See ya Textbook Prices, Hello Textbook Rentals (and how social websites are boosting a company's idea)

5530819321_e7d1deb527 There’s nothing quite like how I felt as my parents dropped me off at college that August day -- their license plate disappearing in the distance.

Complete and utter freedom.

But it came with a caveat: I was broke. We - as college students - were broke. And buying textbooks didn’t help.

We didn't just pay for college textbooks. We had to shell out hundreds and hundreds of dollars each semester.

I never called my parents up and asked them for money. But believe me, the urge was there, and not just once or twice.

But over the past few years, one company has started to change all of this. Chegg, which the New York Times calls the “Netflix of college textbooks,” began allowing college students to rent textbooks as opposed to dishing out copious amounts of money to buy them.

Instead of paying $123 for an organic chemistry textbook, you could rent it for $33. What a genius idea. 

Not only has the company become the friend to many broke college students, it's also promoting sustainability. The New York Times reports that Chegg plants a tree for every textbook rented and, to-date, has planted four million trees – clearly indicating the success the company has experienced.  

It’s no surprise that similar companies are starting to pop up and jump on the bandwagon. Will Chegg’s eco-friendly practices and promotion of sustainability set it apart from the offerings of competitors? Well maybe – but Chegg certainly isn’t taking any chances.

Like we tell so many of our clients, the key to gaining competitive advantage is to embrace social media, and that is exactly what Chegg has done. The company acquired two startups last year with a mission of becoming “socialized.”

One of the startups, CourseRank, is an online community in which students post reviews about courses and professors for other students to read.  The site also allows visitors to see which of their friends signed up for a particular course and what grade distributions have looked like in past semesters. The other startup, Cramster, is an online community that functions as a study group allowing students to post questions and answers about various assignments.

The Times article quoted Chegg’s CEO, Dan Rosensweig as saying “Education is one of the areas where technology has not had a chance to work its magic. It’s time it did.”

Although there certainly has been technological advancement in the education sector, so much more can be done to enhance the experience of students, at all educational levels. When Chegg was formed, it took a huge step in this direction, reaching out to college students with a solution that was compatible with their lifestyle – and now by “going social,” the company is taking that mission one step further.

Will embracing social aspects further differentiate Chegg, widening the distance from possible competitors? Although only time will tell, I have a feeling it will.

Whatever happens, what’s important is that college students now have a much more affordable option when it comes to textbooks.

I salute you, Chegg. Keep up the tree planting. I’ll try not to be too bitter that you weren’t around when I was in school. 

Contributed by Jessica Boardman. Follow her @j_boardman.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, user: LifeSupercharger. Full terms and conditions for image use.