Is Your Campus Visit Experience Ready for Gen Z?

Carnegie Higher Ed Sep 19, 2019 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

I did some reading on marketing to Gen Z this summer, and something from Mark Beal’s Decoding Gen Z got me thinking about college campus visits, specifically how we in higher education shape the visit experience and where there is opportunity to improve to better meet the needs of today’s prospective students.

Beal writes, “Gen Z has moved past storytelling and is interested in experiencing brands through ‘story living.’ Gen Z wants to be active participants in events and experiences.”

Does your campus visit experience cater to that desire for story living? What does that even mean?  

Who is Gen Z, really?

We all know Gen Z kids differ in many ways from the millennials we spent the past decade trying to figure out. They are masters of multitasking, more adept at processing information from multiple sources, and have a shorter attention span than any previous generation. Millennials were mobile first; Gen Z-ers are mobile only. They are savvy consumers and have spent much of their teenage life curating their own personal brands on social media. So when it comes time to find a college or university—or a pair of shoes or cup of coffee—they are looking for brands that align with their own.

All this boils down to one simple fact: Gen Z has higher expectations for marketing. Above all, they want control over the experience, they want content customized to who they are, and they want your message to be authentic.

But what does this all mean for your campus visits?

College tours must be authentic

We surveyed more than 6,000 college-bound high schoolers this spring through CollegeXpress, and the overwhelming feedback was that today’s prospective students aren’t sure how to differentiate one school from another. They are desperate for you to tell them honestly who you are as an institution and who you are not. Your visit experience is the best opportunity to do that.

Colleges and universities are not all the same—we know that. But industry marketing has fallen into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone. You simply can’t do that. Your goal at a campus visit should not be to yield 100% of visitors; it should be to yield 100% of those visitors who connect with and are attracted to the authentic story of your institution. Be bold about telling that story and how it makes you distinctively different.   

Give Gen Z custom, personalized campus visit experiences

How much of your campus visit experience do you let prospective students and their families control? Like really control. It’s a lot of work to create customized experiences for prospective students, but it’s well worth it in the end.

First, do you know enough about your visitors to be able to customize the experience? I’m not just talking about academic and cocurricular interests. Those things are great but standard. Do you know what’s driving their college decision process, and can you appeal to that in an authentic way during their visit? If not, the visit registration form is a great place to find out.

Share ownership between marketing and admission teams 

The campus visit is one of your institution’s most valuable marketing tools. I’m shocked by the number of schools—small and large, public and private—where the often understaffed, undertrained, and overwhelmed admission counseling team is designing and executing the entire campus visit experience in a vacuum, including the sacred presentation. There’s no more captive audience than your campus visitors, and the visit experience is your greatest opportunity to not only yield future students but also create word-of-mouth evangelists for your brand.

So, admission friends, reach out to your central marketing colleagues across campus and ask if they’d be willing to help shape messaging for your campus visit. You might be surprised by what you hear.

Finally, create an emotional connection

Too often, admission presentations are jam-packed with information yet lack distinct stories that will appeal to the emotions and capture the imaginations of the audience. This is the lowest hanging fruit in the industry.

You don’t need to convert campus visitors to enrolled students on site. You can’t. You just need to build the relationship. You need to make them feel something—something powerful and lasting and real that will make them want to come back to campus again and again. That’s it. Everything else (admission requirements, academic program offerings, cocurricular activities, housing, etc.) is just details. 

When I went on my first date with my wife, I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t know her favorite food, her coffee order, her preference on dark vs. milk chocolate, or the way she liked her eggs. I didn’t know her birthday or her shoe size. I know all that now, and so much more, because we had an emotional connection, and last week we celebrated our 15th anniversary.

Trust me—if they fall in love with your authentic story, they’ll come back for the details.

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