After a decade of attempting to lure millennials through their ivy gates, higher ed institutions now confront the prospect of marketing to the next generation of university students — Generation Z.

Born after 1995, the leading edge of this post-millennial generation has either entered or is seriously researching colleges (along with Mom and Dad). So it behooves higher ed institutions to tailor their content marketing and message to this up-and-coming generation. And their numbers are significant — 82 million versus millennials at 83 million.

Yet treating millennials and Gen Z as exactly alike would be a major mistake. Though similarities exist, Gen Z harbors some subtle but significant differences that higher ed marketing efforts should account for.

Related reading: How Higher Ed Marketing Can Use Content for a Strategic Advantage

For one, Gen Z possesses even more tech savvy than millennials (if that’s possible). This generation grew up in the age of smartphones with information literally at their fingertips. They’re accustomed to filtering a flood of images and information. If their interest isn’t piqued immediately, they’ll likely move on to the next shiny byte. Marketers, therefore, need to grab their attention immediately and with short bits.

Their social media habits differ slightly from millennials as well. Their love of visual storytelling grew from watching YouTube from an early age. One survey found 70 percent of Gen Z’ers watch two hours of YouTube a day. And they’re a generation fully comfortable with mobile technology, so whatever content higher ed aims to Gen Z must be mobile-enabled.

Making generalizations about any group this big is tricky. No two Gen Z’ers are alike, so marketing to them as if they are a monolith and have identical interests and perceptions will likely fall flat. That being said, here are four common Gen Z characteristics higher ed marketers can exploit in their content marketing efforts:

Gen Z craves authenticity

“Authenticity” has become the buzzword du jour ascribed to millennials and now, Generation Z. Like most buzzwords, it’s rather vague and somewhat meaningless without a proper definition and context. It’s also becoming so overused it’s nearing the point of cliché and satire.

To ensure that you are staying true to your authentic voice, then you want to think carefully about the brand of your higher ed institution. Essentially, Gen Z wants real stories. Remember, they’ve been exposed to the Internet since the crib. They’re adept at shifting through reams and reams of information. They’ve learned to spot what’s “real” and, dare we way, “authentic” versus what is fluff or merely a grab for their attention (and coin).

They want the truth, or what they perceive as the truth, and a higher ed marketing message needs to reflect that. In a video posted on Higher Ed Live, Jen Doak-Mathewson, assistant director of eMarketing at the UConn Foundation, talked about “capturing shared experiences” of campus life. One way to convey those real stories to recruits is via connections with alumni, she advises.

Related reading: 6 Higher Education Brands Killing It With Content Marketing

Incoming students are naturally apprehensive about what living away from home for the first time will be like. Having them connect with recent graduates who provide an authentic (there’s that word again) version of university life can ease those concerns. It also gives prospective students some real-life experiences to which they can relate — from somebody nearer to their generation.

Gen Z will likely swipe left if the message is “We’re the greatest college in the world and you’ll love it here!” They want to know what makes the institution “truly special,” Doak-Mathewson says.

Word-of-mouth is still a powerful marketing tool, she says. So, facilitate one-on-one meetings between prospective students, current students or young alumni. These meet-ups don’t have to be in person; they can be conversations on Facebook or Skype. Reach out to alumni to film short videos telling stories of their daily life at the university. Either method can work, as long as it’s, yep, authentic.

They want to be their own boss

According to one poll from Upfront Analytics, 61 percent of Gen Z’ers aim to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee. Higher ed marketing initiatives should take advantage of that inclination.

While nearly every university oversees some of type of work-study or internship program, Gen Z likely seeks more than just a glimpse into what their professional lives will be like after graduation. They want to be their own boss, so play up how enrolling in the university puts them on track to reach that goal. Again, making use of alumni can help. Connect prospective students to alumni and programs on campus that can teach them how to launch their own business.

They want to do good in the world

Gen Z expresses a desire to do philanthropic work. In the Upfront Analytics survey, 61 percent said they “want to change the world,” compared to just 31 percent of millennials.

They also possess a more global mindset, which isn’t surprising considering how technology connects people from all over the globe. Emphasizing study abroad programs will definitely grab their interest.

They’re online, but they’re not “all over the place.”

Simply being on a social media channel to attract Gen Z probably won’t work. Find out why are they there; what interests have drawn them to that outlet, whether artistic or business oriented. If they are on a Facebook forum to converse with like-minded peers who aspire to be business entrepreneurs then put content on that forum tailored to that particular group.

A scatter-shot approach to social media content is not the best strategy. Don’t be there just to be there. Have a reason to be there, and tailor the content to the particular outlet and audience.

If on Snapchat, make it snappy. In Inside Higher Ed, Kristine Maloney, who specializes in higher ed media and public relations, suggests higher ed institutions must “tell their story in just a few seconds with a format that doesn’t live forever and can’t be archived for reuse and recirculation. [The] need to pitch stories for Snapchat (and other technologies that don’t exist yet) will require a shift in our outreach methods and how we measure success.”

Segment, test and adapt

It also requires a willingness to monitor and update the content market message based on what works — and what doesn’t.

Hard as it may be to imagine, millennials are passé, at least when it comes to higher ed marketing for the traditional experience. (Don’t tell them that.) Gen Z is the generation higher ed institutional need to market to now.

First and foremost, Gen Z wants to engage with the  message. It’s not one-sided, with the institutions putting out its message, thinking that’s enough to attract recruits. Higher ed marketing pros must converse with their Gen Z prospects. If they don’t, Gen Z will probably log off.


Maria Wood

Guest Author

An experienced B2B journalist, Maria Wood splits her time between content marketing writing and business reporting. Her expertise spans from commercial real estate and the lodging industry to annuities and financial planning. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching baseball and jogging.