What Edtech Can Teach Us About Marketing to Gen Z

By Liz Alton on May 4, 2018

Marketing to Gen Z has become the next generational mandate for CMOs and their teams. Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond are looking for solutions as the tides change around who the most desirable and in-demand customers are. While millennials have been called the "most researched generation," Gen Z will soon account for 40 percent of American consumers, and they currently represent $44 billion in buying power. As a result, marketers are dialing in.

Let's step back for a minute.

"It's official. Millennials are old. They have management jobs and kids and minivans." That's an outtake from a conversation I had recently with a marketer who had received the mandate to start marketing to "Gen Z and down." As we discussed her plan to expand their marketing reach, it was clear that she wasn't even ready to start.

Brands face a number of questions: How do you reach people with digital experiences when they're more digitally savvy than you? Can marketers capture the attention of an audience with a highly evolved eight-second attention filter to make sense of near-endless opportunities, as Altitude research suggests? And perhaps most challengingly, how can brands that have relied on traditional approaches to marketing create experiences that can compete with video games and movies-the way sophisticated B2C companies are already doing?

One field may provide unexpected insights on how to reach gen Z customers: education and edtech.

Edtech and Colleges: A Laboratory for Gen Z Marketing

Education and edtech's strategies, from AR/VR and interactive digital experiences to the way they conceptualize personalization, can help other industries connect with Gen Z. Many colleges have mastered enrollment marketing and are integrating technologies in ways that today's creative and marketing teams can learn from.

The University of Chicago used innovative storytelling to create an alternate reality game that engaged the incoming class over the course of last summer, leading up to enrollment and their first weeks on campus. It helped get students up to speed, learn the campus layout, meet each other, and feel an emotional connection to UChicago. The storyline of an ancient on-campus secret society blended intrigue and brand relevance in a way that connected with users' imaginations and engaging their sense of connection.

Consider this quick outtake captured by Wired, profiling the orientation app: "To complete their initiation and become full members of PS, the Squids-as well as everyone else in the 1,800-plus class of 2021-were invited to spend their first week on campus finding 121 objects that would help them activate the Ruun, a sort of supercomputer capable of ascertaining the location of the Parasite. But there was no PS, no Parasite, no Ruun-at least not at first. It was all an elaborate fiction: The students were playing an alternate reality game."

How does it work? As Wired describes, "An alternate reality game is, more or less, exactly what it sounds like: a constructed world with a fictional history that layers on top of the 'real' world, enticing players to investigate mysteries, solve puzzles, and communicate with characters in the game (who do not identify themselves as such). The people who happen upon entrances to this new world ('rabbit holes') are invited to wonder what is happening, if any of it is real, and to actively push back against the boundaries set by the architects of the game. The best alternate reality games succeed in blurring the lines between life and the game."

In many ways, with this storytelling-driven engagement effort, the University of Chicago has managed to create exactly what appeals to gen Z: a meaningful experience.

A young woman explores a city, taking pictures with her smartphone

Image attribution: Priscilla du Preez

Focusing on the Experience, Driven Through Storytelling

For marketers, this raises an important question: How can storytelling help you shape compelling experiences around your brand?

"Identifying ways to engage their interest and attention. Online learning has seen a surge in development of apps and tools to help students create an experience in learning," says Sher Downing, Ph.D., an edtech specialist and consultant.

Lisa Box of WP Engine agrees, telling Forbes, "Gen Z has lived their entire lives online, which impacts their connected interactions. While not as advertising-averse as their older counterparts, they expect authenticity, entertaining interactions and experiences that provide what they need before they tell you. To win with Gen Z, marketers have to evolve from informing to delighting, from celebrity to authenticity and from generic to predictive."

Brands can ask several questions:

  • What stories can we tell that have meaning for our audiences?
  • How can we tell stories that put the Gen Z audience in the middle of the action?
  • What will grab their attention, immediately?
  • Can we use tech, and especially video, VR, and other emerging platforms, to integrate?
  • What dimensions of this storytelling can we focus on across different platforms?

Word-of-Mouth Marketing, Gen Z Style

In the Altitude research mentioned above, the researchers came to an interesting conclusion. It wasn't so much that Gen Z is addicted to their screens; it's more that they function as full-time brand managers mediating their interactions-and their perception in the market-via devices. For marketers, there's a real bottom-line impact: if Gen Z consumers like something, they'll recommend it to their networks.

