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Retailers tap into college student market

At Fenway Park event, retailers attract students with freebies, try to sell them products, and aim for lasting connections with e-mail signups

Crowds lined up for ice cream and other freebies at College Day. In addition to selling products, retailers looked to build a connection by having students sign up for e-mails.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Crowds lined up for ice cream and other freebies at College Day. In addition to selling products, retailers looked to build a connection by having students sign up for e-mails.

College students waited in a line 10 deep for the chance to guess what would happen next in clips from “World’s Dumbest” — a show featuring home videos of people making silly mistakes. The elaborate staging, game show-like environment, and prizes were all part of a marketing pitch to get students to sign up for Comcast Corp.’s cable service.

Comcast and other companies filled dozens of booths lining both sides of Fenway Park’s concourse over the weekend as part of College Day, an event run by a Waltham marketing firm, The Campus Agency. More than 60 businesses — from AriZona Beverages to Vera Bradley — hosted games, ran contests, and did whatever it took to attract the attention of nearly 9,000 college students lured to the event with reliable bait: free stuff.

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Beyond selling a product to students, many companies aimed to create a lasting connection by having students sign up for e-mails, or become aware of new products or services.

“There are definitely some things I want to go check out now,” said Alyssa DiLisio, a sophomore at Simmons College who attended Saturday. “I would have never known about some of these companies.”

The Campus Agency, once part of local travel-deal company StudentUniverse, created the free annual College Day event three years ago as a way for retail brands to reach students. The agency, known for its national foosball tournaments and beach marketing during spring break, is run by Paul Tedeschi, who has made a career out of helping companies reach 18- to 24-year-olds.

“We just create the platform,” Tedeschi said of College Day. “It’s up to each brand to be responsible for how they market their product. Most of these students are virgin consumers. Their parents probably made all of the decisions to date.”

Tedeschi created his first agency, Collegiate Advantage, while still a student at Boston University in the late 1980s. He went on to cofound Mr. Youth, a digital marketing agency in New York serving big national companies targeting young consumers.

In 2011, city officials estimated local college students bring in close to $5 billion for Boston. Nationally, a June study by market research company Crux Research found that college students are estimated to have $117 billion in discretionary purchasing power.

“It’s a market coveted by Fortune 500 companies for many years,” said Eric Weil, a managing partner at college market research firm Student Monitor. “They want the immediate purchasing that a student has, but more importantly they want the student for the long term.”

L.L. Bean was one of the companies hoping to attract students at College Day, through games like a boot toss and sleeping bag challenge. Company representatives hoped that a chance to win a $500 gift pack, including jackets and boots, would make students aware of how the brand has evolved.

“A lot of them already know L.L. Bean,” said Laurie Brooks, the company’s social media manager. “We wanted to let them know in a fun way that L.L. Bean is relevant to their lifestyle.”

Boston is also home to another large college marketing event, the two-day CollegeFest held in October at the Hynes Convention Center. The ticketed event pairs musical acts with companies pitching products on the sidelines. CollegeFest is planned by Mr. Youth, Tedeschi’s former company.

But for all of the planning and strategizing that goes into these consumer trade show-like events, the lure of giveaways might be all it takes to get college students in the door.

“I love the free stuff,” said Jonathan Swenson, a junior at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. “I keep some stuff and give the rest to my roommates.”

The usual key chains and T-shirts, as well as flash drives, energy drinks, and tote bags were ubiquitous as each student filled up the bags given out at the door.

Nic Seyffert, a sophomore at Wheelock College, said he hadn’t planned to come to College Day until he heard about all the giveaways.

“It’s the number one rule on how to get college kids out of bed: free food, or free stuff.”

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gailwaterhouse.
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