COVID-19 On Campus: A Reflection On Campus Marketing in 2020 and Predictions for 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the lives of people around the world. This has been especially true for college students.

So much of the traditional college experience hinges on interpersonal connections and shared spaces. But, given the nature of the COVID-19 virus, colleges and universities have had to take things in a drastically different direction without much warning. Institutions have been forced to adapt to a new normal, which put the health and safety of students first. 

In-person classes were replaced with Zoom lecture marathons and countless hours in front of dual screens; crowded dining halls and student unions were forfeited for virtual events and distanced social interactions; and much more.

As you can imagine, these sudden changes also drastically impacted campus marketing efforts. At YMC, we adapted our campus marketing strategies to engage students no matter where they’re living, studying, and sharing in 2020.

With 2020 in the rear view mirror, we wanted to share some of the valuable things we’ve learned and our predictions about what campus marketing will look like in 2021.

Every School Is Different

After unexpected school shutdowns in the spring 2020 semester, colleges and universities had a bit more time when strategizing their opening plans for fall 2020. One of the main things we noticed was the wide variance in the operating status of campuses based on state, local, and university-driven COVID-19 regulations.

Leading up to the fall semester, we referenced The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of campus reopening models daily to stay on top of the national landscape. On the local level, we found that our YMC student network and ambassadors provide the most accurate information regarding students’ locations (living remote, on, or off campus) and behaviors. 

We’ve leveraged this information to adapt our campaigns in real time and adjust expectations by campus. We always treat each school individually when managing college marketing programs; and in this situation, input from students helped us optimize what we could safely execute for the best results. 

Maybelline No Touch Product Sampling Example

“No Touch” Sampling Can Be Highly Effective

As we studied the varied reopening plans for the fall 2020 semester, we found that many campuses selected to offer adjusted in-person or hybrid learning models. In these cases, we found that working with local students to understand the protocols associated with activating on campus, the access level to students, and the overall comfort with face-to-face (always masked) interactions has been beneficial.

For our Maybelline program, we worked with college ambassadors to distribute pre-packed product sampling bags and gifts to on- and off-campus housing complexes and outdoor gatherings. This varied from pre-COVID interactions where Maybelline ambassadors offered students high-touch product interaction and trial experiences. 

Because in-person brand interactions were so limited in 2020, students expressed increased excitement and appreciation for Maybelline’s efforts to reach them during a difficult time. Product sampling bags reached thousands of students and resulted in over 10k product link views and a 5% conversion rate to purchase.

Pentel Digital Event Example

Digital Events Work

Digital events have also been successful, as they’ve enabled our brand partners and ambassadors  to provide brand experiences to broader audiences.

We found that college students are most likely to participate in events hosted after 7 PM EST on weekdays and early-to-mid afternoon on the weekends. Digital fatigue is real and this timing provided students with a break in between classes and another virtual activity. Meeting platforms (such as Zoom and Google Hangouts), microsites, and Instagram Live have offered the best interaction with this audience.

In our work with Pentel, we transitioned a longstanding in-person art experience into an online format and encouraged students to relax and create in their own space. We partnered with Pentel to host a 3-night Pentel Sketch Session event series featuring calligraphy, watercolor, and line drawing classes with featured artists. Hosting these events digitally allowed Pentel to bring in experts to showcase skills and answer art-related career questions with college students at scale. 


Join the #AerieRealpositivity challenge, uplift each other and @aerie will donate to America’s Food Fund! #aeriereal #aeriepartner #aerieambassador

♬ 100% Real Love – PopUpGirl

Social Media Is Essential

While Gen-Z has been using TikTok for a few years, the pandemic and stay-at-home culture have accelerated mass adoption and endless scroll time on the platform. We found success in encouraging ambassadors to leverage short-form video clips on TikTok and Instagram to further engage their followers and feature brand products. Students were able to amplify existing brand challenges or create their own by pulling from the latest trends.

Our brand ambassadors played an important role in the launch of Aerie’s first TikTok challenge. The #AerieRealPositivity hashtag challenge created a movement around expressing yourself and sharing positivity at home. With the amplification of a paid campaign and celebrity role model support, this campaign generated 6,600+ user-generated videos with 2.1 billion views. 

Looking Ahead at Campus Marketing in 2021

As you can see, we’ve learned a lot in 2020. And, while the pandemic isn’t over yet, we’re feeling an increased sense of optimism about the year to come. 

Now that colleges and universities have more than 10 months of prevention and testing experience under their belts and the COVID-19 vaccine is in early stages of distribution in the U.S., some institutions are preparing for an increase in in-person and hybrid course offerings this spring.

