It is time to throw out the marketing rulebook - Generation Z is now entering college. While the youngest members of Gen Z are just starting primary school, the oldest are already at a college or university near you. And with the bulk of this new generation, which currently makes up a quarter of the US population, in their teens and many graduating from secondary school this year, the need for marketers to get their “mix” just right is of prime importance.
However, marketing to Gen Z is very different from marketing for Millennials. Gen Z’ers are better at multitasking than their older siblings, spreading their attention across multiple projects, ideals, and finding ways to marry their passions to practical applications. They more savvy when it comes to ads and bargains and more cautious about leaping straight from high school into a potentially costly degree program. Born into a world of social media, Gen Z’ers are both fully aware of their individuality while maintaining a global perspective in the way they think.
What does Generation Z want from higher ed?
Generation Z'ers know what they want. They've lived through a period of widespread customization, and come of age as bespoke, consumer-oriented design solutions have come to the fore, so that they expect to find everything they need, how they need it, in one place.
For example, think of retail spaces where young customers are invited to ‘hang out,’ without the pressure to buy; the boundaries between studying, socializing, and shopping are blurred, with individuals choosing a location by its vibe rather than its purpose. On campus, this might translate into quiet rooms, collaborative zones, or even academic ‘chill-out' spaces rather than the traditional distinction between areas (such as library zones or workshops) devoted to a particular subject or program.
Of course, Generation Z’s flexibility comes partly from its digital environment. Gen Z’ers know what’s possible with the power of technology, perhaps better than those who are teaching them. So they expect universities to deliver efficiently taught content.
And about that caution they show towards investing in higher education: Generation Z students are more concerned about coping with student debt, or more specifically that any investment reflects good value, than their predecessors. They want to know up-front how they can pay, what skills they will learn, and their prospects of finding good internships and jobs (particularly since those jobs are less likely to be long-term than those of previous generations). Gen Z’ers know that in the latter case, this means finding a program that will help them stand out from the crowd.
If this makes the young generation sound somewhat like returning adult learners, that’s because the groups have much in common. Both have had a vivid experience of the recession, and are facing an uncertain job market in which economic security is closely connected to graduate status. Two-thirds of the 55 million jobs created by 2020 will come with the requirement of a degree.
In short, Gen Z has grown up through socially, economically, and technologically turbulent times, and as a group, they seem to have wisdom beyond their years – as reflected in the statistic that 78% of Gen Z parents involve their kids family decisions more than their own parents did.
How should higher ed adapt to this shift in demand?
All of this is actually great news for higher ed. The fact that the next crop of applicants are engaged, driven students who know what they want means they will motivate universities to modernize, diversify, and directly address student needs as they work harder to register and satisfy a demanding cohort, while high school graduate numbers fall and expectations rise.
Marketers should think about switching focus from campus life to the concrete benefits of the academic programs themselves. Universities need to show why their program offer is unique and how it will help the student achieve their future career and life goals. Remember that Millennials, and especially Gen Z, have unequivocally embraced the idea of a work-life balance, and that they see the ROI in hands-on experiences.
This involves flagging up the potential for internships, networking, and corporate partnerships with the professional world. It means clearly stating the program’s teaching methods and their efficacy, whether the course is online, in-person, or a combination of the two. And it means recognizing the value-added aspects of curriculum – the ways that a program benefits the whole student. While this may sound obvious, it might also involve a major shift in marketing resources and tools. We all know that ‘three-and-a-tree’ is long-obsolete, but what about the rest of your marketing and communication tools?
Remember that while Millennials are digital natives, born into the burgeoning communication culture that defines so much of our culture and industry today, by the time Gen Z emerged, those tools were no longer a novelty. Gen Z’ers are ‘digital natives+’ for whom devices, apps, and data are a natural extension of their identity. They have always been able to personalize everything, and are fluent with the idea that data – for all its pitfalls – can be used to create a tailored education experience that responds to feedback on their grades, financial plan, and extracurricular interests.
The added bonus for schools is that marketing and communication services can analyze the data an institution collects from potential students and provide tailored marketing to increase (and improve) applications. Use these services to amplify your existing strategies, or find unique new ways to emphasize the type, quality, and uniqueness of your programs.
As we leap into 2019 and look ahead to a new decade, it’s important to remember that adapting to generational shifts is an opportunity. Look for ways to anticipate new developments, and you can expect to welcome a vibrant new generation of students to follow the path to your door.