What Higher Ed Needs to Know About Generation Z, Goldfish, and Personalization

by Keith P. O'Brien | April 17, 2019
What Higher Ed Needs to Know About Generation Z, Goldfish, and Personalization

Part one of a three-part series on how higher education uses personalization to retain Gen Z students

Chances are, you’ve seen a lot of research about the post-Millennial generation born after 1995. This generation—Generation Z—is the most racially and ethnically diverse that we’ve seen. They are digital natives. Gen Z members have always had the internet and cellphones. We will see even more market research on Gen Zers as their attitudes, tech preferences, and purchasing power shape how governments, industries, and societies operate. This year, the youngest Gen Zer is seven years old and in elementary school. The oldest Gen Zer is 24 years old and is in graduate school or continuing ed. As a result, colleges and universities have to know and adapt to Gen Z’s preferences.

The “attention span of a goldfish” myth

Despite its uniqueness, Gen Z has been the subject of broad generalizations. For instance, you’ve likely heard that members of this generation have a small attention span. In working with higher ed leaders to recruit Gen Z students, I’ve used this story. The article notes that the attention span of Gen Z members is just eight seconds, compared to 12 seconds for Millennials. Apparently, a typical Gen Zer lags the nine-second attention span of a goldfish! Not only does this sound true, but it comes from a trustworthy source: a 2015 Microsoft study.

This is confirmation bias. None of the “facts” are true. It is wrong to define a “standard” attention span for anyone. Gen Z and goldfish have been slandered! A BBC reporter debunked the study, quoting a professor who has spent nearly 50 years studying fish behaviors:

"That a species [Goldfish] that's used by neuro-psychologists and scientists as a model for studying memory formation should be the very species that has this reputation—I think that's an interesting irony."

Communicating with Generation Z

To be fair, it’s easy to mischaracterize Gen Zers because of the group’s size and complex nature. However, these errors can make it more difficult to engage Gen Z students. Higher ed institutions can’t afford to settle in terms of better meeting the needs of Gen Z. Colleges and universities face unfavorable demographics, price competition, falling enrollment numbers, stagnant state appropriations, high fixed costs, or even all of these. As a result, schools today compete in a market where matriculating and keeping every student is critical, both financially and altruistically.

Consider how an institution can boost retention by understanding Gen Zers. Administrators seeking to communicate with and support Gen Z students must take note of two best practices:

  1. Communicate via the digital device of choice: Gen Z considers smartphones essential items. This holds true no matter the Gen Zer’s financial background, gender, race, or location. Students share their phone numbers and opt in for communications with their institutions. Texts and MMS must be part of every campus’ approach to two-way dialog with their students.
  2. Personalize all communications: Digital natives develop expectations that preferred digital networks and brands will personalize their experience based on their tastes and likes. College CRM and SIS databases are great sources of verified student data. Mining these data allows schools to provide mobile-based communications personalized to every student’s GPA, major, location, and deadlines.

The power of personalization

Do you use Alexa, Siri, Netflix, Google Home, Apple Music, or Amazon Prime? If so, you’ve seen the power of personalization. These platforms create recommendations, content, and offers based on your behaviors and patterns. Would you give up these platforms? Undoubtedly, Gen Z members do not forsake their taste for personalized interactions when they matriculate. Institutions that wish to improve student success need to meet digital natives where they are and embrace the personalization and engagement capabilities of smartphones.

Learn more

*Special thanks to our guest author, Keith P. O'Brien, an expert edtech marketing consultant.


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