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Talkin' 'bout my generation: marketing universities to Gen Z

Today's universities have a lot to live up to, and a strong marketing strategy is at the centre of their success, finds Charley Rogers

Posted by Julian Owen | January 01, 2018 | Students

The call to be present, be relevant and add value from LinkedIn’s former chief marketing officer is top advice for all companies, not least for universities. The continual climb in university applications means that there is more competition than ever for places, and not just from the UK. HESA data for 2015-16 shows that international students make up approximately 20% of undergraduates in the UK, and a huge 46% of postgraduates. So, the race is on. Using targeted and considered marketing campaigns to reach students now expands far beyond existing prestige, family alumna and printed prospectuses. The new cohort of students expects easily accessible answers to their queries, inspiring digital content, and a way to connect with their chosen university via social media. With all these new demands, universities have a lot on their plate, and we spoke to a few experts who have managed to ride the digital wave gracefully, and give us some tips on how a killer university marketing campaign should look. 

Modern struggles

Although university is arguably more popular and more accessible than ever, the HE sector has not launched into the modern era unscathed. With soaring fees, expanding international competition, and increasing demands from students, UK universities have to seriously consider their audience when attracting prospective candidates. This means that a calculated marketing strategy is essential to ensure that incoming students are aware of the benefits of choosing your university. 

Colin Cheng, Head of Strategy at MintTwist, a marketing agency that has worked with universities such as City, University of London and Cass Business School, says that knowing your audience is one of the most important things for a successful strategy. “Although the HE sector can feel overcrowded, especially as the competition has increased significantly, it can be tempting to try and be everything to everyone but this would be a mistake. Hone in on what makes the university special and use that as a strength,” he says. 

The idea of personalisation has been huge in education across the board this year, and this rejection of the one-size-fits-all model is just as important in the initial marketing process. A prominent feature of the attitudes of Generation Z is the value of authenticity. As Colin says, “They value authenticity from brands. So it’s important for universities to really give an honest and transparent insight into [their institution]. Students are naturally sceptical about advertising.” 


This differentiation between different universities and their strengths is where branding becomes essential. Articulating what a university’s ethos and mission statement are, and creating a clear and distinguishable identity is an invaluable element of any marketing strategy. As Max du Bois of education branding experts Spencer du Bois comments, “At a time when increasing numbers of young people are actively evaluating whether university is the right choice for them, universities have to compete against each other as well as a wide range of alternative options, from apprenticeships to entry-level jobs.”

For a long time, prestigious redbrick universities have been able to rely on their name and history to attract the top students from around the world. This prestige still holds a certain amount of cache, but due to the overwhelming competition from universities across the globe to bag the best and brightest, additional marketing is required. 

The University of Cambridge has utilised its skill and embraced its history to create video-based marketing material which it shares on its YouTube channel. The Cambridge Ideas series celebrates the many achievements of the university’s staff and students throughout its history. Launched as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations, the series utilises the YouTube platform to release content that inspires students to choose Cambridge as their place of study. Barney Brown, Head of Digital Communications at the University of Cambridge says, “Ultimately if there are people out there that are bright enough to apply to study at Cambridge, we want them to find a passion for their subject, and consider studying it with us, whichever channel they choose to research it on.” 

As well as posting videos that provide an insight into the world-leading research happening at Cambridge through the Ideas series, the university also encourages students and alumni to vlog about their experiences. Peer-to-peer advice is hugely influential for Generation Z in providing them with information that they trust, says MintTwist’s Colin Cheng; “Using student ambassadors to create user-generated content or harnessing alumni stories can be a great way to naturally build the authenticity for your university brand.” Barney agrees, adding that, “[Students] felt they could make a more informed decision on studying here based on the honesty of the video diaries that have been posted online.”

Social media

Ten years ago, you’d be forgiven for excluding social media from any discussion of professional advertising or marketing. In 2017 however, social media is impossible to ignore. A report filed by the website this year states that 88% of students use social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat, with 81% also saying they use Facebook. And it’s not only to keep up with their existing social circles that students are using these sites. Increasingly, Generation Z are using social media to get their news, to influence their purchases (and even to make them), and to research universities. 

According to a study by QS Top Universities, the topics that are most searched for and hardest to find for students across the world are scholarships, student visas, and course content. In terms of social media usage, the study revealed that over 30% of students rated social media platforms as very important or even essential in searching for information about universities, with a further 31% ranking it as ‘quite important’. However, it is important to note that striking the balance between ‘modern and fun’ and ‘informative’ is of the utmost importance for universities. As Max du Bois points out, “Understanding what sort of content works for a university’s target audience requires going beyond blandly functional content, but stopping short of becoming too superficial and entertaining.”

A feature of social media that has influenced all forms of communication between universities and students is its ability for instantaneous correspondence. This speed of access can sometimes be met by online chat facilities through university websites, but more often than not, it is social media that fulfils this quick-response role. Earlier this year, Staffordshire University employed the use of Snapchat to offer Clearing places to prospective students. The offers in principle were offered over the platform after the university had great success in previously offering live tours and student takeovers on Snapchat. 

The offers in principle were accompanied by support and guiding around clearing, including Facebook Live Q&As. This accessibility to prospective students made Staffordshire stand out as a proactive and modern university, and the positive feedback they have gained cements the belief that students are keen to communicate with universities through social media. Speaking of the campaign, Social Media Co-Ordinator Laura Allen said, “There are over 166 million daily Snapchat users and it is a growing communication platform for Generation Z, with them sending between 2-5 snaps a day, so it perfect made sense for Staffordshire University to extend its communication during Clearing on social media.”   

Data grab

As we have seen, a strong marketing campaign includes many creative elements, and ensuring a strong brand, excellent communication, and targeted campaigns are all essential to a university’s success. However, this success cannot be measured or improved upon unless data is analysed. Knowing what data analytics you need and how to use them is the ultimate feedback tool for any university. 

As Colin Cheng at MintTwist emphasises, personalising marketing content to your institution’s specific strengths and the students you want to target is a far more viable route than trying to be ‘everything to everyone’. He goes on to add that understanding your data is integral to this personalisation process, and that “We’re living in a data-orientated world and I always say that the most popular marketing campaigns are those that are grounded in data analysis.” 

For 2018 then, personalised and verifiably effective digital marketing will continue to be a driving force for universities, especially in their recruitment processes, and for
Gen Z, ease of access and authenticity are the key. 

Top tips for a stellar marketing campaign from MintTwist’s Head of Strategy, Colin Cheng:

1. Understand your audience. Try to understand their motivations and what resonates with them most. Appreciate that they behave in new and different ways and we may need to change marketing strategies to better engage them.

2. Be mobile first. This might sound clichéd in 2017 but it’s more important than ever, especially for the undergraduate market.

3. Be micro. As the HE market becomes more competitive and the sector faces many external marketing challenges, focusing on the personal 1-to-1 messaging can help you cut through the noise.  

4. Be authentic. Generation Z and to a certain extent Millennials are hesitant to trust advertising. So don’t rely just on your own marketing or comms; using student ambassadors or alumni case studies can be a positive way of showing your authenticity.

5. Don’t forget who you are. Although it can be tempting to try and be everything to everyone, this would be a mistake. Hone in on what makes your university special and use that as a strength. 

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