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May 23

How to Tailor Marketing Strategies for Gen Z: Insights from Spenser Smith


Higher ed marketers must learn to execute compelling Gen Z marketing strategies that meet the needs and preferences of prospective students from this new generation. 

With Gen Z’s unique characteristics and expectations, traditional marketing tactics just won’t cut it anymore. 

This generation values authenticity, social impact, and emotional connections. They are digital natives who are skeptical of generic marketing messages and expect personalized, relevant communication. 

As marketers, we need to adapt our strategies to resonate with these values, using data-driven insights and innovative technologies to create authentic and engaging experiences.

Right now, higher education is facing significant challenges that make it imperative to rethink our marketing approaches. 

Declining enrollment rates, increased competition from online education platforms, and budget constraints are just a few of the hurdles we must overcome. 

The traditional methods of student recruitment are no longer as effective, and the competition for prospective students’ attention is fiercer than ever. 

We can’t afford to rely on outdated tactics when the landscape of higher education is rapidly evolving. 

By embracing new strategies tailored to Gen Z, we can not only attract more students but also ensure they feel connected and invested in their educational journey from the start. 

Spenser Smith shares his best gen z marketing strategies in this podcast episode. That’s why we invited Spenser Smith, the Director of Admissions for Graduate Business Programs at Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to The Higher Ed Marketer podcast. 

Spenser’s extensive experience in both small and large institutions offers valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities in marketing to Gen Z.

In this episode, Spenser shares with us practical insights into tailoring marketing strategies for Gen Z. 

Understanding Gen Z Preferences

Generation Z is known for its distinct preferences and behaviors that set it apart from previous generations. Spenser emphasizes the importance of recognizing these traits to effectively communicate and engage with them. 

There were all these initial studies that said Gen Z is all about return on investment. 

What are they going to get out of [their education journey]? They want to make sure they’re going to make money. They don’t want to take out debt. 

Then, as I’ve kind of moved to the graduate space, we’re having these same conversations. ROI is still number one [on the list of Gen Z priorities].

In creating our marketing strategies for Gen Z, we have to start with this very practical mentality that Gen Z has shown even as they begin entering their graduate program studies. 

Gen Z prospective students want to know that they’re going to get a good return on their educational investment. 

But remember that there is more than one way to calculate ROI.

Creating Emotional ROI

While financial ROI remains important, Gen Z also seeks emotional fulfillment from their educational experiences. 

There’s your traditional ROI, right? Finances, debt, job placement, my salary, et cetera. 

But there [is also what] they’ve called “emotional ROI” in these papers. [Gen Z] wants to make sure that they’re going to be in good shape financially, but they also want to know that what they’re doing is important. 

They want to know that they’re going to have an impact. They want to care about what they’re doing and [know that what they’re doing ] means something. 

Gen Z values authenticity and wants to make a meaningful impact. 

They are not just looking for a degree; they want to know how their education will make a difference in the world.

They also want to know that the people they’re going to school [with, both professors and students] that those people care about them, too. 

[Recently,] we have changed our wording to be more along the lines of, “Make an impact. Here’s the empowerment you’re going to receive from this program. You’re going to have professionals in the business industry that want to pour into you to prepare you to be a leader, [so you can] have an impact afterwards.” 

It’s this kind of tone shift away from, “You’re going to make money, and you’re not going to get a whole lot of debt.” [The new tone we’re using now to communicate is] “You’re going to have an impact on what you do.” 

Tailoring your marketing strategies for Gen Z to highlight the emotional benefits of a program can significantly enhance engagement.

Tailoring Communication in Your Marketing Strategies for Gen Z

Effective communication with Gen Z involves more than just traditional marketing messages. Spenser suggests using a three-step questioning technique to delve deeper into prospective students’ motivations. 

“By asking ‘why’ three times, you uncover their true motivations,” he says…

Basically, it’s a way to identify motivations. Instead of just asking, “What do you want to study?” you ask some version of why. You get a little bit deeper. 

[For example, if they say,] I want to study business, you ask them some version of “Why?”  

They [might] say, “Well, I did it because my best friend John wanted to do business.”

Then you ask another version of “why?”, and then you try to ask it a third time. 

You’re essentially just drilling down on this surface level question. [It can be] a little awkward. It’s a little uncomfortable sometimes.

But you end up finding out [their real goals and motivations]. You go from, “I want to study business,” to, “I want to run my own nonprofit because this life experience happened to me, and I’ve used that to move forward.” 

Last year, I worked with a student who ran a nonprofit with his sister based off of some life circumstances that had happened. And I never would have known that if I would have stopped at the application. [Asking why three times] is a way to dive a little deeper.

This approach—and others like it—during your conversations with prospective students can help in crafting personalized messages that resonate with their true goals and aspirations.

Leveraging the Inverted Pyramid

After he explained the communication strategy of asking three “why” questions, I asked Spenser to give us some practical insights into how to implement this tactic. 

I really think this small communications trick can produce a gold-mine of valuable information for you and your team!

[I learned about this] communication strategy called the inverted triangle. Basically, you have a triangle in three parts. 

The first part [of the conversation you have with a prospective student], the smallest part, is to identify the need of the prospect. The middle part is giving out the information, and the largest part is handling objections. 

When we always spend a little bit of time identifying what their needs are, we give our generic spiel, and then they have a lot of objections as to why this maybe couldn’t be a fit.

But if you flip it, [then you end up] spending the biggest chunk [of your conversation] in identifying their needs. 

Then, giving information [takes] the same amount of time [as identifying their needs], but it’s highly focused on exactly what they’ve told you.

Hopefully, [then] you just have a little tiny chunk [of the conversation based on] handling objections.

By the time you end your conversation, they’re like, “Wow, you answered everything I wanted to know.” 

But in reality, we’re just asking the questions beforehand to understand them a little bit better.

When talking about marketing strategies for Gen Z, there are few strategies as effective as this one to uncover what really matters to your target audience.

I highly recommend that you find a way to put this idea into practice in your conversations with prospective students right away. 

Making the Shift

Creating marketing strategies for Gen Z requires a nuanced approach that blends traditional marketing principles with an understanding of their unique preferences and values. 

By focusing on emotional ROI and digging a little deeper through strategic conversations, higher education marketers can effectively engage and recruit Gen Z students. 

Listen to the full episode with Spenser Smith for more insights and practical tips on tailoring your marketing strategies for Gen Z.

Ready to improve your higher education marketing strategies? Contact Caylor Solutions to learn how we can help you engage Generation Z and enhance your student recruitment efforts. 

  • Effective communication strategies to dig deeper
  • Following up with prospective students
  • How to tailor marketing strategies
  • Getting Gen Z at the table

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