Student engagement is key to increasing foodservice sales at college campuses. Our company, Buzz.Report, started an initiative in 2014 called 360 Engage setting out on a mission to help dining services organizations improve student engagement. In our most recent research, we found five good examples of colleges that used an engagement-focused approach to increase interest in their dining services programs. It isn’t rocket science—in fact, the simplest ideas are often the most effective. The key is to focus on delivering an excellent dining experience and showing students that you take a genuine interest in them.
5. Student Ambassadors by Loyola Marymount
Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, hires students each year to serve as a resource to other students. This is a powerful way to build student engagement because it accelerates trust by creating an opportunity for face-to-face relationship-building. The dining ambassadors add an element of approachability; students easily relate to members of their own tribe. The program has consistently yielded an increase in meal plan sales.
4. Nutrition in a Minute by Georgia State
Georgia State University started a YouTube channel that shows students how to create healthy meals using food choices available in the Georgia State Dining Hall. The video series covers a variety of nutrition-related topics, such as how to include the right mix of protein and carbohydrates into a meal. The videos show a Georgia State dining hall in the background and an on-site student nutritionist for an added touch of familiarity and authenticity.
3. Tablet Meal Plan Signups by the University of Georgia
Students are more likely to purchase meal plans early when the process is convenient. UGA improved meal plan sales by giving students an easy way to preregister. Throughout the spring and summer and at the beginning of each semester, UGA sets up tables where students can sign up for a meal plan on a tablet device. Incoming students are also able to take advantage of the easy signup process during orientation. By using meal plan ambassadors to actively encourage pre-registrations, the school has been able to increase meal plan presales for the following year before students leave for summer break.
2. Feedback Sentiment Tracking by the University of North Carolina
Students are more likely to engage when they can see that someone is paying close attention and taking their questions and comments seriously. UNC collects all of the student feedback it receives—whether the feedback comes from a napkin board or an online source—and tracks it in a database. By scoring the positivity or negativity of each comment, the university watches for trends and patterns over time to identify what is working and what is not.
1. Whiteboard Questions by Boston College
Boston College takes engagement a step further by actively soliciting feedback in specific areas. The college grabs students’ attention by putting paper easels posing a question at the entrances of popular dining areas, and markers are on hand so that students can respond. This approach has met with a positive response from students by making it easy and fun to respond. A dining hall could expand on this idea by inviting students to doodle and express their creativity.
Listening to students and taking prompt action based on their feedback is perhaps the single most important element of a dining services marketing plan, as you can begin to see in the examples we briefly discussed here. Students are heavy users of technology, spending increasing amounts of time on mobile devices—but technology works best when combined with offline face-to-face interaction. Most students are eager to share their ideas and even help you create a better dining experience for everyone. The key is to engage with students in a way that feels natural for them.
Adam O’Donnell and John Roberts are founders of Buzz.Report, a feedback dashboard designed for the college dining industry. Their software helps college auxiliary services aggregate feedback, track trends and respond to negative comments in one dashboard.