Know Your Prospects: Lessons from MTV and Teen Vogue

(The following is an excerpt from Screen Time: Understanding Generation Z, the just-published e-book written by Capture Higher Ed Senior Content Writer Sean Hill. Download your free copy today.)

If there’s one thing I share — we all share — with today’s teen and tween, it’s the fact that I can listen to any song I love, right now, thanks to YouTube, or Spotify. But here the analogy ends.

MTV learned this the hard way. Between 2012 and 2017, MTV saw its audience of 18 to 24 year olds — the last of the Millennials and the first of Gen Z — decrease by 50 percent. Like other ventures in the corporate world, they were slow to respond to the increasing viewing of video on social platforms. If MTV had anything going for it, it was name recognition, which amounts to brand recognition. When 42-year-old Chris McCarthy became president of MTV Networks, he had to “salvage an old-media brand that had lost its way in an era of nimble You-Tubers and audience-sapping diversions like Snapchat.”

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That’s how Fast Company explained the latest MTV Movie & TV Awards as the ultimate deep-sea salvage project. The iconic “Moonman” award statue became the “Moon Person.” Award categories did away with gender. Pink gave a speech about resisting gender conformity and Kendrick Lamar sang about black identity.

At this point, the names I’m quoting may confuse you. As an enrollment manager, you don’t need to know the names — but you need to know what these actions represent. What made the awards show and its performances so prescient to the target audience, Gen Z, were the values of diversity and empowerment. That is the message that MTV harnessed — and the network’s ratings have responded favorably. In a single year, their prime time rating went up 31 percent.

MTV is conducting an ongoing study of Gen Z: their tastes, values and habits. They found that the kids today spend two-thirds of their waking day consuming content. They do not appreciate multicultural humor — i.e., racist or gay jokes. And, of course, they are digitally connected to a level that the older generations probably can’t fathom. So when MTV rebooted Total Request Live, a show last seen a decade ago, Fast Company explains, it was “engineered to generate viral moments … spread, in various ways, across platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat,, and YouTube.” Do you need to know who Nicki Minaj is? Probably not.

Do you need to know what Snapchat is? Yes.

But why? One answer, surprisingly, comes from Teen Vogue. If you haven’t heard about the entirely revamped Teen Vogue, you’re missing a key to understanding the kids who will soon be your prospective students. Teen Vogue’s Facebook page posted a video where undocumented youth — teen girls, to be exact — talk about their experience. They publish articles about toxic masculinity and rape culture. Teen Vogue is, in short, revolutionary. And they know exactly whom they are talking to.

And so should enrollment managers. Case in point: Teen Vogue recently ran a slideshow showing twelve schools that make excellent use of community geofilters on Snapchat. Now, I am well aware that the phrase “community geofilters on Snapchat” may be gobbledy-gook to some of my readers, just as it would have been for me … if, that is, I hadn’t have done my homework. Here’s what Marissa Miller says on Teen Vogue’s site:

“Once you begin your search for the perfect college, you might be torn between listening to what your parents tell you and what your guidance counselors advise. Here’s an unconventional approach: Before a campus visit, take a look at how students celebrate their institution through the art of Snapchat geofilters. You’ll familiarize yourself with their sports teams, official colors, mascots, and more.

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“With a mix of creativity and a love for their campus,” she continues, “a Snapchat representative shared with Teen Vogue an awesome batch of geofilters that show a side of student life only a prospective student could appreciate.” As my daughter says: Wait, what?

Penn State University. Ohio State. Florida State. University of Maryland. Michigan State. Even Harvard has a geofilter! Where’s yours?

I’m not suggesting you run out and work on a Snapchat filter today. In fact, I’m not suggesting the enrollment office do this at all. What I am suggesting is to find out if your students already have one! And use it. And if they don’t, then put it on the calendar — and, better yet, ask a student to help. After all, this is a generation that wants empowerment. If they do it themselves, it will express one of their inalienable values: authenticity.

To get the full story on Gen Z, download Capture’s new e-book, Screen Time: Understanding Generation Z.

By Sean Hill, Senior Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed