This is a demographic that has a lot of things competing for their attention (and their dollars). I'm not sure what the magic formula is to guarantee success with them, but it probably involves using multiple platforms to make the connection. With the caveat that my perspective is skewed by the peer group with which I associate, an interesting trend I've noticed is the popularity of what I call "geek content" in online media. This ranges from things like "The Brain Scoop" to "Adam Ruins Everything" to "IFL Science", all of which to some extent are basically informal science education programming. Getting someone from watching a 3-minute video on their phone to going to a museum may be no small task, but I think that the proliferation of this content suggests that there is a certain level of general interest in science-based content. Can any of your museums explore producing similar content based on your collections, and use it to inspire people to visit in person? Many museums now have staff members whose primary task is social media communications, and it might be worth talking with some of them to see what they're doing.
As far as reaching college students goes, I think the chances improve when the museum is used as an academic/educational resource to the fullest extent possible. When museum curators are also professors (or when professors have access to the museum collections for research), they can do some of their teaching in the museum. At my university, the museum has had classes in fine art, art history, anthropology, history, geology, museum studies and paleontology take place within their space. This helps students to see the museum as more than a collection of old stuff, and for some is their first introduction to the museum.
"Experience history, science, art and more over drinks with friends while you pick the brains of local experts. Learning doesn't have to be boring. So CMC kicked it up with timely topics presented in fun ways. Learning doesn't have to take place in the classroom. So CMC took it out to bars and other locations across the community. Learning doesn't have to be dry. So CMC poured you a drink. CurioCity invites you to loosen up with friends, local experts and topics that will keep the conversations going and the curiosity flowing.
"CurioCity is back for its second season at new locations with new topics, new games and new ways to experience history, science and art like only CMC can provide. Up for geeking out with Cincinnati Museum Center? Grab some friends and meet us in some of our city's best bars and hangouts to uncover the fascinating science of the seemingly ordinary and celebrate the history of Cincinnati's extraordinary. CurioCity is a 21+ social series that gives community members a fresh way to see our collections, meet our curators and engage with experts. Monthly events will be held at bars and breweries around the city."
This might be more information than you're looking for, but these publications by Bob Harlow on building arts audiences have a lot of good info. You can read case studies here: http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Pages/Wallace-Studies-in-Building-Arts-Audiences.aspx. I'd suggest "Opening New Doors" and "More Than Just a Party." For larger reports check out "The Road to Results" and "Taking Out the Guesswork." The Utah Division of Arts and Museums recently had Bob out to speak and I thought it was helpful.
Associate Registrar, Loans and Exhibitions
Natural History Museum of Utah
American Alliance of Museums2451 Crystal Drive, Suite 1005Arlington, VA 22202