Marketing to Students

How to Capture Students’ Attention in a Crowded Digital World

Summary: We live in a media atmosphere like none ever seen before in history. In the “attention economy,” here are a few ways a university can stand out from the background noise and capture students’ attention.

Warning: The below article will not be your regularly-scheduled marketing article. Our usual staff is tied up in the janitor’s closet; we’re letting the kids take over today. This time, we’re exercising our creative capacity to think differently, and hence, market differently. Lots of university marketing out there is a stale, sleepy drone. Let’s change the station to Channel Woke!

On January 4th, 2019, an Instagram account was created named “world_record_egg” and uploaded a photo of – wait for it – an egg. Appended was the message “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this.” The egg went on to 54.8 million likes, and thus was born the most successful Instagram post ever, and the legend of the Instagram Egg.

Stay with us, now. We’re talking about how to get young people’s attention.

The egg was nothing special, a stock photo from Shutterstock. What was unique was the call to action, marshaling the ire of a generation that was burned out on “celebrity culture.” The egg wasn’t the important part. Spiting the Kardashians was the important part.

In January of 2021, the financial world was turned upside down when a pool of stock day-traders on Reddit decided to goose the value of GameStop stock. They were, again, galvanized by one person, Keith Gill, a financial analyst who started the ball rolling with a $50K investment in GameStop, which he believed was undervalued. Then he told other Redditors about how brokerage firms kill companies by short-selling stocks, and how this would happen to GameStop unless its price suddenly took off. The chart tells the rest of the story.

There is nothing particularly special about GameStop; the retail mall outlet staple has been choking from digital game sales competition for years now. What was unique was the call to action. This time the call was “let’s stick it to the man!” The “man” of the day was power Wall Street brokerages.

Stories like this are instructive.

What motivates the social media audience? Often it is a matter of finding a common, popular urge with a lot of passion behind it, making a soapbox speech about it, and leading a miniature populist revolt to accomplish some silly symbolic raid. There’s a luck factor too. It has to be the right time and place.


Knowing the Social Media Environment

So, a university needs to market to student candidates, which right now is mainly comprised of Generation Z, the trailing edge of Millennials, and the earliest upcoming Generation Alpha. These people generally spend hours per day with their noses in a phone. The first step in marketing in this environment is clear. You wouldn’t advertise on TV without ever watching TV; you wouldn’t advertise in magazines if you never picked one up. To talk to your social media audience, you have to learn the territory, play where they play, and listen to what they care about.

There are no shortcuts to this. If you’re saying, “but I already go on Facebook every day,” that’s not enough if by “Facebook” you mean reading your best friends’ posts. That’s too insulated, you’re inside a bubble.

It pays to keep tabs on every platform in the top fifteen social media services, so you know what the majority is up to. This means heading for the “trending” section, not just your own social circle.

And for the hopelessly lost, Reddit has a magical little forum called “Out Of the Loop,” where people catch up. You don’t need to know the backstory to every trending tag. It is enough to know that something’s trending sufficiently to provoke somebody to ask what’s going on. Another hot spot to watch is KnowYourMeme, which explains the seemingly incomprehensible thicket of online image-based humor in a way even grandma can understand.

This helps you in several ways: It helps you identify which social media channels to spend your marketing dollars on, and it helps you shape a message when you get there.


How Does This Help Me Convert Students To My University?

There is a method to this madness. People go on social media because they get something out of it. Like all popular media of the past, it is half-entertainment and half-information. What makes social media unique is that you get to participate, which makes you part of the action. So digital activism is a powerful motivator too.

Let’s start with the fun side.

What if your university did something daring and risky? Something nobody expects a university to do? How about the next time the bottle-flipping challenge is making the rounds, you hold a contest for a small bonus tuition grant based on who can win a bottle-flipping competition? Or take that time when sea shanties were popular out of nowhere, what if you had just posted a video of your whole football team tearing up “Wellerman”? What if you interrupted the current conversation on Dogecoin (a cryptocurrency) by announcing that your university had adopted it as an alternative currency in the campus cafeteria?

Zany publicity stunts? Hey, they work. El Arroyo is a Mexican restaurant in Austin Texas, but they’re Internet-famous because they make funny quotes on their sign and then post them on social media. Maybe your university can’t use exactly the same tactic, but the general lesson you can take away is to join in the fun. El Arroyo is actually using a time-tested marketing method that was first introduced on Burma Shave signs which once dotted the nation’s roadsides.

Check out some of Generation Z’s most loved brands. Obviously, most of the industries you see there are digital media, snack foods, technology, and entertainment. But just a few brands manage to poke their heads above the competition here, through lively marketing.


