10/02/2012 02:50 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Students: The Real Influencers

Smart. Social. Savvy. Spender.

That's the definition of today's student consumer. And no, "spender" isn't a typo.

For the past 18 months, I've spent significant amount of time talking with students and researching their behavior and spending, tracking the brands they want as well as why, where and how they get them. I've also been lucky enough to simultaneously work with big brands focused on understanding the mindset of the elusive 16- to 24-year-old American student.

Here's my conclusion: Not enough brands market to today's high school and college students in the right way, at the right time or often enough. Why? Because they don't understand their spending habits and influence.

Whether you call them millennials, digital natives or you can't decide if they're Gen Y or Z, you need to know the significance of the 16- to 24-year-old's consumer spending power and their influence on others. Sure, they have student loans, but that doesn't stop them from buying what's important to them.

Here are some key learnings:

Students today:

Increase their discretionary spending freshman year of college... 260 percent: Students who just graduated from high school estimate they spent $2,941 on discretionary purchases (all non-school-related items) in the past year, while students who just completed their freshman year of college estimate they spent $10,525 − an increase of 260 percent.

Change brand preferences in college, then build brand loyalty: Current college students have new favorite brands in both high-ticket items and daily purchases at rates that significantly outpace incoming freshmen such as laptops (68 percent vs. 46 percent) and shampoo (59 percent vs. 28 percent).

Budget one area to splurge in another, and do it often: 91 percent of students surveyed agree with the statement, "I have to be conscientious about my purchases so that I don't get into debt"; 68 percent report they are willing to spend more money on quality brands.

Are never without their phone... and are using it more than ever: Even in today's media-saturated world, media consumption grew by 30 percent year-over-year -- reaching 49 hours per week among students. Driving this growth is increased time online, with students now spending 11 hours per week consuming online media via a mobile device (up 120 percent year-over-year).

Influence their family's purchasing decisions, a lot: Students surveyed report helping their families research and purchase products including entertainment (56 percent) and travel expenses including airplane tickets (37 percent).

Marketers need to focus on reaching students vs. seriously courting them at 24. Although elusive, students spend more time with media -- and digital media -- than any other demographic, and are forming lifelong brand preferences. Keep it simple, intuitive and shareable using a mixture of online, offline and experiential platforms.

Move aside, moms (and I am one!) -- the student consumer is the next W25 to 54!

Methodology: The qualitative research consisted of 10 on and off-campus groups comprised of incoming college students to recent college graduates and was conducted with TRU Insight, a division of TNS in Chicago and Boston in May 2012. The students were a mix of Chegg and non-Chegg users. The online survey among 2,891 Chegg registered users was fielded in August 2012.