How to Align Communications Strategy with Gen Z

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, because it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”

When Heraclitus said that, he wasn’t describing the flow of students you have to attract, but he came pretty close. Especially if you’ve spent years shaping and reshaping your communications strategies to have the highest impact on the Millennial mindset. Because Millennials have moved on, your new students will be Gen Z, and they’re very different.

The shift in their core beliefs can and should lead to positive updates in your brand strategy: the key messages you deliver that make you stand out. And the shift in their media consumption habits opens up entirely new creative opportunities that give you even more of a chance to stand out from your competition.

This is true whether you’re a college or university. In every case, besides your Gen Z prospects, their Early Millennial and Gen X parents need to be addressed in ways that resonate with them. That means it’s time for a close look at your brand strategy, your creative strategy, and your individual creative executions.

First of all, Gen Z is anybody born in 1995 or later, and they’re the largest demographic group in the country. At 25.9% of the total population, Gen Z has 4.55 million more members than the second largest group, Millennials (see fig. 1).




Fig. 1. Data from Julie Houpt, Denison University, and Bill Faust, Ologie, Engaging and Cultivating Millennials and Gen Z: Strategies and Tactics for Engaging Young Alumni, (2014), 17. Online presentation.


If you think you’ve developed effective strategies to deal with Millennial-style attitudes and values, it’s time to rethink for Gen Z. Here are a number of traits that make Gen Z even more of a challenge to communicate with than Millennials. And even more rewarding when you get it right (see fig. 2):

  Fig. 2. Data from Julie Houpt, Denison University, and Bill Faust, Ologie, Engaging and Cultivating Millennials and Gen Z: Strategies and Tactics for Engaging Young Alumni, (2014), 19. Online presentation.



The volume, variety, and velocity with which Gen Z likes to have information headed at them is likely to have your head spinning. You clearly can’t use the same old media the same old ways. Since they like to communicate with images, anything that takes time to digest – long-form brochures, static websites with massive word counts, and text-heavy emails – won’t attract the quality or quantity of Gen Z students you need. Even videos, if too long, won’t get it done.



There are a lot of different things that a generation could name as its deepest fear, and for Gen Z, it’s FOBO: Fear Of Being Offline. No joke: if you’ve ever experienced that momentary panic of leaving home without your cellphone, you know it’s real. Multiply that by a factor of X, and you can see the importance of real-time communication with this generation. Hint: If you’re starting to think about sending interesting images to their phones, you’re on the right track.



When you look at the social values they embrace, you’ll see some highly encouraging signs about this generation. These are exactly the types of values that quality schools hope to instill in students of every age.


Here are their most important social issues:


Fig. 3. Data from Leah Swartz and Skyler Huff at FutureCast, Jason Harper
at Barkley, Getting to Know Gen Z: How The Pivotal Generation is
Different From Millennials,
(2017), 18. Online report.

Fig. 4. Data from Julie Houpt, Denison University, and Bill Faust, Ologie,
Engaging and Cultivating Millennials and Gen Z: Strategies and Tactics for Engaging Young Alumni, (2014), 34. Online presentation.

They’re entrepreneurial:






Fig. 5. Data from Julie Houpt, Denison University, and Bill Faust, Ologie,

Engaging and Cultivating Millennials and Gen Z: Strategies and Tactics for

Engaging Young Alumni, (2014), 36. Online presentation.


Most important skills for workplace success:






Fig. 6. Data from Denise Villa, Ph.D and Jason Dorsey, The Center for

Generational Kinetics, LLC., The State of Gen Z 2017: Meet the Throwback

Generation, (2017), 10. Online Report.


Long after technology has made many of today’s current talents and skills obsolete, those are capabilities that will always be vital.


Brand strategy recommendations for colleges and universities:

Starting with Gen Z’s two most important social issues (see fig. 3), ask yourself, are your scholarships and other financial aid offerings competitive? If they are, make it a large priority to communicate them clearly.

Then assess how you rank for diversity. If you have a message in this area, say it loud and clear.

You’ve also seen that Gen Z is interested in social outreach (see fig. 4). So make it clear what opportunities students have to volunteer on and off campus, and possibly even receive credit for it. Also, describe the social causes your school, your faculty, your staff, and your alumni contribute to.

