What are prospective students reading? Not just the message, but the messenger matter

student with books

Kristin Glass Monteith, Admission Communications Manager of Colgate University, has a high opinion of Gen Z: “Our prospective students are savvy, intelligent, and thoughtful college shoppers, who take into account the messenger as much as the message.”

When it comes to choosing the university that might change their lives, Gen Z (those born after 1997) pay attention to when and how schools communicate with them. Monteith underscored the importance of “relatable content.”

As this digitally engaged audience grows, the lessons of how higher education professionals connect with prospective students has far reaching impact. Here’s advice we compiled if you need to reach students directly, want to consider how your strategy needs to change for younger audiences, or are just curious about what the kids are up to these days.

The message: Students’ interests change over the course of a year

Students want to hear about different topics as they start to explore their journey into college. In the early phase of the application journey, financial aid takes the lead for their attention, according to mStoner’s report Mythbusting Enrollment Marketing. Admissions information is a close second, followed by communications from Student Life and Residential Life. Their attention and interest shifts as they continue through the year and application process.

admissions journey data
Source: mStoner

When it comes to what prospective students are reading, Monteith said it isn’t always so different from what other members of the university community are reading, including current students and alumni. At Colgate, “We commonly share with prospective students stories that were originally created with a different population in mind—so in that sense, they are reading the same things,” Monteith said.

It’s the timing of when the message connects in the decision making process that matters, as does the form the message takes.

The messenger: official websites, email, faculty, and current students all play a role

Campus tours and official websites make a huge impact on impressions of an institution, far higher than official social media accounts and online ads. Prospective students still care about the reputation of a college on social media, but they prefer to see authentic content posted by people who go there, showing their real lives.

“Where students are finding content depends on what they are looking for, but it’s usually served up on their mobile device. They look to university websites for what they know is curated content from the university, and social media for more informal, authentic content,” said Monteith. “Prospective students tend to gravitate toward real, authentic stories. They value hearing about the student experience directly from the source: the current student.”

Colgate University Instagram
A snapshot from Colgate University’s Instagram page.

In a surprising twist, teens say email is better than social media in establishing relationships. Despite the extreme popularity of social media among teens, it’s more an intimate tool among friends and peers than an open communication tool.

college data
Source: mStoner

Luckily, email is not the only way to communicate this. More intimate and customized conversations can be built through in-person events, phone calls, and even text messages. And some colleges choose to go old school: sending handwritten personalized letters to stand out among competitors. Those acts also make students feel they are wanted and needed.

Breaking through the noise

In Monteith’s words, the challenge facing college marketing is one that anyone creating media faces: “Breaking through the noise! Prospective students are inundated with college marketing.”

Focusing on finding authentic voices helps “attract students most likely to succeed and thrive at your college,” Monteith said. As these students read, search for, and talk about colleges, how they interact with content will start to give an idea of how the next generation will expect to interact with information online. College marketing teams are on the front lines, and media companies will be wise to learn from their experiences.

And data can make sure that authentic voice is heard. “Data-based decisions at this point will not only enhance the messaging,” Monteith said, “but prove much more cost effective.”

Using data insights to provide prospective students with the information they really need in different phases, universities can help usher them on their way to becoming loyal alumni.

Quotes and data in this post derive from “Mythbusting Enrollment Marketing” by Gil Rogers and Michael Stoner, published by mStoner, Inc. and NRCCUA ®, February 2018.