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Is Your College Communications Strategy Ready for Gen Z 2.0?

Communications and marketing professionals have repeated the adage a thousand times: know your audience.

August 31, 2021
 
 

We’ve celebrated Gen Z as the largest and most ethnically diverse generation in American history. We’ve crafted narratives and employed communication modes to engage them as digital natives, social justice warriors and pragmatic decision makers.

But then, COVID-19.

Pandemics do not distinguish between generational boundaries. Gen Z’s COVID experience includes much of the same massive disruption and fears that their older siblings, parents and grandparents have had to bear. Just as parents juggled working from home, students, too, had to do their jobs (studying) with fewer resources and more distractions. Students with paying part-time jobs to support tuition and living expenses found themselves out of work, leaving some with new or worsened housing and food insecurities. Originally considered at lower risk for the disease, Gen Z students have watched peers test positive, get sick, be hospitalized and some even die. They have been wrestling with the same uncertainty, lack of in-person social interaction and concerns about the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. In the COVID context you could replace “Gen Z” with the name of any generation before them, and the majority of generational characteristics would all match, differentiated only by magnitude.

So who’s a snowflake now?

My first week back on campus full-time, I attended a lunch-and-learn hosted by the dean of students and the director of the counseling center. Designed primarily for faculty, the session offered tips for supporting­ students with re-entry to campus this fall. We discussed vocalizing empathy, clarifying ambiguity, referring resources and communicating signs of excessive stress. From my perspective, these important tactics are not uniquely for humans ages 18 to 24, rather, they address needs of any adult regardless of their age.

After conducting an informal narrative analysis of webpages by the top 20 public universities and top 20 private liberal arts colleges, I developed a list of five tips (along with actual examples) for post-pandemic communications and marketing strategy for Gen Z, which I now prefer to think of as Z 2.0.

  1. Stop thinking of your students as snowflakes. They are adult humans who have been through a lot, and they are more resilient than you think. Acknowledge their pains and fears as well as their triumphs. For example, “[Name of college] has made important commitments to high school students graduating in 2022. We hope this information provides clarity and relief during an otherwise stressful time.”
  2. Use fewer directives and employ friendlier language. The combination of first person and present tense is familiar to young adults and feels inclusive. Just as we frequently develop personas to represent our audiences, try creating one to represent your institutional voice (or voices). How do you want students to imagine your narrator -- credible and approachable or bossy and pretentious?
  3. Do tell students what they should expect from you. A mentor once told me that it is the communicator’s job to humanize the institution. Gen Z students like having clear directions, and it’s possible to do that while expressing vulnerability at the same time. Sometimes it’s just fine to say, “You know, I don’t have all the answers right now, but I will get back to you tomorrow with what I find out.”
  4. Be specific about how to engage in and contribute to the campus community. “Here you’ll be a part of a close-knit community that cares for one another.” What does that really mean and how exactly do I do that?
  5. Practice real talk and active listening instead of making assumptions about a narrative that you think they want to hear. “We have everything you’re looking for.” Everything? How do you know?

Gen Z remains the generation that is less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to go to college. However, as Dave Clayton, senior vice president at Strada Education, points out, the two most recent classes of high school graduates have experienced one of the greatest disruptions of educational experience, and they need our help to reconnect.

Now is the time to revisit the research you used to develop your student and prospective student communications plan. You don’t need a large budget to conduct surveys and to host focus groups on your own campus. For prospective student research, I strongly recommend partnering with your enrollment leadership to understand how high school students’ rational and emotional thinking may have changed over the last 18 months. And on that matter, this pandemic simply is not over yet.

Melissa Farmer Richards serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

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