to 2013, and our clients just weren't asking for print anymore. They wanted digital and they wanted mobile. We knew that was coming, so we had positioned ourselves with other offerings, and we bolstered our college marketing arsenal.
Q: What's different about college campuses and how does that impact your job?
A: Campuses are not set up like Times Square. You have to get creative in where you place your messaging in order to reach students. We do take our cues from mass market media, but then we try to apply that to a campus environment. The media landscape is always changing and if that rate of change outside is faster than what's happening inside your organization, then you are dying as an agency. Marketers are typically all putting on the same toolbelt, but we are just doing it on a college campus through more pinpoint targeting, more unique media that's custom made.
Q: How are college students different today than previously?
A: I think what's different in marketing to college students now is that you can't look at them as a mass market. Obviously, there are millions and millions of them and they are all different. Brands really need to avoid a one-size-fits-all mentality. The spray and pray approach doesn't work. If you are a brand, you have to figure out what type of college student is going to be their customer and speak to them individually. College students are different depending on where you are in the country, what kind of school it is, whether it's public or private.
Q: So what does that look like in terms of tangible day-to-day operations?
A: We have a variety of cutting-edge digital and mobile targeting ads. And a lot of great, head-turning guerrilla marketing, too. Traditional, digital and guerrilla are the three that carry us right now. Those can be anything from tabling events to mobile targeting of college campuses delivering ads to phones within a certain radius of campuses.
Q: What are the keys to the hearts and minds of college students?
A: Brands need to do at least one of the following: inform by being useful, entertain or delight their customers. And if the brand can do all those things, it's pretty much like, "Shut up and take my money." The kids will respond to that.
Q: What's your position in the market like?
A: We've probably been around longer than anyone else at this point. We've seen youth marketing agencies come and go over the years, and I think we've maintained a pretty good reputation. A lot of agencies use us to market to students on behalf of their own clients without their clients knowing that we've been hired. We are kind of like the secret weapon in agencies around the country, including those here locally.
Q: What are your business directives for the coming years?
A: College students are the early adopters of technology. We have to be on top of that. They set the pace and we find opportunities to communicate with them based on what they are using. With that in mind, it's getting harder and harder to drive meaningful conversations with students. Obviously, they know they're being marketed to and they aren't anti-advertising, they just want you to be useful to them, give them something that makes them smile. If brands are doing that, they'll do really well.
One of the important changes that is happening with marketing right now is inbound marketing. It is essentially content creation to pull potential consumers in rather than creating a banner or magazine ad that is pushed on them. We will start offering inbound marketing services in 2016.