But Universities Are Serious Business…

Let’s not forget the other half of the motivations people have for going online: to be informed, and to support causes they care about. Each attention-getting tactic has its own tier of payoff. You can make a joke and everybody will pass it around, but then they forget it next week. Teach the public something interesting, and it will stick a bit longer. Stand and be a hero for five minutes, and they’ll be telling their grandkids about you.

Now, a university is on its home turf here. Universities are practically in the information business, are they not? Sharing videos and infographics on topics related to your course catalog should come naturally already. However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. Information can be dry and boring, or it can be engaging and exciting. What makes it exciting is how passionate the presenter is.

This is a gallery of Generation Z heroes. From left to right:

  • Bill Nye the Science Guy (long-running TV show)
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson (just a pop scientist who’s good on stage)
  • Mr. Rogers (TV show)
  • Carl Sagan (author and TV host)
  • Bob Ross (from The Joy of Painting)

We can add one more:

Mythbusters from the Discovery Channel.

You don’t have to hire a charismatic celebrity to sell your university. But you can take a hint from each of these people’s personalities, collated together, in how to present your message:

  • Smart but not condescending
  • Sincere
  • Utterly without scandal
  • Activist
  • Not afraid to speak out on important issues
  • Inclusive
  • Genuinely enthusiastic about their lesson
  • Playful and creative
  • A childlike sense of wonder

Now let’s look at the closest analogues to these characters: your teaching staff. Research Gate has a poll asking “What are the qualities of a good professor?” with answers that are eerily like the qualities we just discussed:

  • passion for the subject
  • humility
  • respect for all persons without prejudice
  • open-mindedness
  • leadership qualities
  • “human-first”

We hope your professors live up to these standards to some degree. Meanwhile, how do you communicate this quality through your marketing? You do this by sharing the same attitude. Make your marketing be enthusiastic, respectful, open-minded, and human first. When students see that your marketing takes the right attitude, they assume that these same qualities trickle down to the staff and faculty. Your school will sound like a place that puts the students first. It will sound like a student can go to the staff with a problem and the staff will actually listen.

Be free to share any information, as long as it’s engaging. Tell the audience statistics about students, careers, the economy, but make it be about the students, not the school. Share a fascinating fact touched on in your class curriculum. Let your most enthusiastic professor throw together a video lecture for TikTok, with the top five craziest moments in legal history. Your ad can be a simple “did you know?” with a fact about a sea turtle and directions to enroll in your marine biology course. Be fascinating.

Don’t just broadcast what you want the public to know. Find out what they want to know, then feed them a taste while promising them more. Show them you share their values. This is actually a tried and true marketing technique – you put a friendly, human face on the company. It’s why you’re buying cookies from an elf that lives in a hollow tree instead of a factory in Michigan.


What About Internet Activism?

We leave activism for last of all because while we can’t throw a dart without hitting a university that at least pays lip service to popular social values already, it’s also a played-out marketing ploy. Every company “virtue-signals.” If you’re going to show support for a cause, do it from the front page headlines and not from a tired sound bite like “we stand together with blah blah for a better tomorrow.”

Attaching lip service for a social justice cause to your marketing will come off as transparent. Never underestimate the young adult crowd’s cynicism when it comes to interacting with businesses. However, if you put “your money where your mouth is,” and show genuine action on these issues, that gets their attention.

It’s not hard at all for a university to align itself with a humanitarian issue. Universities have traditionally fallen in line with liberal sympathies already. So whenever your science department contributes to reducing global warming, your campus policy takes a new step in ending discrimination, or your school’s students even adopt a highway to pick up trash one weekend, just make sure it’s publicized in local news. Work it into your advertising message as long as it doesn’t sound like it was done just for the advertising.


But This Isn’t How Universities Market!

Correct! This is not an article about “how to blend into the background and be just more static noise.”

We all know, already, that students are seriously thinking about where to go to school, about their future career, about the large investment of time and money, and the hope for a payoff. We know that it’s serious business. Your school brochures and campus tours can take care of all that. We have a whole archive of the regular university marketing topics. We can deliver that lecture in our sleep now.

This is about getting attention, stopping that thumb from scrolling past your ad on the phone.

You need that arresting visual, engaging video, or powerful quote to get their attention in the first place. Attention spans are short, so you have to punch in fast. Once they’re listening, then you can give your standard spiel.

There is something to notice here regarding “nature vs nurture.” As far as nature goes, modern young adults are actually not so different from their counterparts in other decades. The difference is in the flashing, beeping media they have lived in. This shapes their attitude, which impacts how they receive your message.

Want to improve your college or university’s digital marketing strategy? Contact us! At Atlantic Digital Marketing, we have a team of higher education marketing professionals here to improve your digital reputation, manage your social media platforms, and implement SEO and PPC strategies that will truly capture student’s attention online.


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