Today’s college-age students, by a growing proportion every year, are from Generation Z, and we’re gradually learning quite a bit about them. In some ways, this generation runs along an axis of values and trends set before them by previous generations, while in other ways, they take off in their own direction.
Not only is Generation Z the most native to digital technology yet, but they are the social media generation, which has fundamentally changed their concept of authority, expertise, and opinion. Going by think tank studies, Generation Z is more likely to turn to peer review for information on business transactions.
- 41% of them follow brands on Instagram
- 99% are more likely to rely on word of mouth and online reviews when choosing a restaurant
- 68% read three or more reviews before making a first-time purchase
- 30% have made a word-of-mouth recommendation
In addition, we have the rise of influencer marketing, which is basically marketing by a social media spokesperson. The same way celebrities might have sold products over broadcast media to previous generations, so do influencers sell products over social media to Generation Z. It’s a brave new world of marketing – and it hinges on word-of-mouth!
Since deciding on which college to attend is the kind of decision that calls for serious research, this means that your school’s word-of-mouth reputation is out there now. Can you direct this conversation?
School choice is a significant life decision, with some risk involved because the rest of your life will be determined by the career paths you take, starting with your completed education. When students are making this decision, they have several important criteria to consider:
- Career prospects
- Academic quality
- School reputation
- Geographic location
- Cost of attendance
- School culture
Of course, since Generation Z was practically born with a phone in their hand, they turn to digital means for research. As we linked back in that Pew Research study, the majority of Generation Z reports being online “all the time.” Where do these students go to research your school?
Typically the online research path goes like this:
- School website
- School blogs and social media
- Discussion forums about schools
- Rankings and reviews about schools
- Friends, family, teachers, and peers (through Facebook)
The pattern resembles a decision process born of a lack of faith in institutions, but a strong faith in the power of community. The reasoning for not trusting “expert” opinions is, why trust a source with a financial motivation to bias their opinion? Thus, they eschew commercials and ads and consider the opinion of the university itself second-hand. But by weighing the opinion of neutral peers, they hope to screen out errors and arrive at the most correct answer.
This process is actually the old made new again. It’s consensus decision making, such as the Quaker-based model. At its heart is a belief in democratic values and a deep-rooted sense of fairness. And the Generation Z decision process, by consensus of peers, is designed to prevent manipulation of the outcome by entities that have a stake in it—except for the student, of course.
Yet word-of-mouth is not entirely out of your control…
Create Exemplary Experiences to Get More Word-of-Mouth Recommendations
This part should go without saying. A student who has not had a satisfactory experience with your institution won’t make a good recommendation for it. Naturally, you should do everything you can to listen to student concerns, address the complaints or issues they may have, and constantly strive to improve your school’s service.
But beyond this common-sense approach, there are more subtle forces at play that can guide you to a favorable outcome. Start by asking “Why don’t these students trust experts?” It’s because they are perceived as not caring about the student’s welfare over their profit motive. You can change that impression through the magic of empathy and sincerity— the rare qualities these students are actually seeking.
Throughout your school’s staff and faculty, and through your marketing message, you should adopt empathic practices. Understand the student’s concerns and challenges. Utilize your staff to act as mentors, tutors, and student liaisons, keeping more communication channels open more of the time.
Some guidelines for empathic communication:
- Transparency: It is fine to say that you have a profit motive, that your school policy is set a certain way, or even to tell the student that you have no easy solution to their problem. But make sure they understand the “why.”
- Listen to the concerns of students: You get points just for being a set of ears. Even listening shows that you care.
- Be as helpful as possible: Provide every solution you can. If you don’t have a solution, bring it to the students by using the same consensus decision process – how would they solve the problem?
- Embrace technology: Stay in the social media trenches, communicate through the same channels they do.
- Use automation, chatbots, and SMS alerts: It may seem counterintuitive to say “be empathic” and then “use a bot,” but if a problem is trivial enough that a bot can answer it, that frees a responsible adult to listen to a problem the bot can’t solve.
This is the beginning of entering the new realm of Generation Z’s values. You might start to notice that the deck wasn’t stacked against your marketing efforts as much as you might have first thought. If you can just impress students that you care about them as people, that goes a long way.
It is mind-boggling how much we all use social media nowadays. In the age bracket of 18-29, 88% are on social media, spending time on their platform of choice daily. The remarkable thing is that no medium previously has been so engrossing for its users. Even the most dedicated couch potato turns off the TV sometimes. Now? We have people going to sleep with the phone on their chest.
So we have to engage students on social media, using the same popular platforms they do, and then we have to participate in their conversations. While we are there, even if we don’t count as “a peer,” we can amplify good word of mouth from their actual peers.
- Feature the achievements of students at your school
- Celebrate your school victories
- Reshare student content—especially when they praise your school
- Run interactive events
- Host small contests
- Solicit student-generated content
Here is a new university marketing buzzword for the year: the “student takeover.” It’s where the students get to drive your school’s social media channel for a whole day. This is done with some preparation beforehand and the knowledge that the students are doing so as a representative of your school. You can set the tone, giving this a fun “anarchy” theme, or serving as a consequence-free day for the students to communicate in their own words.
Student takeovers are a fun idea, one that could only be born in the Generation Z climate of egalitarian social media. Here again, we are meeting them on their ground. Boy, it sure is great that your school isn’t bothering students with all that stuffy “marketing,” isn’t it?
The law of averages is on your side the more reviews you solicit. That’s because the average person, students included, is a generally nice person who doesn’t like to say mean things. The more reviews you solicit, the better your average, and the more you can tout the good reviews.
Remember that people also like to blow off steam, so if you never solicit reviews or any other kind of feedback, a frustrated student is going to vent anyway—by complaining in a long Snapchat or Instagram Story rant. Rather than have them broadcast a toxic opinion to the world, providing them with a direct line to you defuses that problem before it starts. A few sour apples might still gripe on social media anyway, but Generation Z also understands that there’s no pleasing some people.
While you’re farming these great reviews, keep an eye out for student ambassador material. High academic performers are great candidates since they’re showing full engagement with the school experience already. Turn your student ambassadors over into your school’s own “influencers.”
Your former students can be social media ambassadors too. Their word-of-mouth is the most valuable of all to new students making a decision. Your alumni already graduated and are now (hopefully) living out a successful career. Nurture a relationship with them and keep them in touch with university goings-on.
Just as with anybody else, your university alumni will appreciate some empathy too. So don’t write them just to hit them up for a donation. Send them personalized communications they’ll be interested in, like news related to their field of study or perhaps updates from their athletic department. Once you have engaged alumni, invite them to speak at school events, invite them as guests to open houses, and see if they can do a little community outreach.
Like many developments over new forms of media, word-of-mouth turns out not to be such a new thing after all. It’s based on very old, even prehistoric tribal, ideals. At the same time, it has points where savvy marketing can infiltrate it just like any other media paradigm.
As always, marketing is at least 50% psychology. Treat this article as your little safari guide into the jungles of social media to observe the Generation Z student in their natural habitat. Learn to think like they do, speak their language, communicate through their channels, and they’ll be putty in your hands!