How To Talk To Gen Z: A guide for higher ed marketers tired of being coerced into overthinking everything

[this is a long read, if you're just here for the quick tips, go ahead and scroll to the bottom.]

Odds are that if you’re a higher ed enrollment or marketing professional, you’re probably pretty good at communicating with people, especially people who are enrolled in high school. In fact, “be an excellent communicator” was probably a baseline qualification—bullet point number one, in fact—for the job you currently have.

Yet, despite your demonstrable and thoroughly vetted skillset, you’ve no doubt noticed an uptick the last few years in offers to help you better communicate with the exact demographic—millennials, Gen Z, etc.—with whom you’re already quite good at communicating (again, the job you currently have is proof of your facility in this area).

These offers come in many forms. The “X Ways to Get Millennials’ Attention” is an especially prominent genre. Like this one. Or this one. Or this one.

The topic also comes up with increasing regularity at higher ed marketing conferences, where  it’s easy to find multiple sessions and focus groups devoted to the topic.

 You can even, if you’re so inclined, pay $750 for access to cutting-edge Gen Z research specifically designed for higher ed marketers, if that’s your thing.

What’s off-putting (to me) about these offers—aside from the fact that they attempt to create and then profit from your insecurity—is that that the insight they claim to provide is really just a repackaged set of observations that are themselves so obvious it’s sort of difficult to imagine a serious person taking the time to assert them publicly.

Take, for example, the “insight” that Gen Z is hyper-connected to their friend network. Well, OK, but guess who else is hyper-connected to their friend network? ALL TEENAGERS EVER, THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF TIME. Before smart phones it was cell phones. Before cell phones it was pagers. Before pagers it was the regular phone. High schoolers have always found ways to hyper-connect with their peers. It’s kinda what they do. I mean, you’ve seen Dazed and Confused, right? And Fast Times At Ridgemont High? And American Graffiti? And Rebel Without A Cause?

Despite their pretty glaring shortcomings, this stuff is all, as far as it goes, mostly harmless. As both a former academic and copywriter, I believe in the power of research to inform strategy and creative execution, and overgeneralizing is often par for the course. So, you know, knock yourself out.

In the end though, what doesn’t feel totally harmless about this stuff is what it gets so incredibly wrong about the fundamental nature of human communication (of which marketing is just a commercial form). After all, recall that the motivating principle behind all this “learn about Gen Z” stuff is this: "Let me tell you some things you don’t know about this group of people whom you know nothing about…so that you can better craft a message to them asking them to do the thing you want them to do."

When we fail to communicate well, it’s not because of an inability to imagine all the ways in which a fellow human is radically different from ourselves, it’s because of a failure to fully recognize and appreciate how similar they are—how much their fears, hopes, dreams, and anxieties mirror our own.

For college enrollment marketers, does that even make any sense? Is what you say about your college or university—or how you say it—going to fundamentally change based on anything you “learn” about Gen Z? I mean, at the end of the day you still have to sell what you have to sell: majors, degrees, outcomes, etc. And you can’t do a better job of that by forcing your true value proposition into some generic Gen Z-shaped hole. It will look and feel fake, forced, not authentic.  

If I have a thesis, it’s this: When we fail to communicate well, it’s not because of an inability to imagine all the ways in which a fellow human is radically different from ourselves, it’s because of a failure to fully recognize and appreciate how similar they are—how much their fears, hopes, dreams, and anxieties mirror our own.

So, having said all that, here’s how we recommend marketing to Gen Z:

1) Imagine a prospective student as a whole person with a rich inner life, full to the point of bursting with hopes, fears, insecurities, passions, and contradictions.  In short, imagine her as a complex person beginning the process of making the biggest decision in her life so far. In even shorter, imagine her as you. Got it? Okay, now:

  • Talk to her about the stuff she wants to be talked to about. Tell her about the major she wants to study. Tell her about the clubs she can join that cater to her interests. Tell her about the internships she’ll be able to pursue. Tell her about the real cost of attending your college.

  • Be responsive. When she shows interest or has a question, respond in a timely way.

  • By the way, you can accomplish both of the above objectives in your undergraduate search outreach, if you use data and marketing automation technology in the right way. In fact, we recently wrote a whole other blog post about that.


2) Embrace the fact that prospective students ignore you. Not because they’re always looking at their phone or because they have short-circuited attention spans, but because you’re a stranger and ignoring strangers is what normal people do. Gen Z is normal. It might wound your psyche to think of it this way, but the reality is you matter precisely as much to your prospective students as the dude hawking bedazzled iPhone cases in a kiosk at your local mall matters to you. So, when you make an effort to get in touch:

  • Be personal and relevant (see #1 above).

  • Respect their time. If it’s search outreach, get in quick with the best info you’ve got. If it’s an email, 75 words or less. If it’s a video, make darn sure those first 15 seconds are killer. If it’s later in the enrollment cycle and they’ve already demonstrated interest, hit them with the longer stuff—at this point they’re ready for it.


3) Be careful with the creative—don’t pander. The GIF at the top of this post is one of my favorite of all time because it serves as a great reminder to never, ever sacrifice your institutional authority/voice in an attempt to talk like the kiddos. (I still remember the first time my mother used the word cool. It shook me to my core.) If you still need convincing of the perils that lie in wait down that road, check out this subreddit that’s based on the above GIF and is devoted to making fun of institutions and adults that try to co-opt kidspeak for marketing purposes.


4) I know we’ve warned you about the dangers of generalizing, but if there’s one thing that marketing to millions and millions of high school students has taught us, it’s that they’re earnest and confused. So show interest in them and be compassionate—in all your outreach, from search through Accepted Students Day—and let them know you’re there for them. Above all treat your marketing as a selfless educational endeavor—a prelude to the education you’re actually trying to sell them.

Ok, that's all we got. If you're struggling to engage and enroll students, please don't hesitate to reach out. We love talking about this stuff. 

Joel Anderson is Waybetter's VP of Marketing & Strategy. Higher ed. is all he knows.