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January 16

Marketing to Gen Z for Traditional Admissions


Knowing your audience is the key to crafting messaging that connects. Here are some characteristics of Gen Z along with some implications for your marketing strategy.

When you work in admissions, you face many pressures. You likely have a full list of urgent tasks that are part of the process of recruiting next year’s incoming class.

Then there is also that other list — the tasks that are not urgent but still important, like stepping back from your current marketing and recruiting efforts to see where strategic updates and changes might be necessary to better connect with an ever-shifting student population. 

If you’ve been feeling like it’s time for some tweaks, I want to share with you some actionable insights about the current generation of potential students — Generation Z — and what the implications are for your marketing.

Often it only takes a minor adjustment to more effectively communicate your value to your audience. 

What is Generation Z?

Before discussing what Gen Z is like, let’s start with the basic demographic facts so we know who we’re talking about. 

There is no official body that determines the boundaries of generations, but many people seem to follow Pew Research Center in identifying Gen Z as those born between 1997 and 2012. 

This group follows the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and is being followed by Generation Alpha (if that name sticks).

How big is this group? About 68.6 million, a bit smaller than the Millenials. 

Marketing to Gen Z

As admissions personnel, what should you have in mind when you think about connecting with this group? 

Here’s how I’m going to lay out this section. I want to touch on four characteristics of Gen Z. For each, I’ll give a description and then offer some thoughts about what this means for your marketing. 

Let’s dive in.

They’re Digital Natives

What it means:
You’ve probably seen the term “digital native” used before to refer to this group. It’s a good one. It emphasizes the fact that the internet and a host of digital devices have been a central part of life for as long as they can remember.

I’d also bear in mind a related point. The original iPhone was released in 2007, when the oldest members of Gen Z were around ten. For many in this group, smartphones have also always been there. They’re not just digital natives; they’re smartphone natives, too.

Implications for marketing:
I don’t need to tell you that you should be communicating with your audience using digital channels. That’s obvious. 

It’s probably also obvious that you should pay attention to which channels teens are currently using. If you have a smaller department, however, you can’t be everywhere. Focus your efforts on the most important channels. For Gen Z, YouTube is the most widely used

Third, this may not be obvious, but it’s important: assume that every digital asset you create will primarily be viewed on a phone. Make sure it works in that format. A PDF, for instance, is great on a laptop but difficult to view on a small screen. A dynamic web page with the same information may be a better route.  

Finally, the fact that the lives of young people are dominated by digital channels actually opens up interesting opportunities with the old-school channel of direct mail. When you’re looking for a way to stick out in a noisy marketplace, this can set you apart.  

They Value Authenticity

What it means:
Given how much time they spend on their phones, members of Gen Z are inundated by all kinds of messaging. According to Matt Voda, CEO of OptiMine, they’ve developed a filter in response that allows them to quickly decide whether something is worth paying attention to or is just noise. 

“The Gen-Z consumer has built an incredibly sophisticated filter to winnow out the noise and do so almost instantaneously. If a brand can’t make the case in less than 10 seconds, it’s out.”

So what are they looking for? Authenticity. It is a central value for this group and plays a key role when it comes to evaluating organizations or companies. 

But what does authenticity amount to? Voda lists four things that are markers of authenticity for an organization:

  • They stand for something beyond just making money.
  • They make a positive difference in the world.
  • They’re transparent about what they do and how.
  • They’re “real,” incorporating relatable people in their communications.

Implications for marketing:
Colleges and universities have a built-in advantage over businesses when it comes to Voda’s list. Your purpose isn’t about earning profits, and education certainly makes a positive difference. 

The challenge often comes with the last point: being real. Instead of being messaged by an impersonal institution, students resonate with communication from real people that feels genuine. 

What does this mean in practice? When you send emails, for instance, it’s more effective if they come from and convey the voice of a particular person, whether that’s an admissions officer, a professor, or the college president. 

You can make it even more personal and real by using a tool like BombBomb to record a unique video message. 

BombBomb screenshot

Speaking of video, we mentioned the importance of YouTube above. Creating video content can feel intimidating. This is where this generation’s value of authenticity is a big help.

Prospective students are looking for real people and real stories over slick production and scripted dialogue.

They’re Pragmatic

What it means:
This generation has already seen a lot. They’ve been through the Great Recession and the Pandemic. They’re more aware than the generation before them that financial security and upward mobility are not guaranteed. 

That means they are more likely than earlier generations to be focused on very practical matters, like what kind of salary they will receive when they graduate. 

Implications for marketing:
When you describe the features and distinctives of your university, be sure you always connect the dots for your audience and talk about the benefits. 

You have faculty who are active in research. Great. But so what? Think about how this fact relates to something your potential students care about and are hoping to achieve. 

Feature prominently stories from alumni that show how the degrees they earned, the skills they acquired, and the experiences they had translated into tangible outcomes.

You should also make sure to address potential students’ financial concerns candidly and early in the process. Give them the information they need about costs and the availability of aid. They want to make smart, financially responsible decisions.

They’re Anxious

What it means:
You’ve probably seen some of the headlines. We are facing a crisis in the mental health of young people in the US. Members of Gen Z are experiencing more anxiety and depression than earlier generations. 

“The mental-health challenges among this generation are so concerning that US surgeon general Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory on December 7, 2021, to address the “youth mental health crisis” exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
– US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (source)

The numbers were already looking bad before the COVID-19 pandemic; it only made things worse.

Implications for marketing:
I think there are two takeaways here. The first is that higher ed marketers should be aware of what young people are dealing with and be very careful about messaging that might aggravate the negative emotions they often feel. 

They can experience a lot of pressure, for instance, to get into the “right school” and hear the message that this is essential to their future success.

So the first point is a negative one — about what to avoid. The second is positive. Try to include messaging and stories that can speak to some of their anxieties and provide encouragement and hope

Don’t be afraid to tell them that the school they attend matters, but their future happiness doesn’t depend on it.   

A Reminder: What it’s All About

You believe in the education your school offers and know there are young people out there who are a great fit for your institution and would benefit from attending. The essence of marketing is clearly communicating your offer to your audience.

Clear communication requires understanding your audience and adapting the way you present your message so they are best able to really hear it.

I hope some of the ideas I’ve presented here about Generation Z will help you craft content that connects.

I know, by the way, that sometimes admissions teams need an extra set of hands to develop and implement the ideas they have. Please reach out if you’d like to explore how my team can help.

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Featured image by NTL Studio via Adobe Stock

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