Gen Z and the Evolution of Marketing


As Communications professionals in education, our primary responsibility is to create a meaningful connection with best-fit prospective students and donors because when they feel truly connected in a meaningful way, they are much more likely to attend and support the institution.

We try and try. We spend a lot of money, and no matter how brilliant we are as marketers and communications professionals, we can only do so much. Copywriting, photography, traditional video have significant limitations. They try to mimic what it’s really like.

First, we try telling them “This is who we are. This is what we offer. These are the benefits of choosing us….” Unless you’re a world-class storyteller, your audience might get an intellectual understanding, but they won’t be moved.

Then we try showing them what it’s like through beautiful photography, traditional video, profiles of students or recent grads. These can be much better. If they can see it, they’re more likely to be able to envision themselves there – at your school –  which is critical to creating an applicant out of a stranger and a matriculating student out of an accepted one.

But both these approaches – telling and showing – provide only a narrow lens and scripted narrative of life on campus. Gen Z will have none of it. They want the real deal. According to the Center for Generational Kinetics, 75% of Gen Zers like ads that show real people in real situations, and 65% dislike ads that make people look perfect.

Let’s face it, because of the proliferation of reality TV and a youth culture that reports every aspect of their lives through Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube, Gen Z prospects see traditional, promotional videos, brochures, and ads as sanitized marketing spin. They want nothing short of the real story.


The next step in our evolution is to connect more deeply with prospective students, provide a real feeling of life on campus. As marketers for schools, we must get comfortable with showing real human interactions. This is a giant leap forward in terms of authenticity and, if done well, means showing imperfections; doing so creates a meaningful connection.

The best way to do this is through virtual student experiences.

To be clear, I’m not talking about YouVisit or drone videos, which are tours of the facilities – buildings, landscaping, and the campus layout. They serve an entirely different purpose – facilities. Nice facilities are an important factor in choosing a school but nowhere near as important as the feeling of fit. We have done hundreds of quantitative studies with colleges from tiny liberal arts to large state institutions, and the one predictor that consistently determines their final choice of school is “fit.” “Will I fit in? Will I be comfortable? Will I belong?”

Because facilities don’t capture the spirit of the school, they cannot convey fit. And if you want to convert prospects to applicants and accepted students to matriculants, you must connect with students in a meaningful way.

A truly effective virtual student experience deeply engages and immerses the viewer. It creates an emotional connection to the school. It allows students to feel what it would actually be like, not look like. This is a video with human engagement. These are videos that put the viewer right in the middle of the action – hanging out in the student center, in the middle of an impromptu dorm jam session.

Virtual student experiences are better than even the best storytelling done through traditional video because traditional video still feels like you are being force-fed one person’s POV. You have limited perspective. You cannot see anything other than what the videographer wants you to see. It feels restrictive, and it feels fake-ish.

With 360 student experiences, you see what you want to see. You turn your head. You look around. You look down. You can tune into different conversations happening in the space. As a consequence, you don’t feel alone. You don’t feel like an outsider looking in. That is a major difference between 360 student experiences and traditional video.

This isn’t just some cool new technology; this is a leap ahead in terms of your institution’s ability to actually connect emotionally with students.

As with all things marketing, you have to tell a good story for it to work. You have to tell the story in the way that your target audiences want to hear. And that is a talent that is worth paying for. Your return on investment in virtual student experiences – produced by people who will take the time to understand your campus culture and craft a compelling story – will be much much greater than the return on 10 traditional videos that don’t connect.

Posted on September 20, 2017 in Creative Execution, Higher Education, Ideas and insights, Independent Schools, Recruiting, Video, Virtual Reality

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