Barnes & Noble College Studies Customer Intelligence to Stay Relevant

Insights from an 8,000-member student POV community enable the company to stay a step ahead of its Millennials and Gen Z student prospects.

School is back in session, which means brands are racing to engage students and their parents during the second largest shopping season of the year. And companies are increasingly turning to data-driven approaches to successfully meet their customers’ expectations. Barnes & Noble College is one such company that is leveraging consumer data to give it an edge over competitors.

“Customer research is at the heart of our business strategy,” says Lisa Malat, vice president and CMO at Barnes & Noble College. “Everything from the products you see in our stores, to the services we deliver, the shopping experience, and the programs we run on campus are informed by data.”

Barnes & Noble College is a division of Barnes & Noble Education, which was spun off by Barnes & Noble as an independent company in 2015 and operates 751 campus stores nationwide. Last year, Barnes & Noble College selected Vision Critical, a customer intelligence software company, to help it formalize its data collection and analysis processes.

Previously, the company collected information on an “an ad hoc” basis with occasional surveys, according to Malat. Vision Critical helped Barnes & Noble College streamline that process by launching a College Student POV community and recruited students from the college company’s database of more than 7 million customers. Students receive points for each online survey to earn gift cards and other rewards. Students who use Barnes & Noble College’s mobile app can also provide real-time feedback on customer experiences in the company’s bookstores that can be immediately addressed by store managers. 

More than 8,000 students are members of its Student POV panel. The company has so far conducted 57 research studies and 100 “quick polls” with an average response rate of 72 percent to gather insights and feedback to drive its business strategies. 

The insights that the company gains from its Student POV panel are “invaluable” Malat says. “We can segment the data any way we want and quickly find the answers to our questions,” she notes. For instance, the company has compared the buying preferences of community college students to four-year public students versus four-year private college students, as well as analyzed loyalty levels to its bookstores over competitors.

Barnes & Noble College’s next step was to act on the insights it received. For example, the company learned that incoming freshman began shopping for college as soon as they received their acceptance letters, and “waiting to connect with students when they arrived on campus meant we were already too late,” Malat says. 

As a result, Barnes & Noble College launched its campaigns earlier in the year when acceptance letters were being delivered and saw a “significant increase in engagement,” according to Malat. Additionally, the company surveyed the student panel on what would compel them to shop at the company’s stores on Cyber Monday and tailored its marketing campaign accordingly. Students indicated for which items they were looking for discounts and that free shipping was a must. The company’s 2015 Cyber Monday sales were up 35 percent compared to the previous year, which it attributes to creating more relevant campaigns.

Barnes and Noble College is also expanding its research to include students over age 25. Nearly half (47 percent) of college students are in their mid-20s, Malat notes. “The non-traditional student is becoming the traditional student and we think this is a big deal,” Malat says. “We want to find the best way to speak with someone who’s an older student as well as Gen Z so it’s all about digging into the research.”