How to Target College Students on Facebook

Analysis of “Targeting College Students on Facebook? How to Stop Wasting Your Money”


Ever since Web 2.0 hit the mainstream, social media sites have been the trending topic on everyone’s lips. Whether it was joining one, starting one, or using one for commercial purposes, these burgeoning outlets for online communication have been at the center of, and arguably the catalyst for, one of the most exciting times for mediated interaction. Therefore, it is undoubtedly worthwhile and interesting to study the personal interaction on these networks. However, in recent years, as it became increasingly clear that social media networking was here to stay, businesses have begun to get involved as well. And so, a new academic and commercial interest was born: social media marketing.

Social media marketing is the process of using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to build brand awareness, equity, and interact with current and potential customers. These brands create pages, content, and campaigns centered almost solely on generating online buzz and eliciting user engagement. Many companies pour hours of effort and exorbitant amounts of money into their social media advertising efforts. However, who’s to say it is all worth it in the end? All advertising or marketing campaigns, whether online or offline, can be measured by the same thing: return on investment. Regardless of the specific goals of the campaign (i.e. brand awareness vs. directly resulting purchases), ROI can be defined as whether a campaign has achieved its goal(s), and if this achievement was worth the company’s spend.

For years, companies have been pouring resources into social media advertising without any real proof that it was contributing to their business. In addition, many companies use this medium specifically to target the ‘dream market’ of college students. In 2012, Hemant C. Sashittal, Rajendran Sriramachandramurthy, and Monica Hodis did a study that begged this exact question: Is Facebook an effective advertising medium to reach the college-age “alienated spectator?” And if not, how can a brand’s current online strategies be adapted to better reach this audience, and establish a stronger brand-user relationship? The answers that they found, and the advice that they are giving to businesses, are likely not something these businesses would like to hear.

To conduct this study, titled “Targeting College Students on Facebook? How to Stop Wasting Your Money,” the authors collected data from their students, as all three are professors at business schools throughout the country. The study was broken out into 2 stages. In the first stage, five college-level courses taught by a co-author were split into 2-25 student focus groups per class. While one co-author questioned the focus groups about time spent on Facebook and motivations for having a profile and going onto the site, another co-author transcribed notes on the sentiments the groups expressed. In this stage, the authors were looking to draw out common themes they saw surface among these users. The second stage was an open-ended online survey administered to a different co-author’s classes. The survey, which was emailed to 93 students, asked, “Tell me a little bit about why you use Facebook and the role you think Facebook plays in your life.” Of the 93 student solicited, 42 females and 27 males responded, a 60%/39% split, responded. These students’ responses were used as examples to reinforce the themes that were identified from stage 1.

After analyzing all of the data from the first stage, and compiling real life examples from the second stage, the authors drew a few different conclusions. The first of these was that the college demographic “accesses Facebook not just to connect with familiar people on their own terms but also to indulge in their voyeuristic, narcissistic, and exhibitionist tendencies” (Sashittal et al, 496). Those who engage with Facebook to spy on others’ lives do so because Facebook is a low-risk, high-control medium. They are able to log on, and while avoiding any face-to-face interaction, “catch themselves up” on others’ day-to-day activities. “Narcissistic and exhibitionist tendencies” are thus classified as high-intensity users, and they utilize Facebook in a much more proactive way than those seeking a low-risk, high-control medium. Exhibitionists use Facebook as a platform for self-branding. They post images and statuses, share links, as well as complete other actions all to curate a very specific image of themself. In this way, they are projecting the exact version of themself that they want their friends and followers to see. This means that these users are also selective, and consciously exclude things as well. Narcissists use Facebook as “MeTV” (498). These people (and there are one or two in every network the authors claim) use Facebook as their own personal soapbox. They are able to broadcast what they believe to others that, in theory, believe they are important enough to listen to. In addition, they are also able to “seek validation to increase their own perceptions of self worth” (499). Thus, they satisfy an “inner narcissistic” need by posting their own thoughts, and an external one by receiving validation.

The second finding in this study was that this segment of Facebook users tend to multitask when browsing the internet and, in particular, when on Facebook. This means that users are “easily distracted and pay less attention,” and “are less likely to use Facebook to engage in product-related searches” (501). This means that the users in this segment that log onto Facebook, log on with specific goals in mind. These goals, coupled with the employment of severe multi-tasking, render the user completely distracted and nearly completely unable and unwilling to devote “cognitive energy” towards marketing schemes that brands generate. In fact, “not one of the participants reported buying a product or service as a result of seeing an ad or promotion on Facebook” (499).

In addition, the users who are classified as ‘Exhibitionists’ and ‘Narcissists’ actively compete with brands for attention. Those in a network with a Narcissist are much more likely to allow emotional involvement to “suspend disbelief” in regards to the Narcissist’s posts. The same people who believe what the Narcissists broadcast on the MeTV are also more likely to view brands’ attempts to market to them as “intrusive and irrelevant” due to the lack of emotional connection when compared directly to a Narcissist’s posts.