And this generation has an enormous interest in building their own companies (see fig. 5). If you have current students who can tell stories about the businesses they have already started or are working on, be sure to tell those stories. Infographics would work well here. And if you have an incubator on campus, that could also send a powerful message.

Of course, the same advice about communication skills and problem solving is just as true here (see fig. 6). And in a higher education context, you have even more opportunities to integrate this offering across disciplines. So if you are already doing this, be sure to market your pragmatic, success driven approach, and stress what a valuable dimension it can add to your liberal arts classes.

In other words, show that what they want aligns perfectly with what you can offer.


A final and critical stat and messaging recommendation:

Compared to Millennials, Gen Z isn’t as interested in a college degree (see fig. 7). This makes it even more important to discuss the real-world impact and relevancy of your degree programs.






Fig. 7 Data from Julie Houpt, Denison University, and Bill Faust, Ologie, Engaging and Cultivating Millennials and Gen Z: Strategies and Tactics for Engaging Young Alumni, (2014), 35. Online presentation.



We know it’s possible to refocus outreach strategies to make them more effective, because we’ve helped other institutions do it. Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan is a perfect example.

Working closely with the college, we conducted research that discovered their old messaging, which stressed convenience and affordability, made them appear like a commodity, because all community colleges offer those benefits. We learned that prospective students were looking to be challenged, but also want to be supported in their efforts to succeed. From this, we developed and tested six potential brand positions until this clear winner emerged:


Schoolcraft College students pursue their education, life and career goals with passion and rigor. As they achieve their academic goals and master essential life skills—initiative, teamwork, work ethic, and professionalism—they are preparing to navigate a highly competitive world. They acquire a deep sense of accomplishment and confidence, and are ready to excel in whatever they choose to do—because they know what to do, and how to get it done.

Building on the strength of this concept, we then developed Supportive Messages, brand voice, and brand standards and guidelines to ensure consistent messaging across media and channels. Once this solid foundation was in place, we focused on their old communications. They were text-heavy, and based on facts the Gen Z audience cared little about:




The new communications we created were image-based and tapped into Gen Z members’ readiness to work hard for their success. And they worked to turn common misperceptions about community colleges on their heads. They also respected Gen Z attitudes about marketing. 65% of Gen Z members have a serious aversion to slick, overly perfect imagery. Also, they have no interest in following the herd. 77% of them want to see real people in real environments.2

So we gave them the imagery and messaging they made it clear they prefer.



The results?

Schoolcraft has consistently outperformed its competitors in unduplicated headcount — in some cases by double digits — over the last five years.



To recap, there are three areas where you can make positive changes to your communications strategy: Your brand strategy, your creative strategy, and your creative execution.

Your Brand Strategy: Figure out what you need to say and to whom, so the message is authentic to your institution and valuable to your audience. This can and should include aligning the key attributes of your school with the values of your Gen Z prospects.

Your Creative Strategy: Determine how to say it so that audiences on both sides of the generational divide want to listen. Use a highly focused creative brief to guide your efforts.

Creative Execution: Determine where and when to say it so the message arrives at the right time, in the right format (digital, print, broadcast) in the relevant channel (social, search, email, direct mail, in person) and on the right platform (Facebook, Snapchat, College Confidential, college fairs, etc.).



Most importantly, remember that you’re not alone. At EdwardsCo, we’re communicating successfully with Gen Z every day, and are happy to share our insights and techniques with you.

For colleges and universities we will conduct a 60-minute webinar that covers the subjects we’ve touched on here in depth, and will include time for live Q&A.




  1. Engaging and Cultivating Millennials and Gen Z: Strategies and Tactics for Engaging Young Alumni, by Julie Houpt, Denison University, and Bill Faust, Ologie, 2014.


  1. The State Of Gen Z 2017: Meet the Throwback Generation, by Denise Villa, Ph.D. and Jason Dorsey, The Center for Generational Kinetics, LLC., April 2017, copyright 2017.


Posted on September 27, 2017 in Brand Strategy, Creative Execution, Creative Platform, Higher Education, Ideas and insights

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