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How Barnes & Noble College CMO Lisa Malat Stays Focused On ‘Back To School’ Even During Summer Break

"While students in primary school are focused on summer, many college students – especially incoming freshman – are already in back-to-school mode," Malat says.

With roughly 800 stores on university campuses across the country, Barnes & Noble College would seem to have the closest thing to a “captive” audience that any retailer could hope for — particularly in the case of the coveted Gen-Z demographic.

Of course, the obvious reality is that students and schools have more choices available to them than ever before.

Even as most students in mid-June are thinking more immediately about at summer vacation, planning for college is nevertheless top of mind for students and their families. And it’s especially top of mind for Barnes & Noble College CMO/VP Lisa Malat.

Malat has been with Barnes & Noble Education, the College division’s parent, in a variety of executive roles starting in 1996. (She’d previously held senior management positions at Macy’s.)

In terms of reach, Barnes & Noble College connects with over 6.5 million students and faculty. And that reach goes beyond textbooks. Earlier this month, for example, Tom’s Of Maine toothpaste initiated a marketing alliance with Barnes & Noble College designed to generate interest from Gen-Z students. (It is also worth noting that Barnes & Noble Education was spun off from the main Barnes & Noble booksellers chain in Aug. 2015 and is now a publicly traded company in its own right.)

We checked in with Malat about Barnes & Noble College’s summer session and how she’s planning for back to school.

GeoMarketing: How do you see the challenges in marketing to college students and ensuring the brand’s relevancy to the nearly 800 Barnes & Noble College outlets?

Lisa Malat: Establishing relevancy to students and schools before students even set foot on college campuses is mission critical. Creating a holistic ecosystem where student academic and social needs are met as they begin or continue their college journeys allows Barnes & Noble College to illustrate our value. Gen Z consumers demand transparency and purposeful connections and that’s exactly what Barnes & Noble College seamlessly delivers.

While exciting, starting college brings new pressures as students gain more independence and have to navigate new academic and personal challenges. We understand the stressors of today’s students and work to ease this life transition by educating our customers on what they need for academic and social success.

Lisa Malat, CMO, Barnes and Noble College

What’s the process for educating those customers?

As soon as new students receive college acceptance letters, our marketing team deploys targeted, school-branded email messages that introduce their campus bookstore and the products and programs offered.

We curate content to offer students information relevant to their year, whether that be packing lists for incoming freshman or resume tips for graduating seniors.

While many students browse and purchase online, more than 70 percent of orders are picked up in stores. So, when students arrive in our stores, our customer-experience experts go into overdrive. We recognize the abundant competition that exists for this demographic with tremendous buying power and we go above and beyond to deliver exceptional experiences that make students want to return to our stores for additional purchases and to socialize.

How does Barnes & Noble College’s social function work in terms of strategy?

The social component of our stores is a major differentiator for us. Whether hosting wellness events or activities around moments that matter like sporting events, new student orientation, or graduation, our tentpole events tee up students for academic, social, and emotional success. Bringing the campus community authentically together in comfortable surroundings where they can secure everything and more than they need boosts loyalty and allows us to introduce new brands to our captive audience that they might not yet have encountered.

Tom’s of Maine, for instance, just retained us to create an integrated, back-to-school in-store and digital campaign to boost brand awareness among students who might not have been exposed to the brand’s natural personal care products in their homes. Providing samples and unique offers on brands in our stores allows marketers to forge early and, hopefully, long-lasting relationships with the coveted college consumer.

Our engagement also captures parents so they know how they can support their students at school. Creating trust, affiliation, school spirit, pride, independence, and confidence takes a village. Our fully integrated platform that includes email marketing, research, in-store signage and TV network, online and mobile, social media, branded experience and more lets parents in on the experience via discounts or access to seasonal sample boxes filled with brands their students will embrace. We also are adept at targeting alumni and faculty. Yes, we’re a full-service operation.

How does Barnes & Noble College reflect and differentiate itself from its general parent company? 

As the flagship business of Barnes & Noble Education (NYSE: BNED), Barnes & Noble College ensures that all college and university stakeholders are well educated about and have access to the educational products and service solutions offered by BNED.

By personalizing experiences online and in nearly 800 brick-and-mortar stores, we execute Barnes & Noble Education’s ambition to continually innovate and elevate academic and social achievement. Our proprietary research and insight surveys conducted through our Barnes & Noble College Insights platform augment those conducted by Barnes & Noble Education and ensure we capture the zeitgeist of our target consumers. We share a commitment to understanding the Gen Z customer.

The insights unearthed by Barnes & Noble College create new revenue streams that elevate Barnes & Noble Education and the brands we steward. Facilitating learning in all forms is our mission, and that includes increasing consumerism for brands that matter to our audiences.

What are the most important digital tools you use to spur discovery and engagement by customers? 

Our customizable mobile app is unique to each of the schools where we operate. Promoting school pride while delivering hyper-local offers and news to users has proved game changing for us.

Specific promotions and content delivered through our app attracts the attention of this skeptical demographic that demands personalization. Our app and email marketing efforts combine to gain Gen Z attention and drive them to our stores for a further, hyper-local experience. We also use our social channels including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, to deliver messages that matter to students.

Our blog, The College Juice, currently has nuggets of information pertaining to Father’s Day, how to really use the summer months to lay the foundation for future careers, tips on goal setting, do’s and don’ts at your first internship, and more. Discovery tends to start digitally and increase via on-campus engagements. While students in primary school are focused on summer, many college students – especially incoming freshman – are already in back-to-school mode.

They are thinking about new brands, styles, and experiences they want as they establish their unique college identity.

Our platform delivers the insights they seek and the products and services they need and want. By delivering relevant customized content, we solidify our value to students. That trust has led to average email open rates of 33 percent. Now, that’s a metric that matters!

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.