There is a generation of future college students engaging in the world around us and if we want to be an active part of the future they’re creating, we should all be paying more attention to how they think and act. Generation Z – the digital natives born between 1995 and the mid-2000s and raised with smartphones – is the most aware, diverse and connected population in U.S. history.
As a part of the millennial generation that precedes them, I am inspired (and a bit intimidated) by their dreams for the world and the sense of agency they use to create their own path – one that’s less linear than what most of us probably pursued and more like a choose-your-own-adventure. I’m not saying universities should divert their attention completely from millennials – I like to think that my generation has plenty of potential to offer, too. But keeping a pulse of this fierce and focused future class is critical to staying relevant in their future. Here are six insights to keep in mind when marketing to Generation Z.
Know what you stand for – and make it known.
At the heart of every institution is a mission. Just touting your programmatic value propositions to this market isn’t enough. Hone what you stand for – what makes your institution hum – and you’ll have a better chance at inspiring engagement and resonating with these younger, more mission-driven students.
“We trust companies that believe what we believe.” Creative and branding maven Yo Santosa holds onto this principle of brand affinity for the work she’s led for companies like TBS and Pinkberry – and it’s one that especially rings true for the younger crowd. It’s been said that millennials like me want to change the world (this I can confirm) but Generation Z actually will. They are changing the world and their gravitas for social action and equality guides the choices they make as consumers. To put it bluntly: if your content doesn’t represent them and their world view, they may not pay attention to you.
Be authentic – or be called out.
Go beyond your aspirational tone and ensure there’s some substance in what you’re saying. But if you’re going to put it out there, make sure your service model and experience back up your message in the market. Gen Z’ers aren’t as willing to sacrifice their ideals for prestige or self-interest as other generations have been. They expect transparency and integrity – and have no problem telling others (especially on social media) when they don’t receive it. So you need to understand what you want your message to convey, and be sure not to sugarcoat your story. Make sure your message is clear to the user, as well as being relevant to their needs and distinct to your brand. We hold our creative work to these principles and it has helped our team stay accountable to delivering genuine work – and generating tangible results for our partner institutions.
Articulate your value, honestly.
We live in a consumer-driven culture and students want to know up front what value your institution and degrees will bring to them. However, Generation Z is privy to college costs and seriously considers the gravity of the investment of going to college. They know that they have plenty of options and alternative routes to choose from (beyond the four-year path) that can help them save money or time and still achieve their goals. Understand how your tuition cost sits with your competition and don’t skirt this conversation – or any tough conversation. There’s no use in hiding the facts because, with Gen Z, there are no secrets. Make your benefits – and even your faults – clear and the ones who believe your education is worth it will be more likely to keep moving in your direction.
Put your student perspective out there.
College experiences are storied and not always picture perfect, so don’t be afraid to show the candid side of your community. Curate a hashtag and show up in Instagram stories or through apps like Snapchat – venues popular with this generation for a window into life’s moments that are as fleeting and personal as they are. The universities that maintain a compelling social media presence do so by working with students to create a portion of their content. Show your audience the perspective they are seeking – typically the view from their peers – then post often and don’t take yourself too seriously. As hard as it is for some of us to give up the reins, in this situation we can all learn something from Gen Z’s freedom of expression.
Video isn’t optional; it’s essential.
YouTube on a smartphone. That’s not the punchline to a joke. That’s the primary source of screen time for teens – and the leading digital influencer by a long shot – according to the latest Pew Research Center report. Google trends continue to show us the growing power of video content for every age range and the reality is clear: if you want to reach this generation, building your presence on YouTube should be a priority. Take steps to audit and amplify your YouTube channel. It’s an awareness-driving avenue with a powerful reach, so use it to create interest and keep your brand in the minds of those who’ve engaged with you before. Not only do Gen Z’ers spend the majority of their time watching it, but a survey Google conducted found that of all the brands teens rely on, it’s the coolest.
Focus on your corner of the world.
Generation Z makes up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, so looking at this broadly isn’t enough to improve in time for your next wave of students. Instead, take a cue from hospitality disruptor Airbnb: “Build something 100 people love, not something 1 million people kind of like.”
This guiding light came from Paul Graham, the first investor in the now-wildly-successful travel site. It’s the best advice co-founder Brian Fesky says he has ever received, and I believe it’s at the heart of what every brand should strive to do if they want to stay relevant.
Now is the time to decide what the future holds – and what you can bring to it. Figure out what you have to offer, then go find your 100. Show them you care and cater directly to their dreams. Just don’t underestimate them. Our future depends on what they’ll do next.