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In our last “doom and gloom” post we outlined the economic and demographic challenges stoking higher ed’s enrollment crisis. Although very real and substantial, these challenges can be mitigated by developing a deep understanding of Generation Z — the demographic cohort born between the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.

In an environment where most marketers have just now cracked the code on Millennials, Gen Z has risen like a tidal wave, consuming market share and shifting cultural attitudes at an unprecedented rate.

Gen Z comprises a quarter of the U.S. population, a rapidly increasing annual buying power of $150 billion and by 2020 will account for 40% of all consumers. In the realm of higher education, they will comprise 90% of the market for the next 15 years. This demographic reality check leaves many enrollment management professionals scrambling to evolve their marketing and communications strategies. 

What Brands Can Learn About Gen Z From Higher Ed:

“They value experiences. Given the number of choices students have, universities can no longer depend on the quality of their programs; they need to sell an experience. Schools are creating content that gives a sense of place, purpose and community—videos that capture the excitement of campuses and cities. They’re allowing students to imagine themselves at their school and feel that they belong.”

Jeremy Finch captured the collective sentiments of industry best in his Fast Company piece titled What Is Generation Z, And What Does It Want?

“And you thought you had just figured out millennials,” writes Finch. “It’s time to start wringing your hands about the new generation that’s about to enter the workforce. What do they even want?”

Generational marketing leverages the different sentiments and values of particular age groups to better communicate with each generational cohort.

Gen Z, for instance, is the only generation to come of age following the world-changing events of The Great Recession and 9/11. As a result of these macro cultural influences, the digital innate Gen Z’ers have rejected the traditional notion of the “American Dream,” opting instead to value experiences, creative freedom and social responsibility.  They are financially responsible and debt averse with a raging entrepreneurial spirit. They are the participators and broadcasters of our culture. The question on the minds of EM specialists is how to translate an understanding of those characteristics into higher enrollment.

In order for colleges and universities to reach enrollment goals, it is essential that these institutions adopt best practices associated with marketing to this new and different generation. The following list contains ten best practices that higher ed marketers should consider to better retain and attract Gen Z’ers—their current and prospective students.


1. Stand by your brand.

Gen Z’ers are most loyal to brands who stand for something more than the products or services they provide. Brands, particularly higher education brands, need to establish and communicate a firm value system and positioning. And it’s not just enough to define and express these fundamentals. Brands must now live by them and activate them in the communities they serve.


2. Snackable Content for the “ADD Generation.”

The media landscape has changed forever and will continue to morph as Gen Z’ers come of age and influence consumption, content creation and distribution on a grander scale. The days of linear advertising and traditional PR are still alive, but their impact has been mitigated because Gen Z’ers don’t consume information and marketing materials in the same manner as older demographics. New best practices of content development – short and digestible forms of content and quick-hitting user-generated video content, etc. – need to be adopted by all storytellers, including the marketers of colleges and universities.


3. Become a master storyteller.

Ironically, colleges and universities haven’t been the best modern-day storytellers, especially as it relates to communicating their brand essence or critical marketing messages – so, it’s time for the ineffectual ones to not only consider a brand makeover, but a change of narrative as well. Rethinking brand strategy and methods of communication will be necessary in some cases. Along these lines, marketers in the college and university space need to learn to tell stories that resonate with Gen Z across multiple platforms and social channels.


4. Use their storytelling abilities to tell your story.

One of the most innovative and important things marketers can (and must) do is to involve Gen Z’ers in helping create the brand message. User-generated content is fundamental with this generation as Gen Z’ers are such prolific and frequent storytellers themselves. Brands need to engage and challenge them to narrate the brand story through their own eyes – with the caveat that the brand must give them the tools and context to do so. After all, they invented the idea of content going “viral” – in many cases, it is their primary goal when creating content – so, who would be better to put ideas out into the universe?


5. Don’t beat around the bush.

Gen Z’ers have grown up receiving more stimuli than almost all other generations combined. Between the media universe and the advent of the digital and social media revolution, they have immediate access to a seemingly endless amount of information. Therefore, it is critical to get to the point – they don’t need fluff, they just need to know what you are trying to say and how it will impact them. This is critical to college and university marketers – there is so much to say about an institution, however, focusing on and delivering the most relevant messaging is key to successfully engage Gen Z’ers.


6. Gamify the experience.

In addition to the digital and social media explosions that Gen Z’ers have grown up with, they are also accustom to interacting with brands and the experiences they provide. From video games, to apps and virtual or augmented reality – immersive brand experiences are a staple in the life of a Gen Z’er. So, college and university marketers must determine how to gamify their content and message – making it fun and engaging for Gen Z’ers to experience. It is what they expect and love about content.


7. Appeal to their social responsibility.

No generation has experienced the real-time communication and information of the current events of the world like Gen Z’ers. They expect information to come fast, frequently and with ease. This influx of information has led to a proportional rise of transparency and enabled younger audiences to immediately uncover truth; they know who is authentic and who isn’t. They know who is socially responsible and who isn’t. Therefore, the ideals of social responsibility and authenticity rate very high on the Gen Z radar screen – thus, colleges and universities should appeal to these aspects. There is nothing more noble then giving or receiving an education – college marketers need to accentuate that point through and through, appealing to the Gen Z mindset and way of life. Think #knowledgeispower.


8. Fish where the fish are.

Now that we’ve entered the post-Digital era – where digital experiences are the essence of everyday life, we have never had more data or intelligence about who, what, where, how, and when consumers do what they do. Society has quickly and willingly become ‘de-anonymized’ and this is especially true of Gen Z’ers, who grown up in a post-Digital Revolution environment – sharing ideas, content, and information at a more prolific rate than any generation. College marketers must use data and insights to guide their marketing and communication efforts.


9. Get to know them.

Along the lines of the previous point, college marketers must dig deeper and do more homework on Gen Z’ers. These marketers must do everything they can to not just understand who these Gen Z consumers are from an identity standpoint, but also from a personality perspective as well. They need to get to know what makes them tick – and have a better CRM strategy to store that information and eventually use it. In the ultra-competitive realm of college and university marketing, it is imperative to have as much insight and information on current and prospective students as possible.


10. Be everywhere, all the time.

There is no limit as to how and/or how often to communicate with the Gen Z demographic. First and foremost, college marketers must be mobile. Secondly, use video as much as possible – Gen Z’ers are a visual generation, where emotive and expressive messaging trumps all. Finally, be social – learn how and when to communicate with social platforms – everywhere, all the time. This is how they live and communicate; therefore, it is actually the most seamless way to grab their attention and keep it.