Target pursues college students with Bullseye University

For four days last week, Target live-streamed five YouTube personalities as they mused, joked, ate, slept and generally passed the time in makeshift dorm rooms outfitted with products sold by the Minneapolis-based retailer.

Not quite commercial, not quite reality, Target’s digital experiment, dubbed Bullseye University, represents its most ambitious attempt to penetrate the digital universe of college students. By scrolling over each room on BullseyeUniversity.com, viewers could also activate pop-up boxes that give information about the merchandise and links to purchasing them on Target.com.

Brian Kelly, a retail consultant and former top marketing executive at Sears, says live-streaming millennials interacting with Target products gives Bullseye University an air of relevance “that’s not as creepy” as other voyeuristic projects.

“Part of the message is the medium,” Kelly said. “And if you can find a way to drive commerce, then why not?”

If Bullseye University seems a bit like “Real World,” MTV’s long-running reality show, well, that’s the point. (MTV actually sponsored a concert on the site.) To connect with digital-savvy college students, Target officials say they needed to move beyond commercials and circulars and focus on what resonates with the younger set.

“The millennial guest is different from other generations, especially their media consumption,” Senior Vice President of Marketing Rick Gomez said in an interview. “They are all over digital, mobile, social. … So we have invested a significant part of the back-to-college campaign to the digital space.”

For retailers, the back-to-school shopping season is the second-most-important period in the year behind Christmas, and college students drive most of the spending. The National Retail Federation last week estimated that back-to-college spending will hit $45.8 billion, nearly two-thirds of the entire season. Though the Retail Federation says fewer students will live in dorms this upcoming school year, about 42 percent of families will spend an average of $104.76 on new bedding, small refrigerators and microwaves, up from $100.27 last year.

Target, of course, wants to increase its share of this market. The retailer has added 200 products to the seasonal back-to-school sections in more than half of its U.S. stores.

But Target is also after something much more elusive: lifetime loyalty.

“It’s really important for us to build that relationship with these future guests early on,” said Gomez, a former top marketing executive with MillerCoors. “If you get them into Target and understand the brand and what we have to offer, we can create guests for life.”

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