As we begin planning for this year (and beyond!), we wanted to share a few predictions about what campus marketing may look like in 2021. Please note that the following are subject to national, state, and local policy, as well as CDC guidance.

January – March 2021

The early part of 2021 will likely look very similar to the past few months, with limited in-person events and classes.

Late March – April 2021

In the late months of the spring 2021 semester, we expect campuses with in-person and hybrid learning models to begin to explore the possibilities of holding outdoor, in-person events and activities. This will likely be especially true at warm weather schools in the South and West regions of the U.S..

Fall 2021

The fall 2021 semester presents the best opportunity for a potential return to “regular” campus life. At this time, it’s likely that the health and safety precautions introduced in 2020 will remain at the forefront for the next several years.

In summary, we recommend that brands continue to lean on digital events and social tactics to engage students in the early part of the year. As the weather starts to get warmer and students spend more time outdoors, “no touch” sampling can resume and the possibility of highly regulated in-person events can be explored. The summer months should allow for more in-person brand engagement, while full-on experiential activations, mobile tours, and student-led events are more likely to return in the fall 2021 semester.

How YMC Can Help

If you’re interested in learning more about college marketing during this unique time, we’re here to help. At YMC, we’ve been connecting brands with 15- to 29-year-old consumers for two decades—we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!

6 Tips for Planning a Pop Up Shop Tour

You’ve read up on the latest trends, received budget approval, and decided that a pop up shop tour will be a key part of your brand’s consumer marketing strategy. Step 1: DONE (congrats!)

Experiential marketing is an excellent way to develop a deeper connection with both new and existing customers. Pop-up tours allow you to take that brand experience on the road, vastly increasing the reach, engagement, and impact of your campaign. Like any large-scale marketing initiative, pop up shops require time, energy, and buy in, so it’s important to consider the following when kicking off a project:

Start planning now

From idea to execution, pop-up tours usually take 3 – 6 months to come to life (and that’s if you have the help of experienced partners and vendors). The size and scope of the tour is a key component to timeline. Other factors that impact timing include vehicle fabrication, experience development and production, stop selection, product sourcing, staffing, and promotion.

Choose the right type of pop-up vehicle

Pop-up structures come in all shapes and sizes. Vehicles can be loaned, leased or created from scratch based on available budget and intended length of use. The most popular styles include shipping containers, buses/vans, retro-fitted trailers or RVs, and custom structures.

Existing vehicles can save a lot of money upfront, but often come with large renovation budgets and ongoing maintenance costs. Custom fabrication builds allows the brand 100% control over the structure’s look, feel, finishes, and environment. If going in this direction, think about the cost of the pop-up vehicle as an investment that can be amortized over the length of the pop-up tour and beyond.

Google Chrome pop-up shop

Develop a cross-functional brand team

Like any experiential event, pop-up tours are a public representation of your brand. YMC’s most successful partners treat the pop-up as a “new store opening,” incorporating various department team members including store operations, visual, merchandising, product supply, marketing, and social. This cross-functional task force works together to align on strategy, development, and execution.

Select strategic locations

Cities, colleges, or, beach towns? When narrowing in on locations to pop up, think strategically about where your brand has a brick-and-mortar retail presence, the demographics of your target consumer, the time of year, and potentially weather impacts on your event experience.

Each type of location has a different process for contracting space, regulations around activation footprint size, and fees ranging from $500 to $10,000+ per day. Agency partners, like YMC, can help to navigate these waters based on years of experience and existing relationships with venues and colleges.

It’s also important to understand that the type of vehicle you build will impact the speed, mobility, and possible locations for the tour. Self-propelled or easily towed vehicles are the most flexible, while shipping containers are both costly and complicated to move around the country.

Design a memorable experience

The consumer experience is integral to the pop-up tour’s success. Beyond the environment inside the mobile vehicle, the outdoor event footprint needs to be designed and optimized for traffic flow, engagement, and most importantly, fun! Photo opp areas, music, food, lounge space, and DIY activities are key. Encourage user generated content by communicating a clear campaign message and utilizing on-site branding and signage with social calls-to-action and a hashtag.

Promote the pop up shop

It’s one thing to build the ultimate pop-up experience, but it’s another to promote and put a spotlight on your brand’s efforts! Build a comprehensive pre- and post-event media, promotion, and PR plan. Use this opportunity to show off what your brand team is up to by leveraging real-time social channels like Instagram Stories and Snapchat. Professional photographers and videographers are also key to capturing high quality content which can then be repurposed for future social, website, blog, or advertising needs.

