Promoting Your Institution’s Value Propositions, Part 2: Authenticity

These days, we read a lot about Generation Z’s desire for authenticity, the need for authentic messaging when trying to reach them, and the idea that, as a university, your marketing must appeal to them through your uniqueness, your originality — your realness. This shouldn’t seem terribly new or strange. Students of past generations never said: “Do you know what resonates with me when I’m looking for a college? Something fake, ordinary and derivative.”  

But unlike previous generations, Gen Z grew up on the Internet, in a digital jungle constantly advertising and marketing to them from seemingly all angles. This has made them a savvy and suspicious lot … with highly sensitive BS meters. Authenticity in higher ed marketing — cultivating a “be you, be real, be here” sense of belonging with your prospective students — is crucial to attracting students who will thrive on your campus and help you meet your enrollment goals.

Half-a-Million New Installs a Day?

For evidence of your prospective students’ yearning for authenticity look no further than the rapid growth of BeReal, the photo-sharing app launched right before the pandemic in December 2019. The app is seeing approximately 500,000 new installs a day, with growth in the U.S. market leading the way. 

According to What’s New in Publishing, “… BeReal has caught the fancy of Gen Z and is registering consistent, rapid growth. Its focus on authenticity attracts a younger audience and makes it potentially useful for publishers looking to build engagement and deeper connections.”

The pandemic seems to have only increased young people’s appetite for deeper, more authentic connections. This Gen Z study review from EY found that:“92% indicated that being authentic and true to oneself is extremely or very important. Those reporting it being extremely important increased 16 percentage points from pre-pandemic.”

It’s clear that authenticity is highly sought out by members of Gen Z when they make purchasing decisions. For colleges and universities, this means your brand messaging must articulate the type of experience each student will have at your institution if they decide to go there.

Start by using your own pen.

Institutions have their own unique stories, heritage, offerings, and brands. So, why do so many appear, sound and feel so much alike in their marketing? There’s a good chance they are using the same template. Historically, big marketing vendors have excelled at partnering with clusters of institutions in the same region. You see it in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio … institutions in the same area (sometimes the same city!) using the same large company to compete for the same students.

It’s no wonder this college’s story starts looking much like that college’s story. Singularity diminishes. Individuality fades. And, just down the street, your competitor — the one you know is extraordinarily different — is writing its story with a very similar pen.

8 Ways to Connect

From email to video to social media, identifying and understanding the best ways to communicate with members of Generation Z — your prospective students — is in constant evolution. But here are eight ways we know that colleges and universities can better connect with this generation.

No. 1 – Be unique to your institution. Again, don’t use the same pen that your competitors use. Don’t create marketing content in which another school’s name could replace yours … and it would still make sense. Gen Z doesn’t want anything that isn’t real. They want to know the brand and the person behind the email and behind the camera. Consider employing a “no photoshop, no stock image policy.” What makes your school stand out? What’s important to you? What makes you distinct? What do you offer that no one else has?

Student Voice

No. 2 – Use current student voices to tell your story. These are the voices your prospective students want to hear. If you use your students to tell your story, they become influencers; there’s no other school that can use your student voices, so it’s the most natural way to be authentic and distinct. Highlight their successes, show their personalities and let them tell their unique stories.

No. 3 – Communicate visually. Your prospective students love YouTube! It’s estimated that more than 95 percent of them watch YouTube regularly … and also love viewing content on Instagram Reels and Tik Tok. Communicate through videos. Also, use engaging graphics, emojis, gifs and eye-catching photos of your students. According to this DiveWire research from 2020, 82% of Gen Zers say they “trust a company more if it uses images of real customers in its advertising.”

Authenticity Marketing

No. 4 – Encourage the student to get connected through social media. Use your emails and ads as opportunities for your prospects to connect with your school through social media. Create social media packages for your prospects — send them cover photos and other elements they can use for Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. This is another way to meet them where they are and give them something they can share with their friends and peers.

Affordability Focus

No. 5 – Focus on affordability. Put messages about finances and affordability upfront with students and their families. It’s top of mind for your prospective students and certainly for their parents. With trepidation around the economy — the potential for a recession, surging inflation and ongoing political upheaval — students and families are investigating any way to make a college education more affordable.

No. 6 – Meet them where they are.Use marketing automation (like Capture’s ENGAGE  developed specifically for higher ed recruitment), which allows you to give prospective students messages, in real time, based on their behavior on your website. How do you communicate with a student who said she was interested in engineering last year but has visited seven nursing pages on your website in the past week? You should probably tell her more about your nursing program.

No. 7 -Get to the point quickly. Don’t bury your prospective students in content. That’s not what this generation wants. Their average attention span, according to some studies, is less than eight seconds and falling. Make your content simple and direct. Get to the point quickly. Don’t write more. Write smarter.

No.8 – Try new things! The pace of change from traditional recruiting methods to more of a digital delivery and footprint accelerated dramatically during the pandemic. Have you been challenged to shape your traditional messages into a digital experience? Exponential change is now the norm for higher education. Constantly try new things. Experiment, evolve and make your own change … instead of constantly having change happen to you.

Meet Them Where They Are

This concludes Part 2 of Capture’s new blog series, Promoting Your Institution’s Value Propositions, on marketing authenticity. Part 1 centered on Affordability. In keeping with our fondness for alliteration, the final two upcoming installments will look at communicating your Adaptability and Accessibility. Stay tuned … and feel free to get in touch!

By Kevin Hyde, Senior Content Manager, Capture Higher Ed