Editor’s note: Lisa Malat is the vice president and chief marketing officer at Barnes & Noble College, Basking Ridge, N.J.  

With every new generation, new challenges, opportunities, expectations and preferences come to light, impacting everything from how consumers shop to the brands they love and the ways marketers reach them. Millennial and Gen Z college students are no exception. Today, these groups represent 17 million college students who are in the formative years of making their own brand decisions and purchases. Their economic significance is multiplied by their lifetime spending potential and the influence they have on other consumer groups.

At Barnes & Noble College, we have a front-row seat to Millennial and Gen Z students. We are immersed in their lives on the 771 campuses we serve nationwide. From college acceptance to post graduation, we are there for every step of their journey, giving us a unique view into their expectations of college life and the role of their campus bookstore. Their voices informed and inspired our transformation from being just the campus bookstore to what we are today – a social and academic hub on campus that supports student success both in and out of the classroom.

This shift in our positioning was led by voice of the customer research that pushed us to consider new approaches and strategies which, in the end, succeeded in building authentic and loyal relationships with the generations on our campuses.

Research allowed us to build a connection that goes beyond that of a traditional retailer. These relationships – with newly-admitted freshmen, parents, graduating seniors and alumni – are built on a strong foundation of trust driven by our commitment to truly listen to them, learn from them and then act.

Generational studies 

The backbone of our research is our College Insights platform, a network of more than 10,000 students, parents, faculty and alumni. We tap into this group to conduct large-scale generational studies, such as The Millennial Mindsetwhich looks at the generation’s needs, fears and aspirations, and Getting to Know Gen Z, a deep dive into understanding the newest generation entering college today, who, as consumers, were on the radar of few people. In 2016 we conducted nearly 60 research studies and 100 quick polls – strategically gauging the impact of new products, promotions, messaging and marketing – which has both challenged and inspired us to exceed our students’ expectations.

Trust is the most critical driver to our research initiatives. The average response rate on our college student panel is 72 percent. We have found Millennials and Gen Z love interactive community discussions. For any given survey we launch, we receive hundreds of verbatims and open-ended comments, sharing honest and heartfelt feedback. Our students want to talk to us, share their opinions and influence our direction, and they want to create their own experiences. But, like most things, research is not one-size-fits-all. Often, based on the objectives, we choose to facilitate more up-close and personal experiences with students, gathering qualitative data through lifestyle investigations, listening parties and shop-alongs.

Quant findings influence outreach 

On the quantitative side, we rely heavily on the insights gained from our College Insights platform to guide our initiatives. For example, we learned that despite new students’ desire for independence, they really crave a community connection. They are also looking for help to ease the transition from high school to college. This research finding led us to create the Igniting the New Student Connection program, gaining access to new freshmen and connecting with them from acceptance letter on. Our initial outreach introduced the resources available at the bookstore and across campus and we worked to integrate all campus life resources including residence life, admissions, alumni departments and career centers to help students navigate and celebrate the important milestones of their college experience.

Our research also led us to create freshman VIP events in our stores, welcoming the newest students to school, to their bookstore and to our brand partners. Post-event research found that over 80 percent of attendees of these VIP events met their first friend and ultimately felt more connected and comfortable with their new home for the next four years and beyond. This success led us to create de-stress events where students come to the bookstore to relax during final exams, sample new snack products from our brand partners, pet puppies, relax in massage chairs and reconnect with friends.

Our College Insights panel also helps us understand online behavior, marketing analytics and social media preferences. We continuously learn about the platforms and types of engagement students prefer, as well as the content, promotions and offers they value most. We’ve taken these insights to heart to improve our results – last year’s Cyber Monday sales increased 35 percent due to targeted initiatives driven by knowledge of our customers’ shopping preferences.

Research supports the mission

Research insights are critical to delivering on our primary mission: supporting our campus partners as they strive to provide the best possible social and academic experience for students.

As Millennials and Gen Z continue their academic and social journeys, we’ll continue to ask questions and uncover new insights about their generations – and generations to come – to further our understanding of their needs and preferences. Regardless of how those needs and preferences evolve, our philosophy and dedication remain the same. We believe that campus bookstores can help brands and retailers understand how to build and grow brand loyalty with college students, and that understanding will help drive sales and exceed marketing goals with current and future generations.