Engaging Millennials, Planning for Gen Z

Despite stereotypes, the students of today (and tomorrow) are news consumers. Plan accordingly.

October 6, 2015

There was good news out of the American Press Institute and Media Insight Project recently that showed most Millennials aren’t as disengaged with the news of the world as the generational stereotypes suggest. In fact, while they may consume news differently than generations before them, they are just as engaged—which is both a reality check and credibility boost for media relations efforts.

Unlike other forms of communication where students and prospective students serve as the primary audience (website, social media, etc.), media relations plans often consider this group as a secondary audience for placements. Our assumption is often that only their parents, guidance counselors and other adults in their lives pay attention to the news and that they don’t. The impact of media is thought to come from sharing of information, rather than direct consumption. For that reason, media relations isn’t always viewed as critically important for building the student pipeline. But, we may be reaching students more directly than we thought through our placements and citations.

Students are consuming news on their own, and not simply relying on their parents, which likely means media relations is making a bigger impact in their college decisions than we’ve assumed. (But remember, that means they’re seeing the good news, as well as the bad.) And it’s a great reminder that media strategies should include meeting students where they are—mainly on social media. It’s not enough to land an amazing story. You have to share it multiple ways and in multiple places to ensure Millennials don’t just stumble upon it.

This Associated Press article has more details on the survey and the four categories of Millennial news consumers, which is interesting and could just shift the way you approach media outreach and justify its important for building a strong and engaged incoming class. And if you’re still not convinced that our placements should just focus on parents and their interests, consider who’s coming after the Millennial generation.

Generation Z, that cohort born beginning around 1996 (according to some demographers), doesn’t remember a world without smart phones, social media and instantly available information. And they are already beginning to look at colleges. Despite the fact that we still have a lot to learn about Generation Z, some of whom just started kindergarten, we can be pretty sure that they will require some changes in how institutions—and news organizations—communicate with them.

As U.C.L.A. student Hannah Payne told the New York Times, “Generation Z takes in information instantaneously and loses interest just as fast.” Some of us in higher ed are still adjusting to 140-character tweets, but we really need to be more well-versed in Snapchat and anonymous social media platforms.

And we need to be aware that news organizations will be making relative adjustments as well. Some have already partnered with Snapchat and are creating specialized content – which means institutions will need to think even more strategically about how to 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 way we pitch a story for traditional print and we’ll 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.

It won’t only be our methods that will need to change either. The messages will change too. This Fast Company article suggests tackling controversial issues head on and taking a clear position on one side or the other—something we tend to shy away from in higher education.  “But for Gen Z, the honesty and exposure that a brand takes when doing something potentially polarizing often strengthens the connection they have with that brand,” the author writes.

We know that strong convictions can help differentiate our institutions and is certainly appealing to media. Could Generation Z be the group that finally pushes us to take that leap? Whatever the case may be, we can be fairly certain that students want to hear what we have to say. They just want us to communicate with them where they are and to tell authentic stories. So, in some ways, maybe things haven’t changed all that much?



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