Look Beyond 'Creative'

In marketing your institution to today's teens, think beyond flashy images on your home page and focus on academic programs.

July 28, 2015

We’ve all heard anecdotes about what smart consumers teens are. But shopping for a college is a lot different from shopping for a pair of sneakers or other consumer product. And while teens have more choices than ever for their college experience, those choices create confusion.

And now, it seems, they are seeking to avoid confusion, at least when it comes to retail shopping, or so the editors of The Cassandra Report are learning:

. . . 61% of 14-to-18 year olds say that loud and busy stores are actually a turnoff, our research finds. Being bombarded with music, scents, piles of products, and aggressive sales people is not the way that today’s teens want to shop. They prefer the cool serendipity of discovering a product in their social feed or immersing themselves in an experiential store that lets them explore a curated collection.

Think about how that applies to your institution’s website. Does your site provide a way for teens (or other visitors) to experience your most important products—your majors and minors—in depth and in detail? Can they find them easily from the home page (and elsewhere on the site), or do they have to wade through a whole lot of distracting images, graphics, and other eye candy?

That’s not to say that images aren’t important, or that you should accept bad web design. But a creative approach that is gratifying to a president, a CMO, or award givers may not be what today’s prospective students are looking for.

Stephanie Geyer is vice president for web strategy and interactive marketing services at Ruffalo Noel Levitz and puts together the company’s E-Expectations report on e-recruitment strategies. In shopping for a college in 2015, she said, teens pay attention to what their parents and counselors think, word-of-mouth among siblings and friends (powered these days by social channels like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook), and various college-produced sources of information.

Teens certainly rely on college websites as they shop—often looking at them on their phones first. A bad site can influence their opinion of a college. In fact, 78% of seniors and 77% of juniors said that a website has an effect on their perception of an institution and nearly half of seniors equate the quality of a site with the quality of the educational experience an institution offers, Geyer pointed out.

But teens are generally less interested in slick packaging than in certain key details: this year, the top content targets on a college website were academics (program listing, details, rankings); money (cost, scholarships); enrollment information; and campus life (residence halls, student life, athletics). That’s also what teens looked for last year too.

“Teens’ understanding of college is very sophisticated: what shapes their perception now is different and much more diverse than in my generation,” Geyer said. They may find a visually-rich home page enticing, the images tugging at their heartstrings, but they balk when they get to academic departments and find the content there lacking in detail and depth. “They come to the site and they may be impressed with beautiful graphics and engaging photos, but if they can’t find the info they need, their perception of the institution is tarnished.”

According to the E-Expectations research, the content on a college website that teens say demonstrates value to them (in order of most influential): job placement stats, testimonials/quotes, grad school placement stats, program rankings, program videos, accreditation details, faculty profiles.

So what are universities to do?

Geyer is emphatic: “You can’t regard a website as a project that’s started and finished. It requires ongoing attention. I understand how hard it is to create compelling content for academically focused web pages, but it’s essential to capture the attention of today’s teens.”


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