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Barnes and Noble College Engages Students with Research

Barnes and Noble College Engages Students with Research

Hal Conick

barnes noble engages

Rumors of the death of college bookstores have been greatly exaggerated, according to Barnes and Noble College VP of operations and CMO Lisa Malat.

Even against stiff competition—such as and—Malat says the company’s research has allowed it to engage with millennial and Generation Z students in the company’s 770 campus bookstores across the U.S.


“I’m finding over the past two to three years, the whole customer understanding piece of my job has played an important role,” she says. “We established a dedicated research platform two to three years ago where we have a group of 10,000 students—called our student point of view—who weigh in on a lot of issues with us. It’s what has been driving our business lately.”

Marketing News spoke with Malat about how Barnes and Noble College engages students through research.

Q: Is most of the research you do online, or in-person as well?

A: It’s a mix. We have a powerful online platform, Vision Critical, which we leverage as our backend provider, which allows us to do a lot of neat things like setting up a dedicated panel, so we can build relationships with these students. We reach out to them two-to-three times a week with everything from quick polls … to larger strategic studies about learning and overall engagement. Generational research really helps us plan for the future. What’s interesting about our business is it’s not just helping us plan ahead … but it’s also helping our higher-education partners.

Q: How does it help partners in higher education?

A: We’re a strategic partner to the universities we serve to help them realize their goal of increased student retention, graduation rates and overall student satisfaction. We do that by listening. We do that by having this deep understanding of students and faculty, and we do that by creating initiatives, programs and partnerships that are aligned with, not only our mission, but the mission of higher ed.

Q: As a CMO, how do you balance between working with the customer and working with the C-suite?

A: What we learn from living with students every day on campus, as well as the research we’ve done, is how millennials [and] how Generation Z really want​ to engage with brands or with the businesses they choose to do business with. Millennials and Generation Z want to develop a relationship with businesses they visit, so the research we do allows us to make those connections and deliver more of an experience to the students.

A few years back, we wanted to take a deep dive into incoming freshmen. How can we do a better job connecting with them and driving our sales? The college bookstore wasn’t the only choice anymore. We were the only game in town for so many years, and then suddenly there’s the internet and all these textbook players online. We learned that students were coming to college very overwhelmed, very stressed out and looking for support. It was from aha [moment] that we realized we cannot be and we will not be just about a retail transaction. We have to become a complete support system for the students. We communicated to the new students all this information about what it’s like to transition to college, tips about how to get along with your roommate, how to set up your dorm room or how to save the most money on textbooks. … We were able to get to “Yes” on about 500 of our campuses giving us the freshman list. And that has been unprecedented in our industry. Now we’re able to communicate with the incoming freshmen from acceptance level on.

Q: Is that extra step—giving customers help, incentives or assistance—now necessary in all modern transactions?

A: I think so. If you’re going to just compete on price or if you’re going to look at yourself as a retail transaction, you’re going to lose, especially with this generation. The brands that do well are the brands that are able to build experience, build relationships and add more value to the equation. Brands that align with students’ values and can deliver a relevant message to the consumer at the right time, as we were able to do with the freshmen.

Q: Is that the way to go with Generation Z moving forward?

A: Yes. Generation Z is looking for the same things in terms of relevancy and experiences. They’re definitely more independent in their thinking. They trust their own instincts. We found millennials tend to share more [and] rely on their parents heavily. Generation Z is just a little more buttoned-up in what they want to do. Both generations absolutely speak to the experiences. No one is looking at ads, so how do you get your message across through a more immersive, fun and interesting experience? We have become a social and academic hub. We have an event calendar that we run year-round that’s customized to the schools, but it kicks off with our VIP shopping nights for incoming freshmen. They can come in and get the help and support they need from our student book sellers. Our research shows that the majority of millennials prefer shopping in the physical store. Although we have seen an increase of our online sales for textbooks, more than 70% pick up in store. They want to come in and be in the physical space, pick up additional items they need, ask questions and just feel good about starting the school year.

Q: It seems like the younger the consumer, the more essential it is to find out their desired experiences. Is that what marketers can take away from this?

A: Exactly. The whole premise of listening is making sure you’re hitting the mark. Even with our freshman program, it’s been out there five years or so, but every year we go back and talk to new students and say, “What do you think? What other information do you need?” through recurring surveys and polls. We continue to elevate the program, especially as millennials start to graduate and Generation Z comes in. The importance of listening to these insights and making your business decision based on the voice of your customer is the big takeaway.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.