On any given fall day, Texas A&M University's Academic Plaza is bustling. Students read in the shadow of a 100-year-old oak tree or cross the lawn to study in Memorial Student Center's Flag Room—called the living room of campus—or pay a visit to a statue of former college president Sul Ross to leave a penny at his feet for good luck on exams.
Of course, since it's 2018, prospective students around the globe don't have to travel to College Station, Texas, to get a sense of Texas A&M's campus life: They can experience it themselves thanks to technology. In 2017, Texas A&M enhanced its online virtual tour with 360-degree videos. It sent every high school guidance counselor in Texas maroon-branded Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers that featured a dynamic VR experience at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Like Texas A&M, many institutions—from the University of Sheffield in the U.K. to Tel Aviv University in Israel to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia—have created interactive VR tours or augmented reality experiences. Immersive technologies like these are one tool schools are using to capture the valuable attention of the next wave of college students, Generation Z.
But technology is just one piece of the puzzle—there's more to what attracts these born-and-raised digital natives to educational institutions. Here's how strategic enrollment marketing—high-tech, low-tech, and anything in-between—can speak to what today's prospective students value most.
This generation of students was born in the late 1990s. For most of their lives, phones have been smart and online shopping (thanks, Amazon) the norm. With their three to five screens (phone, tablet, and laptop at least) tucked into their backpacks, they're our first true digital natives, says Bill Faust, senior partner and chief strategy officer at the branding and marketing firm Ologie, which began studying and surveying Gen Z five years ago.
Members of Gen Z grew up in a world where the best brands were already aligned across digital and in-person platforms, he says, so they're astute content creators and consumers. According to Ologie's The Gen Z Report, they're future-focused, guarded about privacy and oversharing, and informed about social issues.
To engage Gen Z, an education institution's marketing must be:
Consistent. "Gen Z doesn't care how you're organized," Faust says. "When they encounter your brand and see inconsistencies, they'll say this school doesn't have its act together." In-person messages have to be echoed online and vice-versa.
Mobile. Technology is an extension of Gen Z's identity. Most high school seniors and juniors have cell phones and nearly half do all of their browsing on mobile, according to enrollment management and fundraising firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz's 2018 E-Expectations Trend Report, a survey of more than 500 high school students. An institution's website can't just be mobile friendly—it should be mobile first.
Novel but not gimmicky. "This is a generation that's just much more equipped to detect spin," Faust says. Thanks to the skepticism they inherited from their Gen Xer parents, Gen Zs are wary of marketing and don't necessarily want their university to sound like their best friend. Swag, memes, GIFs—those can all work, but only if they're authentic to your institution, advises Faust.
Social friendly and video-driven. More than two-thirds of high school seniors and juniors use Snapchat daily, according to the E-Expectations Trend Report; the same is true for Instagram and YouTube. Gen Z communicates with imagery (insert emojis here) and abbreviated lingo, and video is still powerful.
"Videos are a really good way for prospective students to get a feel for campus," says Emily Gaines, a senior studying communications at Texas A&M. "It gives students a look into how their university is adapting to technology and a way to share their own experiences with others."
Authentic. Students today expect smooth, technology-enhanced experiences from colleges and universities—but they're also hungry for a great campus feel and connections with peers. Gaines, for instance, toured Texas A&M (two hours from her hometown) and fell in love. Strolling on campus, she found herself surrounded by people in Texas A&M gear and felt the thrum of school spirit.
"I saw how much people loved this place and cherished it," she says. "Tours were huge for me—and hearing students talk about the school and what they liked about it." She followed students on social media, and seeing their snapshots and posts about college life confirmed her choice to enroll.
Gen Zs—their smartphones buzzing with Snapchat streaks and views on their YouTube videos—have plenty of online entities vying for their attention. How do universities cut through the noise and combat "tyranny of the thumb"—the propensity to keep scrolling?
Big ideas, says Johanna Lowe, director of marketing and communications at the University of Sydney in Australia.
"Technologies will come and go, but at the core, students are still making a life-changing decision," she says. "The challenge with reaching this audience is that they're looking for ideas—strong ideas they can connect to."
When the University of Sydney launched its new undergraduate curriculum in 2017—the first significant teaching change at the institution in a generation—it aimed to arm students with deep critical thinking skills to enact positive change. But to bring that idea to life for prospective students and the public, the university needed to shift its traditional, conservative reputation.
What Lowe and her team created was a campaign about unlearning. Web ads, social videos, and ads in railway stations and bus stops used striking imagery and bold words to explore eight different ways that, through the new curriculum, students and faculty would rethink the world. "Unlearn classroom" reads one piece featuring global travel; "Unlearn truth" showcases a researcher examining fake news; "Unlearn medicine" highlights work on medicinal cannabis—quite a provocative piece for an institution that has a history of educating prime ministers, Lowe says.
"It's part of being contemporary and relevant. We wanted to talk about issues that would resonate," she says. "Every institution has interesting research, and you have to present that information in a way that's understandable."
The "Unlearn" campaign—which Lowe says has been well received—won a Grand Gold CASE Circle of Excellence award for advertising and speaks to a key truth about Gen Z: Many of these students are driven by their values and the ways education can help them improve the future; 77 percent say college is vital to them personally, and 71 percent say college is very important to society today, according to Ologie's report.
