How to convert more Applicants into enrolled Students

    An introduction to Generation Z for higher education marketers and recruiters

    Colin Cheng, Strategic Digital Account Director at Minttwist, explains ways universities can engage with members of Generation Z
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    Colin Cheng is Strategic Digital Account Director at MintTwist, an award-winning, a full-service digital agency in London. He explains what makes members of Generation Z distinctive and what universities must do to engage with this demographic.

    Generation Z are the current undergraduate recruits and will be postgraduate cohorts in the near future. This means they should be front and centre of higher education recruitment. However, it’s not necessarily the case that members of older generations understand their requirements, behaviour and how they should be marketed to.

    At Bett 2017 this January, I explained some of Generation Z’s key characteristics so that higher education marketers can best adapt their marketing strategies and channels. Here’s a summary of my talk.

    Who are Generation Z?

    It’s worth pointing out that the terms millennials and generation Z are often used interchangeably. There are actually some key differences: millennials are identified as people born in the 80s and 90s, while many demographers class members of Generation Z as those born in the late-90s onwards. I would specifically argue that members of Generation Z are people who can’t really remember a pre-Internet world. They have literally been always on.

    Millennials occupy an interesting place in humanity’s evolution. They straddle the digital zeitgeist: they’re perhaps too young to fully appreciate the dot-com boom in the late 90s, but they grew up parallel to digital advancement.

    In comparison, Generation Z probably can’t remember a world where you didn’t have an internet connection; where you bought physical CDs (or even cassette tapes); where phones didn’t have touchscreens. For me, this is one of the most the fundamental characteristics of Generation Z.

    Defining Generation Z’s user behaviour

    Much has been made about millennials and it’s often stated that they’re the most studied and analysed generation in history. And while much has been made about developments in parenting strategies (which cover both millennials and Generation Z), I will instead be exploring some specific user behaviours.

    Digital natives

    Members of Generation Z were born into a world where it was normal for you to not only have multiple electronic devices but also to have readily available internet access. No dial-up modem and getting kicked off the internet when your mum wanted to use the phone. They’ve grown up in a time when their phone is vastly more sophisticated and intelligent than any computer I ever had at that age.

    As such, they’re incredibly adept at embracing new technology. This isn’t to say all new technological advancements will be a success (the growth in wearable tech hasn’t quite reached the lofty expectations people were predicting), but they accept and embrace technological developments.

    It’s not uncommon for members of Generation Z to have five or more devices. This includes:

    • a smartphone
    • a laptop
    • a tablet
    • a desktop
    • a games console
    • a piece of wearable tech
    • a smart TV

    And the list goes on.

    While millennials grew up on much fewer (think a computer and a feature phone with limited internet connectivity), members of Generation Z are digital natives who are comfortable multitasking across several different devices.

    Having said that, mobile is the device of choice. Not just for Generation Z: we’re increasingly living in a mobile-first world. This touches all aspects of marketing (digital and traditional) so adopting a mobile-first approach is paramount.

    Image by Matthias Ripp, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

    Attention spans

    Research has shown that members of Generation Z have an eight-second attention span – a decrease from 11 seconds for the previous generation. This isn’t to say they can barely focus for a long period. They actually compute information and relevancy extremely quickly.

    For example:

    Is this Facebook post interesting to me?


    Scroll on.

    This poses a problem for marketing. We need to embrace a much more front-loaded marketing strategy. Whether it’s video or web content, catching a Generation Z’s attention is paramount.

    Visual communication

    Millennials can be defined by their communication via words. Emails and text messages were the channels of choice. But we can now see a shift to visual communication – which is one of the key characteristics of Generation Z. Influenced by the fact that high-speed mobile connections have opened the door to data-heavy content, Generation Z favours images, videos, emojis and so on.

    The face with tears of joy emoji was actually the word of the year in 2015. And while it might seem alien to communicate with pictures as opposed to words, as the old saying goes: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. And emoji is actually very similar to Chinese ideographs (Chinese characters that are visual representations of ideas and concepts).

    The first iterations of Facebook and Twitter seem so basic compared to the visual smorgasbord they are today. Facebook used to prompt you to write status updates in the third person. Twitter, still defined by 140 characters, now allows you to post gifs, videos and multiple pictures at once.

    Instagram and YouTube, perhaps the most popular visual channels, are hugely popular with Generation Z. Much has been made about their move away from traditional TV and to YouTube instead. Adopting a more visual communication strategy could be a great way to engage potential students.

    Authenticity is paramount

    Authenticity is a huge influence for Generation Z. This is revealed in several ways:

    • the anti-establishment feelings towards government and politics
    • the anti-establishment feelings towards corporate business
    • the popularity of scripted reality TV shows like The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea
    • the rise in vlogger stardom
    • the increase in live streaming social channels

    All of these things reflect the appeal of authenticity for Generation Z, regardless of whether or not the argument on TOWIE is real, partially scripted or completely scripted.

    In addition, there’s a growing scepticism around advertising and marketing. Many members of Generation Z believe that a stranger’s review of something is more trustworthy than an advertisement from a company or brand.

    As a result, universities should place a greater emphasis on student feedback and student experience rankings – these could become just as important as the traditional university rankings.

    Generation Z in conclusion

    To engage with Generation Z, universities can’t just adopt a straightforward marketing approach. The distinctive attitudes and behaviours of this demographic propose a completely new set of challenges to marketers and recruiters.

    However, marketing to Generation Z is not inconceivably difficult. Today’s technological developments and variety of channels offer new and creative engagement marketing opportunities. Whether it’s developing a bespoke Snapchat filter for open day attendees or a Facebook campaign that ties into an offline print campaign, marketing to Generation Z is full of hugely exciting opportunities.



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    Colin Cheng

    Colin Cheng is a Strategic Digital Account Director at MintTwist, a full service digital agency in London. He has a particular interest in higher education and Generation Z, and new and emerging technologies in digital marketing.

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