targeting: Mouse-Trapping the Student Market

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A Colorado company provides ad-supported mousepads to schools in exchange for youthful eyeballs.

When Merriam-Webster Inc. launched its kids Web site last fall, the dictionary publisher initially targeted its marketing efforts to parents and teachers. The idea of directly reaching its core market, 8-to-15-year-olds, seemed implausible. "Children are very hard to reach because they are in school all day," says Deborah Burns, director of marketing at Merriam-Webster. "But that's exactly where we wanted to reach them."

Burns knew that the classroom was the perfect venue for marketing the site called After all, 82.5 percent of kids use computers and 57.7 percent surf the Net, according to Simmons Market Research. The trick was figuring out how to get there. Then Burns discovered Word of Mouse, a three-year-old Boulder, Colorado-based company that provides free, advertising-sponsored mousepads to various public institutions, from grade schools to colleges. Each colorful pad sports four age-appropriate ads for Web sites, putting marketers literally at the fingertips of their consumers.

The rules of marketing seem fairly simple. First: Find out where your consumers are. Second: Be there. But for e-marketers trying to target students, the process isn't so elementary. Corporate America has had to straddle a fine line while targeting kids in school. It's also had to weather criticism from activists about the risks of commercialization of our classrooms. Kids are bombarded with as many as 30,000 commercial messages each year, according to one estimate by The Consumer's Union in 1998. Yet, even amid the complaints, marketers have made inroads over the past decade; Word of Mouse is one of the latest upstarts to make a play for this elusive, in-school market.

Citing analysts at Jupiter Communications, Bill Flagg, president of Word of Mouse, says that 75 percent of online companies use offline media to drive site traffic. But those ads, he notes, are often too far from the point of access, making it hard to know if Internet users are being reached. Word of Mouse's advantage, he says, lies in "shortening the gap between impression and action."

Web marketers can purchase a semester-long presence at 20,000 to 400,000 school computer terminals. The cost per thousand user sessions: $0.73 to $1.18, depending on the designated target group categorized as kids (grades K-6), teens (grades 7-12), or college undergrads. In turn, the company requires each participating school to sign a three- to five-year contract that commits them to using only Word of Mouse mousepads. The company supplies schools with a fresh batch of pads every semester.

Word of Mouse got its start on college campuses, where 84 percent of all students aged 18 to 24 surf the Net from their campus computer labs, according to Greenfield Online. In fact, college students spend an average of 7.2 hours a week on the Internet, and 26 percent spend ten or more hours a week there, according to Student Monitor. Of those, 26 percent made purchases on the Web in 1999, spending a cumulative $587 million on e-commerce during the year, up from $314 million spent online in 1998.

Marketers, anxious to get their share, spend about $300 million annually targeting this market, according to Student Monitor. "College students probably receive more advertising than any other demo, but we're not in the middle of that glut," says Flagg. "Most computer labs are still very pristine environments. So we have a clean, ad-free space, in a highly trafficked environment. One flyer in a dorm room maybe gets the attention of two students, but one mousepad in a computer lab hits 3,000 students a year."

Reaction from schools has been just as promising. Word of Mouse spread from college campuses to school media labs largely through the efforts of K-12 school administrators who called Flagg to find out how they could participate. Says Flagg: "The government has spent billions to buy kids computer and Internet access in schools, but mousepads weren't included in that." By August, the company expects to be in 3,000 of the nation's 4,000 colleges and nearly 2,000 K-12 schools.

Julie Harris, a media specialist at Reuther Middle School in Rochester, Michigan, says the mousepads have been a great asset. "We used to have these solid green mousepads and kids would doodle all over them and they'd fall apart," she says. "But these are good quality and they aren't as easily written on." She says that with the computer lab's 45 terminals filled for six of the seven school hours, the pads need the constant replacement.

Harris says she has no problems with the advertising on the pads since the children are required to get the teacher's permission before logging on. In fact, she thinks the ads actually aid in the Web-learning process. "It gives the kids a place to start rather than them going in and randomly typing in," she says.

But is Word of Mouse's program an effective tool for marketers? According to the company's own online survey of 5,000 college students who use the pads, 73 percent said they visited Web sites advertised on them. And a study by Mazerov Research, commissioned by Word of Mouse, tested the college pads' viability against a college newspaper and found that the rate of response was four times greater than that of the newspaper ads.

But among the company's marketing partners, reviews are mixed. John Jackson, executive vice president of Visionary Resources, bought mousepad presence at 15,000 middle-school terminals for the Spring 2000 semester to help drive 11-to-14-year-olds to his site,, which features interviews with teen celebrities, fashion tips, and downloadable concerts. Within three weeks of placing the mousepads, the number of hits to via schools rose to 36 percent in November, from 7 percent the previous year. He credits Word of Mouse since there were no concurrent marketing efforts in the schools at the time.

Jackson says his company has tried traditional print ads, banner ads, in-school posters, even sponsorships of school events, but nothing drives traffic like the pads. "The mousepads were more than twice as effective as any other in-school outlet that we purchased and within the top 5 percent of effective methods we use to reach the teen and tween markets," he says.

However, Eric Ng, former vice president of marketing at college site, was less impressed. Ng bought about 60,000 mousepads for the 1998-99 school year and, while intrigued with the concept, was underwhelmed by the results. "I liked the fact that it gave us exposure you really can't get anywhere else," he says. "But the return on investment was reasonably expensive." Ng compared traffic volume from the schools with the pads versus those where no other marketing efforts were taking place and found "the results were mediocre." Student. com's efforts with promotional give-aways, Internet banner ads, and online sweepstakes were much more effective and easier to track, he says.

For now, Word of Mouse limits the space it sells to sites related to education - such as textbook sellers, career sites, and student lifestyle clubs - rather than ones that push products. The ads, Flagg says, are first screened by a school advisory board that checks the site's content for appropriateness, and has final veto power. Only 10 percent of the schools he's approached have declined to sign up, he says.

For most, though, the decision to participate is mostly economic. Faced with budget shortfalls and rising costs, most schools find in-school marketing a good tradeoff, says John Burnett, professor of marketing at the University of Denver. "This type of strategy is ethical, assuming kids are exposed to equivalent messaging everywhere else," he says. "Kids have the same choices we do, to ignore or respond."

Nellie Gregorian, director at Applied Research and Consulting in New York City, says that more marketing may actually be good for students, if done correctly. "These companies bring free equipment to schools that wouldn't otherwise have it," she says. "And now that Internet companies are eager to enter the market, there will be more choices and schools will have a better opportunity to decide what is appropriate for their classroom. Hopefully, the for-profit, educational-based Internet companies will provide some legitimate products for students. And hopefully, the invisible hand will work out to the benefit of schools and children." And, of course, industry.

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