Gaines, the senior from Texas A&M, calls this a desire for progress. "Gen Z is going to make some incredible changes, especially the younger members," she says. "Just look at the kids who organized March for Our Lives [for gun control]. That was an incredible, nationwide effort for change."
To communicate those big impact stories to Gen Z, innovation matters. For many institutions, that means exploring new frontiers with video and social media.
"For this generation, video is and will continue to be the No. 1 kind of content consumed," says Faust, who notes that wherever videos live—Instagram Stories, YouTube—is where members of Gen Z will invest their time.
In a 60-second video for its "Unlearn" campaign, the University of Sydney used short phrases ("Learning is easy. Unlearning, not so much") to showcase its model. But it also created snappy, bite-size videos and digital video banners for social media, along with a Snapchat scavenger hunt.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M has gone even deeper with its virtual reality strategy, launching Beyond Texas, a project to tell stories of the university's work around the world: saving macaws in Central America, studying coral reefs in Palau. The most recent video adventure (released on World Elephant Day in August 2018) showcases Texas A&M researchers' work with the Ecoexist Project, which promotes peaceful elephant-human coexistence in Botswana's Okavango Panhandle. In the video, researchers talk with farmers about elephant-friendly fences to protect legume crops. Dozens of elephants stroll within what looks like arm's reach of the camera.
"Virtual reality sticks in your brain more than the flat video that we're used to," explains Michael Green, Texas A&M's manager of emerging and interactive media. VR can be called the "empathy machine," he says, since it puts viewers in the driver's seat. "[Students] care about authenticity. VR is an extension of that. You're there. You can't hide anything."
Other institutions, like the Savannah College of Art and Design, take students on VR journeys enhanced with computer-generated sensory information. The college built an AI-driven course catalog with 200 micro-interactions for students to explore, including student-designed video games and live chat opportunities.
Creative content doesn't even have to be digital: Print is far from dead for Gen Z. In addition to university websites and emails, high school seniors and juniors still rely on printed brochures for information in their college search, according to the E-Expectations Report. The trick is making sure printed pieces feel special and are highly visual. That's the approach the U.K.'s University of Huddersfield took in designing its undergraduate prospectus. The institution's vibrant print piece—which netted a gold Circle of Excellence award for viewbooks—featured seven students representing each of the university's schools.
On each cover, students are surrounded by bright, colorful illustrations that reveal their personalities, interests, and talents. As a fun bonus, the piece included stickers to mark favorite pages.
"Our students are unique to us," explains Josie Ellis, deputy head of marketing, "and we want to show off how fantastic they are, We wanted to cut through the noise—we don't want our work to look like stereotypical educational marketing material."
There's one final component of the puzzle that is marketing to today's prospective students. It's why the University of Huddersfield chose to highlight a variety of students rather than scenic English vistas in its viewbook; it's also what led Emily Gaines to enroll at Texas A&M: authentic student experiences.
Institutional, jargon-laced copy that doesn't relate to real experiences is Gen Z's kryptonite.
"We have a rule on our team that no video should ever include ‘This is the best university because...' because that no longer works," says Justin Laing, senior manager of strategic marketing and communications at the University of Queensland's Faculty of Medicine. "Millennials and Gen Zs see right through that."
It explains why the Australian institution's UQ Medicine Instagram feed, Facebook page, and blog are brimming with student voices. There are tales of students exploring community health. There's a bright infographic that illustrates a day in the life of a medical student on rotation (seven patient visits, one cup of coffee, and three cups of tea). There's a behind-the-scenes video of the UQ Med Revue's one-of-a-kind, silly performance called The Fungal Book.
These were created by UQ Faculty of Medicine's digital ambassadors, a cadre of 17 students who came together in 2018 to create content with Laing and his team. Ambassadors are paid and given a two-hour training session—and the investment is worth it, since storytelling like this resonates with current and future students, Laing says.
"Of the 152 videos we produced in 2017," he says, the videos with students sharing their stories had a 57 percent better engagement rate than all other content.
The UQ videos show, rather than tell, prospective students about learning opportunities. Similarly, Brigham Young University in Utah uses student Instagram takeovers as a micro-influencer campaign. Instead of publishing a straightforward post that might read, "Internships and Why You Should Do One," BYU gave five different students the reins on Instagram to highlight internships in five different countries over the summer.
Ultimately, students are looking for experiences that mirror their thoughts, worries, and lives, Faust says.
"Find ways for students to share their voice," he advises, "but don't make them all success stories. Show us some kids who struggle. Then make it what they did to get there. Show us some stories [that show students are] ‘just like me.'"
The future of educational marketing is technology enhanced. But it's as much about grand virtual reality journeys as it is about capturing and celebrating authentic student experiences in fresh ways.
To reach Gen Z, and all the generations thereafter, institutions around the globe can and will continue to experiment with emerging technologies. Augmented reality and wearable technologies are the future, suggests Texas A&M's Green. Personalization and data-driven marketing will empower teams to become more agile; meanwhile, they'll continue to grapple with which platforms high schoolers currently love most (such as Twitch or music hub TikTok, formerly Musical.ly) to explore next.
Ultimately, educational institutions will need to meet prospective students where they are. But for now—wherever and however a school markets itself—the words, sounds, and visuals will resonate most when they're innovative, consistent, impact-focused, and, above all, authentic.
"Platforms will come and go and rise and fall," says Sydney's Lowe. "[But] thinking about your audience and keeping them in the center of your decision making, that's the key."