Social Media on Campus: How Digital Marketing Is Influencing Alcohol Consumption

Over the past decade, I’ve watched my generation’s attention shift from traditional consumer habits to tech-oriented ones. Today, we no longer flip through Seventeen Magazine and read college brochures to learn about the latest options and trends. We don’t spend time pursuing store websites, reading promotional emails or buying college-prep books. Instead, we’ve discovered and committed to a new type of marketing influence: social media.

Although social media has impacted our generation in many ways (many good ways!), something that’s stood out is the amount of alcohol-oriented content that consumes our news feeds. It seems that almost every Facebook post today is a cocktail recipe, a best beers video, or a Buzzfeed article on the cheapest wines. Drinking is becoming more and more acceptable to speak about on social media, normalizing its consumption and excusing its impact.

Buzzfeed staff member, Matt Bellassai

When I was in college, trendy alcoholic beverages like 4Loko were being consumed at dangerous levels, with the amount of alcohol-oriented content on social media slowly climbing as well. This wasn’t a coincidence; many of these brands were beginning to create highly engaging, emotionally triggering social media campaigns that lead to serious addiction issues on campus.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone given the statistics on social media and Millennials. According to the Pew Research Center, Facebook is used by 75.6% of Millennials, Instagram is used by 41.3% of Millennials, and 50% of those between the ages of 18 to 24 use Snapchat.

Want some more sobering (pun intended) statistics on the very same demographic? Drinking is associated with more than 1,800 student deaths each year, almost 100,000 sexual assaults or rapes, 400,000 incidences of unsafe sex, and 600,000 student injuries. Additionally, almost 25% of college students have reported an academic issue due to drinking, either from missing classes to failing out.

These numbers are staggering and unique to our generation. Millennials drink more than any other generation in history, buy the majority of alcohol purchased within the United States each year, and drink due to high stress levels (which are higher than any previous generation). They also talk about drinking nonstop on social media.

“Of Millennials who drink wine, more than 50% of them talk about it on Facebook, with more than a third using YouTube, Twitter and Instagram for wine-sharing purposes. Navigating a wine world with far more options than their predecessors’ makes information a necessity,” says Ben O’Donnell in Wine Spectator.

There’s no other way to look at it: drinking habits and social media marketing are deeply intertwined.

So, what do we, as marketers, do about this? How can we help college campuses tackle this issue and help more students?

Millennial drinking is hugely problematic for college campuses that are working to combat alcohol abuse within their communities. This isn’t surprising given their backgrounds, resources and knowledge. How are university health centers supposed to compete with these multi-billion dollar corporations that are dedicating huge amounts of their marketing budgets toward social media?

In the past, the results of anti-drinking campus efforts have been little to none, while addiction issues are still on the rise. On top of the health issues that heavy drinking already causes, such as increased cancer risk, cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis of the liver, seizures, and dementia, this puts youth in an extremely vulnerable position that can seriously impact their futures.

To me, it seems clear that universities need to plan similar strategies to those promoting alcohol consumption by creating highly targeted, engaging and relevant content that speaks to the negative impacts of heavy drinking, while simultaneously offering solutions. If this strategy works for brands like Natural Ice and 4Loko, why wouldn’t it work for college campuses?

In terms of specific content, health centers could create humor pieces, listicles, quizzes, videos, personal stories, blog posts and infographics, all of which promote healthier living, counseling, rehab, sober activities, or even just moderation. Or, these health centers could partner with local restaurants, theme parks, music venues, sports venues, movie theaters and energy drink brands, all of which can help to promote alcohol-free campus options. (Obviously this is oversimplified — I’m just throwing some ideas out there.)

The underlying values and messages can remain the same, but the approach needs to change. Ultimately, these anti-drinking marketers need to learn how to play with the big dogs if they want to steal the Millennial attention. We need to stop shying away from the issue, but instead, tackle it strategically within the context of social media.

What it comes down to is this: progress will no longer come from traditional campus education. It comes from treating this issue as a product to sell, just like anything else, and creating social media strategies specific to their target demographics’ psychographic analyses.

Although there has been little recognizable progress so far, campuses are slowly beginning to treat sobriety as a competitive product to engage, connect, and sell.

The difference, however, is that the stakes are much higher than simply a large marketing budget or a drop in sales. Millennial lives are being taken due to this growing epidemic, and the choices that we as marketers make with social media directly impact their health, happiness, and success.

The urgency is clearly there, and it’s time to act on it.

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