Make The Grade: Dos and Don’ts Of Marketing To Students
Summer means backyard barbeques, swimming pools, and vacations. For self-storage facilities located in college towns, or within the three- to five-mile radius of a college or university, it could also mean marketing to a specific demographic and selling those smaller units.
However, there is a key to marketing to college students. “First of all, it’s important if you’re really full and stable, there’s really no need to market to students,” says Carol Mixon, president of SkilCheck Services in Tucson, Ariz. “But if you’re in lease-up, or if you’re marketing mid-school year in the winter, when business fluctuates during the winter, it can help you fill those empty units.”
If your facility is in lease-up, in an area where the market is softening, or you’re wanting to fill smaller units during the short term in the winter, conventional marketing tricks probably won’t work as well on students.
Nevertheless, you first must decide if the short-term rental is worth it.
Does It Make Sense?
Most facilities will only market to students if they want to fill space that can’t be filled by longer term renters. Beau Agnello, senior vice president at Pogoda Companies, based in Farmington Hills, Mich., says his company has several properties in college towns or within a short distance of a college or university. “We have two facilities near the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor,” says Agnello. “Students are typically good renters, but they’re not worth all the work. Someone once told me renting to students is like eating pistachios; they’re good but a lot of work for little return.”
Agnello explains that is because students typically only stay for short durations, either one to two months during the winter break or, at the most, three to four months over summer break. “They have the lowest lifetime value of any customer,” he says. “We’re happy to get students, but we don’t actively pursue them.”
Lifetime value is typically calculated by taking the average length of stay per customer. Your software can calculate this, or you can count every customer who has rented for the past year and note the length of stay in days. Divide the days they stayed by the number of customers, which will give you the average stay in days. Divide that number by 12, which will give you the average number in months.
Next, you want to find your average unit price, which is calculated dividing the gross potential of your facility by the number of units. Finally, multiply the average price by average stay, which gives you the lifetime value of the customer.
Agnello uses an example of a typical customer having a lifetime value of $15,000. He says that can drop to around $2,000 for students. “Really, if your facility isn’t in lease-up, once you rent to a student, you’ve lost the opportunity to have someone who may have stayed longer in the unit,” says Agnello. “From a labor standpoint, it costs the same to rent to a short-term customer as it does to a long-term customer. Our goal is to have a more stable tenant base.”
Agnello adds that even if they have vacant smaller units, they always know the key dates for college, such as semester endings, graduation, and when school lets out for summer. “We will discount those units before the college students come, as we would rather have longer term renters,” says Agnello. “We try to fill up by the time school is out.”
This strategy helps Pogoda’s facilities not be as volatile or dependent on student rentals to achieve income goals for the year.
Marketing Strategies For Student Tenants
Inevitably, you’re going to get some students, especially if you have a large facility in a college town. Here are some strategies to help maximize the average lifetime value:
Turn off SpareFoot and aggregators. M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga., says to make sure you know the college schedule and turn these services off when it’s time for them to hit. “The fees will eat up your profits,” says Ballard. “If you do use these services during peak college rental times, realize you’re going to have to pay the fees.” Agnello notes that you can use SpareFoot and aggregators for larger units, which students typically do not need.
Do not offer specials. Ballard advises against offering move-in specials during peak college rental times. Instead, she says, they offer packages on certain units, such as 5-by-5 and/or 5-by-10, that include the rent, administration fees, and insurance for one price for a certain period. “We call these student packages,” says Ballard. “We also sometimes call it the ‘Student 4.0 Package.’” If you have occupancy in larger units, some students may go in together and rent a larger unit, which can work. “You just need to make sure they understand only one person is on the lease and is responsible,” Ballard says. “Make sure you have multiple contacts.”
If you offer a free truck, try to coordinate move-ins and move-outs all at once. Instead of offering a free truck for individual use, Ballard suggests coordinating with the college and students to have the truck come to the campus one or two days to accommodate multiple students at once. Do the same thing when students will be moving out and back to campus. You’re still providing the truck, and they’re still loading and unloading.
Make sure you are staffed. When the school year ends, you may be inundated with students all at once. Make sure your website is designed to handle a large daily traffic flow and is running smoothly. “We had one facility take 42rentals in one day once,” says Mixon. “Make sure you are staffed to handle students walking in.”
If your facility is located in a highly populated college town, is still in lease-up, or its occupancy is otherwise unstable, you may decide that renting to students for the short term is worth the time, energy, and expense. Still, you should ensure that you aren’t spending a lot in marketing. Low-cost guerilla marketing efforts are the way to go. Here are some ideas:
Ensure your website is mobile and effective. The younger generations, especially, do everything on their phones. You need to make sure your website is engaging, easy to navigate, and designed to handle customers on mobile devices. Moreover, it should be capable of taking reservations and payments.
Use social media effectively. Facebook remains the mainstay of social media, but younger generations are using platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter. Social media interaction doesn’t cost your facility anything except the time you or your manager and staff invest in posting. Don’t forget to use community pages on Facebook to help get the word out about your facility. Some may not allow advertising, but if you are having a special event for charity, etc., many will allow the posts.
Market to faculty and resident managers. “Sometimes faculty and resident managers at colleges and universities even need storage,” says Ballard. “Don’t forget to market to them.” Fliers and bulletin boards on campus and residence halls are a good way to spread the word, if the college allows it.
Use social influencers. Local social influencers are becoming a good way for facilities to market, especially to younger generations. It may take some leg work to find local social influencers, but using them can be a cost-effective way to reach the student population.
Be creative in social media and ads. Mixon points out that it’s very important to be especially creative when advertising to younger people. “One ad that sticks in my mind that was cute said ‘Storing at home means having to visit,’” she says. “Be creative and have fun.”
Aside from having a lower lifetime value, it isn’t any riskier to rent to students. “We have rented to students for years and haven’t had any particular problems with students not paying or abandoning their property,” says Mixon. However, she adds, if they decide not to come back to school and abandon their property, you can always ask them to sign a release of interest in personal property, which will help release the unit for a new rental as soon as possible.