For marketers who learn to harness that word-of-mouth marketing, there's big potential. Ryan Neman, the founder of HeyTutor, says, "I have learned that the 'network effect' is extremely crucial when connecting with Generation Z. Referrals can be one of your best ways for low-cost acquisition. Generation Z typically responds to a product or service that can build a lot of hype around its brand. Students want to use products or services that other students use. The more users a company has, the more validation it can build. It's much easier to go viral within Generation Z than any other type of audience."

A practical way brands are tapping into this sentiment is by showcasing the stories of real students, like Treehouse does with their "Success Stories." Authenticity remains a key factor. Encourage successful customers to tell their own story; leverage videos and other user-generated content (such as testimonials in their own words) to take things to the next level.

Treehouse website

Another key component is mastering the way you're using social media-showing up on the right channels and taking a segmented approach. Today, edtech companies are developing targeted campaigns that span different networks, making it easy for engaged gen Z audiences to share their content.

As AdWeek notes, "Another significant difference is Gen Z's multifaceted approach to social media. Gen Z uses different platforms for different activities. On Instagram, they showcase their aspirational selves; on Snapchat, they share real-life moments; on Twitter, they get the news; and on Facebook, they glean information, according to a study recently conducted by Response Media, the Atlanta-based digital customer-relationship-management agency [ . . . ] In other words, Gen-Zers fragment and focus their social media time-they share certain types of content on particular social channels. All of this is done in quick touches, or micro-interactions, that might last only a few seconds."

It's All About the Value Proposition

In many cases, edtech marketers have learned that their value proposition is crucial to connecting with Gen Z users-and marketers from any company can use that to hone their messaging. "Companies need to understand that Gen Z is constantly seeking products or services that can help them learn easier, faster, and at a low cost. The advantage of pitching to an audience such as generation Z is that they are already seeking products or services-you just need to properly pitch your value proposition," says Neman.

One example he highlights is Khan Academy, which reaches millions of students with materials in more than 36 languages. Neman notes, "Although it's a non-profit, their marketing tactics can't be beaten. Their value proposition was simple: learn better, quicker, and free. The virality aspect alone of Khan Academy is what impresses me the most, as they barely spent any marketing dollars. Their service was genuinely so useful, which is why everyone knows of Khan Academy."

Edtech has quickly learned to focus on creating experiences that are customized to on-demand access-and their marketing follows suit. "Students are interested in having self-paced learning, adaptation of learning through experiences, and learning as needed in small bite-size pieces that can be learned and applied during the actual need," says Downing. "If you consider how many people 'Google' or 'YouTube' how to do something, it is the same principle. People look for it when the knowledge is needed versus learning in a structured manner."

Focusing on On-Demand Consumption Models

Brands with deep experience in edtech have also found that the Gen Z audience is selective about how they spend their time-and they want significant choices in how they consume material. Edtech companies are offering their own models where users can learn specific things on demand: bootcamps rather than multi-year programs, certificates rather than degrees, and immersive career-focused programs rather than meandering liberal arts programs.

The keys to marketing to Gen Z, says Downing, are "flexibility, quality, and adaptability. The Gen Z crowd has an interest in developing a pattern through the gig economy and less about establishing an overall career. So matching what interests this generation in terms of lifestyle, work-life balance, and ability to change and learn new skills are all attractive in an ever-changing and rapid growth field such as edtech. It also allows them the challenge of continuously learning a skill that can carry into future needs."

A teenager with a backpack in a school hallway

Image attribution: David Kennedy

Moving Into the Future

For brands developing future-focused plans, finding ways to convincingly and sustainably market to Gen Z is key. Marketers from college campuses to Silicon Valley are working hard to crack the code.

Downing points out some compelling examples: "Snapchat's latest ad discusses how 'texting is so boring but a Snapchat camera photo makes it fun' and shows a task of asking someone to pick up paper towels while out shopping, changing how we communicate basic needs. The impact of Apple continues as the iProducts are now a mainstream part of lifestyles. And the ability for entrepreneurs and the gig economy efforts that can be jumpstarted through GoFundMe and crowdsourcing really offer new ways to enter the industry." All these examples showcase how brands can successfully connect with Gen Z consumers, both now and moving forward.

Marketers face a new challenge: getting to know this next generation that they'll be serving for decades to come. Tough and talented, digitally savvy and demanding with their attention-it's a tough bunch to market to. Great storytelling, sophisticated digital strategies, authentic and to-the-point messages, and products and services that deliver tremendous value will all get you there.

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Featured image attribution: Matheus Ferrero


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.