As marketing and communication leaders, it is our job to stay one step ahead in our marketing efforts. That means talking now about what we are doing to begin marketing to a group of students who will be attending college within the decade. That group of students is part of the newest generation, Generation Alpha. The Annie E. Casey Foundation refers to Generation Alpha as students born from 2013 through 2025, and believes that this is one of the most racially diverse and technology-native groups of learners our campuses will have experienced. That means we should begin planning now for meaningful ways to engage these students when they begin the college exploration process in earnest.
The important thing to understand is that these are generalizations and ideas of where to begin. The bottom line is we need to continually be talking to current and future students to understand what matters. Coming full circle, that means we must continue our work to stay a step ahead to ensure that we are leading the change on our campus and then working to tell those stories in new, creative, authentic ways.
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This generation has grown up in an Amazon world, where every online experience is personalized—except higher education marketing (specifically our websites). We must change that. My guess is that this generation will use ChatGPT (or its future iteration) to explore and search for colleges. That means we must have accurate content on our websites in order to curate that personalized experience. Additionally, customized search and homepage content is the norm for this audience. We must find ways to connect our CRM to our websites to effectively communicate to students in an online website world. Corporate America has been doing this for some time, but higher education has lacked the ability or willingness. We must change that to really engage with this audience.
Where to Begin
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the poverty divide has widened for this generation of learners, and the split between “haves” and “have nots” is bigger than ever before. Not everyone has the basics, while others have an abundance. This generation sees this in the lunch line and on the playground and wants to do something about it. It is important for our university brands to share how we are being good stewards of resources and the environment. This could be through volunteer programs, no-cost classroom resources, a robust recycling effort, or something else. These students want to know how we’re working to improve our local community, provide a level playing field for all students, and treat our planet better.
Carrie Phillips is part creative, part analyst, but fully curious to solve higher education. Learn more about her work on her site or follow her on X (Twitter).
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With that in mind, here are four baseline strategies we should consider to ensure that we’re best prepared for engaging with this audience.
Authenticity in Branding
This generation, more than many before, is less interested in the “flash” of our picture-perfect marketing campaigns. Having grown up in an iPad and Instagram world, these students have a strong understanding of what is staged versus authentic. They, more than other generations, understand that what’s on the grid does not always represent reality. For our marketing and branding campaigns to resonate, our beautiful, scripted messages with perfect production must also incorporate behind-the-scenes content, low-fi student reflections, and candid assessments of where we’re going. Without this balance, our branding may fall flat to a generation looking for real students and honesty about what to expect.
This is a generation that has grown up with everything being a “moment.” Just look at all the tweens showing up to the movies in their Barbie pink or attending Taylor Swift or Jojo Siwa concerts with mom. Because cameras are a daily part of life for this generation, they understand and expect pictures and videos to be taken at events—“doing it for the ’Gram” is part of the process. That means we as marketing teams must ensure that interactions with our brand are also experiences. It is no longer enough to set up a backdrop and encourage students to take a selfie. The experience must also translate to our emails and mailed items. To everything. The sooner we start thinking about the experience of our institutions and our processes, the better we can make sure that these things convey our brand and add to the experience we want students to have.