There's No Faking It

Authenticity has been and will always be valued. Guest blogger Donna Lehmann reflects on what it means to be authentic when communicating with future students.

June 25, 2015

Last month, AdWeek urged us marketers to move on. "Still Obsessing Over the Millennials?" it asked, "Here are 6 Rules for Reaching Generation Z." We have seemingly ushered another generation into adulthood and now here’s a new crop of college-bound youngsters with a listicle of distinct attributes and marketing vulnerabilities. Ready the cannons.

One attribute stood out, however, as familiar. “For brands looking to engage Gen Z, authenticity rules,” writes Bill Aperti, senior VP of a software company that creates online communities for corporate brands. “Don't be afraid to create content that is real.” 

For several years now in higher ed marketing circles, authenticity has been a frequent theme when talking about Millennials. Write in an authentic voice. Create authentic video. Offer authentic experiences on a campus tour. For Generation Z, the AdWeek article suggests, “Have #NoFilter.”

And to this I say, well d’uh.

Hasn’t good advertising and marketing always been authentic? The best marketing is always in lock step with a company’s or institution’s identity and for that reason it rings true and resonates with audiences. Authenticity has been and will always be valued.

Meet Generation Z

But that’s not to say this new generation doesn’t experience authenticity differently, especially in the context of choosing a college. That idea is what I set out to explore in an informal interview with Emily Martin, a 20-year-old Fordham University student. 

Born in 1995, Emily has just completed her freshman year, and our discussion moved between advertising in general, her online media consumption, and the factors that influenced her college decision. It was an offhand anecdote, though, that made this Gen Xer feel Victorian and deeply nuanced the notion of authenticity in higher education marketing for me.

As an eight-year-old, having saved up her allowance to buy a new CD player, Emily conducted extensive online research prior to making her purchase. Yup, by eight, she was proficient in comparison shopping on the internet. 

Our Voice is but One of Many

Authenticity in our marketing materials is important, but it is a small piece of the picture a prospective student will craft of our institutions. We are but one voice in a massive cacophony of online opinions. 

When making her college decision, Emily took in all the user-generated content available online about Fordham and her other top choice Villanova — Youtube, College Confidential, Unigo, Rate my Professor, Yelp. “You learn to separate the negative comments into ones that matter and ones that don’t. At every school, people complain about the food.” 

She also pored over each school’s officially-sanctioned website, brochures, and videos. “They provided a background on the schools so I understood what each offered.” These claims would be fact-checked in various online forums where other prospective students, current students, and alumni are sharing personal experience with abandon. 

It was the campus visit that sealed the deal for Emily, which is the case for more and more prospective students. A recent Boston Globe article describing some of the fickleness of teenage visitors to campus reported that schools have been seeing 30-50 percent increases in the number of campus visits in the past few years. Perhaps for these young people, the only way to gauge authenticity is to see a place with their own eyes.  

In the deluge of opinion in our data-soaked world, authenticity is very difficult to judge. Maybe this generation holds authenticity especially dear because disingenuousness is so easily discovered. Yes authenticity matters. It has always mattered. It’s just a lot harder to come by these days.

Donna Lehmann is the director of online communications at Fordham University in New York City.


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