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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. To kick off the series, this blog will focus on communicating with Gen Z.

Chances are you’ve seen a lot of research about the post-Millennial generation, which was born after 1995. This generation—"Gen Z"—is the most diverse that we’ve seen in terms of race and ethnicity. They are digital natives who were all but born with smartphones in their hands. Gen Z members have always had the internet and cellphones. We will see even more market research on Gen Z as their attitudes, tech preferences, and purchasing power shape how governments, industries, and societies operate. This year, the youngest member of Gen Z is seven years old and is in grade school. The oldest member of Gen Z is 24 years old and is in graduate school, continuing ed, or the workforce. As a result, higher ed institutions have to know and adapt to Gen Z’s tastes.

The “attention span of a goldfish” myth

communicating with gen z

Despite how unique members of Gen Z are, they have been the subject of some broad generalizations. For instance, you’ve likely heard that Gen Z members 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. Meanwhile, Millennials have an attention span of 12 seconds. Apparently, a typical Gen Z member 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. Further, 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 Gen Z

To be fair, it’s easy to mischaracterize Gen Z members. This group is both complex in nature and large in terms of members. But these errors can make communicating with Gen Z a challenge. Higher ed institutions can’t afford to settle in terms of better meeting the needs of Gen Z. Institutions of higher ed face unique demographics, price competition, falling enrollment numbers, stagnant state funding, high fixed costs, or even all of these. As a result, schools today compete in a market where getting and keeping every student is critical, both financially and altruistically.

Consider how an institution can boost retention by understanding Gen Z members - and meeting them where they are. Administrators who seek to communicate with and support Gen Z students must take note of two best practices:

  1. Conduct outreach via the digital device of choice: Gen Z sees the smartphone to be an essential item. In fact, this holds true no matter the Gen Z member’s financial background, gender, race, or location. Students share their phone numbers and opt-in for communications with their institutions. As a result, texts and MMS must be part of every campus’ approach to two-way dialog with their students.
  2. Personalize all outreach: Digital natives develop the expectation that digital networks and brands will personalize their experience based on their tastes and likes. College CRM and SIS databases are great sources of student data. Mining these data allows schools to provide mobile-based outreach that is personal to every student in terms of 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 just for you, based on your behaviors and patterns. Would you give up these platforms? Gen Z members do not forsake their taste for personalization when they go to college. Institutions that wish to improve student success need to meet these digital natives where they are. They must embrace the unique and helpful capabilities of smartphones.

Learn more

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

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