When asked their view on Facebook advertising, the three terms the participants used were, “stale, low credibility, and inordinately opportunistic” (500). Stale refers to the students’ observations that the advertising content was usually not much more than links to company Facebook pages or existing ads from different media outlets. In other words, companies didn’t think to design a new campaign for social media, and thought the users wouldn’t notice. This aligns with the next term the students used, “low credibility.” Many ads on Facebook, especially in the ad placements in the right rail of the page, offer up deals that are too good to be true, and often times are. These ads try to use click-bait lines to lure in unsuspecting users. This undermines any credibility the brand had with users by trying to mislead them—they are now noted as untrustworthy. The last term “inordinately opportunistic” also highlights this eye-rolling transparency for many users. The ads that fall under this category shamelessly use users’ information provided to Facebook to obviously target them in various ways. The example the authors give is that one participant changed her relationship status to ‘engaged’ and immediately began receiving bridal product advertisements.

Although the authors did not note this, it is clear that all three of these terms seem to have one common thread. This is that they all insult the intelligence of the audience. They assume that the transparent, old-fashioned marketing ploys they have been employing for years will go unnoticed with this new audience and on this new platform, which is just not the case. And this assumption, for a narcissistic audience, is a reason to disregard future advertising ventures. It is all of these points that allow the authors to draw their main overall conclusion: that Facebook advertising to college students is wasting resources and is mostly useless. However, not all is lost. With these findings, the authors have been able to make recommendations to enable advertisers to use the space to their best of their ability.

The authors suggest that to reach college students on Facebook, they should tailor their ads in accordance to the motivations of the users. These ads should appeal to the voyeur, the exhibitionist, the brander, and the narcissist. If it is not about the user, it is not interesting. Rather than taking a cheaper route and simply transferring ads for TV and print and posting them on their Facebook page, marketers should make specialized campaigns.

Effective Facebook ads will foster user-centered interaction, engage users emotionally and viscerally, and contain content that is co-created with narcissists. Students go on Facebook to comment, like, and view content that is relevant to their lives. Using one or all of the above criteria will catch the attention of this new generation of alienated spectators. These ads should be user-centered rather than the traditional brand-centered ads. With this in mind, marketers should be wary of the cynicism and shrewd ability of users to identify empty solicitations for feedback. One example of this happening was when The Gap used Facebook as a vehicle to announce the change in their logo. This marketing attempt ended in an adverse reaction of 200,000 angry comments from 30,000 users. The Gap should have utilized the interactive nature of Facebook and asked users what they thought of a logo change rather than just posting it.

Gap Logo

Engaging users emotionally and viscerally is important to get the attention of users who are multi-tasking. Users are not looking to learn information about a product but rather satisfy their voyeuristic tendencies. Like ads that are more visually focused rather than text-based, marketers need to appeal to the emotions of the user. A successful example of this is the Burger King “Whopper Sacrifice” ad which asked users to delete ten of their friends to get a free burger. It attracted users who were narcissists, branders, and voyeurs who were able to participate in this titillating and dramatic activity. With 82,000 participants, this ad understood that users wanted to engage socially and visibly when logging on to Facebook.

Whopper Sacrifice


Co-creating Facebook content with narcissists is important because the authors suggest they are leaders among social networks. Ads created around social trends like planking or owling provide an outlet for self-expression and to give narcissists and opportunity to show off to thei community. An example of a successful marketing campaign that engaged narcissists is a Corona Light campaign in which users who ‘liked’ the official page were featured on a billboard in Times Square. After users did this, Corona then offered the opportunity for users to post their billboard feature on their own profile page – both promoting the brand and themselves.


Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 9.48.03 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 9.48.12 PM

The findings of the authors suggest that we are in the midst of a new creative revolution. Traditional ads on new media don’t reach audiences the way marketers want them to. Young people are media savvy and many ads on Facebook don’t acknowledge this. This generation is keen to the old ploys of advertisers and therefore disregard ads that do not change with the times. this is not to say that this group is unreachable – the success of certain campaigns can attest to this. They are still willing and excited to consume ads, but the ads need to offer something they have not before. Social media has changed the way people consume media so ads need to change with these new behaviors. Consumers are more interested in social activities that feed their narcissism rather than just consuming content. In a more fragmented world where it is more difficult to mobilize a large group of people, a different approach is required. Interactive ads that are centered on user’s narcissistic motivations will be the most successful on social media. Advertisers’ work needs to serve these motivations rather than just placing traditional ads on social media. This is perhaps why lifestyle marketing still remains so successful, they are transformative rather than informative. Ads on Facebook can take it a step further and work with users to participate in these ads.


Sashittal, Hemmet C., Rajendran Sriramachandramurthy, and Monica Hodis. “Targeting College Students on Facebook? How to Stop Wasting Your Money.” Business Horizons 55 (2012): 495-507. SciVerse ScienceDirect. Web. 7 May 2014.

-CL & JF



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