Campus reps and street teams are incredibly effective at driving pre-event buzz and leveraging personal and local community networks. This on-site team also helps to drive walk by traffic to your pop-up experience on the day of the activation and engage consumers in a peer-to-peer manner.

Want more? Check out these blogs:

How can YMC help?

Looking to hit the road with a pop up shop but aren’t sure how to get started? Finding the right partner is key to your success. Here at YMC, we’ve been helping brands connect with 15- to 29-year-old consumers for two decades—we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!

7 Elements to Consider for Your Brand’s Mobile Tour

The rise of e-commerce retail and mobile technology has changed the way Millennial and Gen-Z consumers purchase products and services. This shift has created a double-edged sword for brands. As many purchases are happening online, brands with brick-and-mortar stores are struggling to drive in-store traffic. Whereas brands with only an online presence are lacking a physical, high-touch interaction point to establish a deeper connection with consumers.

The ability to buy online has given consumers control over where they buy products and what they pay—but the product itself is still a deciding factor. Consumers are likely to buy online from familiar, trusted brands. However, if the product or brand isn’t familiar to them, they’ll buy in person. The reason? The likelihood that an unfamiliar item will need to be returned if bought without seeing and feeling it in person outweighs the convenience of buying online.

Innovative brands like Aerie have found a solution in mobile campus tours. Designing a mobile retail store enabled them to bring a unique shopping experience directly to their target consumers. Aerie’s nationwide mobile tour created an inviting atmosphere in which students were excited to shop—and buy. Through the mobile tour, the brand saw significant increases in daily average sales and numbers of units sold. There was an average of 800 customers per campus and 80K social media impressions per week.

With those results, it’s no wonder that mobile tours are exploding in popularity across a variety of industries—particularly fashion and retail, consumer packaged goods, and entertainment. Mobile marketing, or “experiential,” tours provide a unique opportunity for college students to shop and experience a brand first-hand—trying on a shirt, tasting a treat, testing out technology.

You may be wondering, “How do I build a campus mobile tour experience that attracts college students, makes a memorable experience, and drives brand ROI?” Here are the top seven elements to consider when designing a mobile tour.


1. Vehicle Fabrication

The tour vehicle itself (airstream, mobile trailer, bus) can pop up anywhere, in a bright and bold fashion, making it hard to miss on campus. The vehicle needs to feel inviting, innovative, and comfortable to the consumer. Factors to consider include vehicle size (exterior and interior space), branding, heating/cooling, fixtures, product/item assortment, display, and design. Vehicles can be loaned, leased, or created from scratch based on available budget and intended length of use.

2. Tech

Students do not have patience for anything less than instant gratification. The mobile tour’s technology and POS system needs to be top-notch. Most locations do not have reliable WiFi, so this functionality needs to be built into the structure of the vehicle during the fabrication phase. Power and security are also two critical logistics that cannot be overlooked.

3. Location

Location, location, location. Students simply don’t deviate too far from their day-to-day path. Getting your mobile tour experience on or near campus is ideal for maximizing attendance and walk-by foot traffic.

4. Staffing

Finding the right people to run the show is a top priority. Tour staff need to be responsible, hardworking, and able to represent the brand in a professional manner. The most successful mobile tours have a combination of agency, campus rep, event, and brand team members on-site to collaborate and fill the various roles of the event.

5. Promotion

Getting the word out about the upcoming mobile tour is one of the most important actions to ensure success. Campus reps can leverage extensive on-campus and online networks to raise awareness and generate excitement among their peers. Targeted social media posts on the reps’ personal channels leading up to and during the event help catch student attention.

6. Experience

Beyond the mobile vehicle itself, creating a memorable and engaging experience is key to attracting and retaining students at the event. Elements to consider include on-brand music, unexpected snacks, DIY activities, a comfortable lounge area for relaxing, a photo wall for snapping the perfect Instagram shot—or all the above!

7. Exclusive Offer

Everyone loves a discount. Promotional offers are important to boost attendance, increase purchase consideration, and drive sales. “Doorbuster” giveaways and free items are incredibly effective at driving traffic and attracting a line of students waiting for doors to open.

Mobile marketing is a smart way for brands to reach new markets without a local retail presence. Students are always excited by the opportunity to check out a new happening or event, especially when it’s located conveniently next to their classes or apartment. When executed correctly, typically with the help of an experienced marketing agency, mobile tours will help your brand increase awareness and attract new customers.



Looking to hit the road with your brand but aren’t sure how to get started? Finding the right partner is key to your success. Here at YMC, we’ve been helping brands connect with 15- to 29-year-old consumers for two decades—we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!