Generation Z – how well do you know your new students?

In Education by Tom Cannon

We’re all aware of and well versed on Millennials. They’re one of the most widely talked about and researched generations. They are also on track to become the most educated generation to date, so it’s no surprise they have been the focus of university marketing departments up and down the country. But according to Pew Research the youngest Millennials are now 22 and the oldest 37, so many of them have finished – or will soon finish – their higher education journey. And next in line for a degree? Their younger siblings: Generation Z.

Less is currently known about today’s teenagers, but learning more about them is vital if you want to attract them to your university. As we are about to find out, lumping them together with Millennials is a huge mistake. The two generations have some pretty significant differences which may require a new – or tweaked – approach.

To find out more about this generation we spoke with Dr Lisette Johnston. Previously editor at BBC World News, today she is the Head of School at Screenspace leading on the BA (Hons) Content, Media & Film Production. We also spoke with Jon Kitchen who is the Commercial Director at Brave Bison. Jon’s career in media has spanned 20 years taking in print, digital and social across Dennis Publishing, LADbible Group and most recently Brave Bison.

1. Digital Natives

Girl using a Macbook

While both generations are adept at using technology there is a key difference. “Generation Z are all digital natives, while many Millennials are digital immigrants who know a pre-internet and smartphone world,” says Lisette. The result? “Generation Z are the most connected generation we have ever seen – whilst Millennials have seen both technology and social media change and evolve, this is completely native for Generation Z,” says Jon.

This has impacted how they perceive and live in the real world.  “They don’t go out for the immersive experience, because their lives are so entrenched in the digital world. They don’t buy magazines – unless they are specialist – they use Netflix rather than go to the cinema, and no one buys a newspaper; they get alerts on apps and read the Skimm. They spend much more time on devices and so marketing and advertising must reflect that,” says Lisette.

Action: Make digital your number one priority. “For universities, they need to find the student, not vice versa. This means institutions must be clued up on how to navigate the digital space,” says Lisette. If digital isn’t currently your focus, it looks like now is the time to swot up.

2. Great Expectations

Lisette told us that growing up in an already digital world means Generation Z have high expectations. “They expect things to happen quickly, and like immediate results. This is true of both the digital experience and brands being attractive to them: they expect goods and experiences from retailers and universities to come to them, and if they don’t like what they see they don’t feel the same sense of loyalty as others,” she says.

Action: Showcase your value. Appeal to their great expectations by telling them how you will benefit them. Lisette tells us: “Generation Z students can read through the lines in terms of advertorials and targeted spam, so they have to feel they are being offered something of value. Yes, they might get a degree but what is the student experience like? Is there an industry placement? What’s the employability rate and what are the skills they will get? Ultimately what kind of job will they be able to get when they graduate from the course?”

3. Social Butterflies

Friends posing

Lisette explains that another hangover from their tech-heavy upbringing means Generation Z was born social. “My students spent most of their free time in the digital space checking messages, scrolling on Snapchat, for fear of missing out (FOMO). This sharing culture is integrated in their day to day practices. Even their group work is done via chat apps and shared drives,” she says. This is another key difference between Generation Z and Millennials. According to a recent study, while Millennials are more likely to enjoy working independently, Generation Z prefers to work within a community.

Action: Highlight community. “If universities can put that across in clickable sharable ways, using pictures and video, while making the experience seem genuine and personalised, that’s the best way to attract students,” says Lisette. Likewise, Generation Z enjoys working together, so outline the key ways in which they can do this at your university. If you have any collaboration tools on offer, make sure you highlight them.

4. Video lovers

Their preference for collaboration also impacts where they hangout online. “The way they engage with educational content through to peer to peer communication is grounded in platforms such as YouTube – the first platform for video content for this age group – as well as Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. As noted in a study by AdWeek and Defy Media, over 95% of Generation Z use YouTube,” says Jon.

Action: Create compelling video content. “Generation Z are very much video-first and want to view content on their terms; therefore, to connect with this audience, universities need to adapt their communications accordingly. Create video tours of campuses and partner with creators that’ve graduated or are at your university,” says Jon.

5. Favour different platforms

Generation Z using computers

This generation do not necessarily hangout where their older siblings do. “Generation Z might have a Facebook account to register for things but they are much more likely to be on Instagram, and if they are in the US or under 18 more likely again to use SnapChat,” says Lisette.

Action: Be in the right place. Do your research to find out specifically where your target audience hangout online; don’t simply assume it’s where Millennials are. New social media platforms crop up all the time and it pays to stay ahead of the curve.

6. Penchant for privacy

“They are aware of their digital footprint and have a sense of both their public and private self,” says Lisette. It makes sense that growing up around technology would foster this kind of attitude – 82% of them say they think carefully before posting on social media. As highlighted above, research has shown they also like closed apps, like Instagram and Snapchat in part thanks to the private messages and ephemeral content.

Action: Have a clear privacy policy. Make sure you have a policy on privacy and if you haven’t already make sure you have processes in place to get consent for things like posting photos of students on social media.

In conclusion…

Generation Z are not Millennials 2.0; like generations before them, they have their own unique and specific traits, and spending time familiarising yourself with them will only benefit your recruitment efforts. Above we have outlined some of the key ways you can do this, from adopting a truly digital first approach to upping your video content game.

But above all? “Most importantly, be authentic and honest in your communications with Generation Z – they’re a clever bunch,” says Jon.

Read about our work for ASK4 on Connected Living and Generation Z