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Part 4: Higher Education Media: Current State of Advertising
We recently sat down with ten high school students from across the United States in an intimate focus group to discuss various topics related to COVID-19 and higher education media topics. You can watch the videos below!
In our most recent High School Student Roundtable discussion we shifted our focus towards higher education media and the different ways students approach Post-Secondary Research. Our high school influencers provided some insights into which resources they have leaned on throughout their decision-making process. Campus-tours and in-school representation were noted as preferred information sources, while websites were considered vital for prerequisite information and program planning.
As part of the conversation around higher education media, we focussed in on Post-Secondary advertising and concentrated on the channels and content high schoolers interact with. What platforms do high school students rely on? How do they prefer to receive marketing materials? What type of content or campaigns would they recommend?
One of the most common ways to digitally send/receive marketing materials in the past decade has been through email. The ease of creating one message and reaching a mass audience with one click has understandably made email a marketer’s best friend. Distribution lists are easily compiled through direct sign-up or sharing between affiliated companies/services and it is extremely cost efficient. These benefits, however, have resulted in one major downside: email overload. High school students use email primarily for work/school and tend to ignore other communications that lack the same importance or urgency. “My email is flooded with college ads, I get so many of them that I don’t bother clicking anymore so I don’t know what message they’re sending,” said Julieann, a junior from New Jersey. Email is used as a means for high school students to receive and share essential information, like school work or work schedules. This means interest must be established through a different channel before email becomes an effective marketing tool. Once a relationship has been established and specific communications/materials are expected, a subject line or sender will draw attention and stand above the ‘white noise’.
It is also critical to mind the frequency and volume of emails when sending. As Tamia, a junior from Kentucky, explained, receiving mass quantities of email advertisements is extremely discouraging. “My biggest pet peeve is the emails, I know I’m not the only one, I get something like 2000 emails on my phone, and I have a lot of things that go through my email so it makes it hard to scroll through these unneeded emails to find the important stuff.” To avoid building frustration among your target audience, options to unsubscribe from further communications should be made accessible and respected.
Popularity of Social Media
In this digital era, social media is an essential component of any marketing campaign, especially when targeting high school students. Gen Z spend more time on their phones and social media accounts than any other generation, so utilizing the popular platforms, like Instagram, is your best bet at reaching them where they are. “I don’t really care to go through all my emails and see all the colleges that have reached out, when I go through my email it is for strictly school work; not because I want to, because I have to. I think social media is definitely the way to go, Instagram ads or TikTok ads; that’s where people our age spend most of their time, on social media,” said Natalie. “Our generation likes being on social media; by being on those apps, they’re targeting us where we are,” added Mariah.
Choosing the right social media platform to advertise on is equally important however. Among high school students, TikTok and Instagram were identified as top choices. “I think they should definitely start going in the social media direction, think about how many hours we spend sitting on TikTok. Then think about the ads that pop up once in a while, if that could be a college ad, it could bring kids in and get a lot of attention. Same thing with promoted posts on Instagram; It would bring more interest in,” said Maddy.
Each platform offers unique tools for content production. Instagram focusses on attracting attention through visually alluring images and colours, usually showcasing a perfect scenario that makes the audience want to experience it first-hand. TiKTok’s short video format is also visually appealing, but less about the perfect shot, and more about humour and sounds/music. One single trend or hashtag on either platform can be shared and replicated millions of times. Building your social media content around popular trends and tying in the unique features that you want to emphasize to your target audience can draw a lot of attention. As Maddy explains, “Hashtags and viral challenges really bring people in. Take a challenge as a college and fit it to yourself, it would really pull people in. Make it unique to your college. What do you want to emphasize on? What is your top quality that will bring students in?”
The most important thing to remember when creating content is that it should look organic. High school students want to see something relatable that fellow students might actually post. “If it looks like something that someone else would post from campus or college I’ll wonder what it is and usually click on it before noticing it is sponsored, it almost has to trick you,” said Courtney.
One of the best ways to build organic material is by working with an influencer. Students are likely to feel more comfortable with a new brand or institution if there is a relatable face or personality supporting it. “It goes back to the idea of trying to show ads that don’t look like ads. If most of my friends were to see an ad from a college they would likely skip by, but if it someone they know or have seen they would become interested and read it. That definitely helps, they get the opportunity to check out a school they might have skipped through, especially if it is someone from their school, “explained Natalie.
Influencers help relay messages as a trustworthy voice that understands the audience and relates to their situation. It shows the viewer that someone ‘just like them’ is capable of seeing the process through and encourages further action. “The fact that it is a bunch of high schoolers who are going through the process as the influencers, a lot of other people our age can relate to it and see ‘ oh, it’s people just like us, maybe I should check into this too’,” said Chad, a senior from Maryland.
Influencers also have an established presence within the target audience and will be able to attract attention at a faster rate. In talking with influencers we have worked with on campaigns, it was clear that their content produced a boost in engagement and interest. “I had a lot of people come up and ask about the posts I was making. It gave me the opportunity to share with them what I was doing and what the school has to offer. I talked to people who I normally don’t talk to, people would also DM me on Instagram to get more information,” according to Natalie. Tamia also noticed a major increase in interest after her campaign, even amongst current students. “I had a lot of outreach from people as well, even people who were already going to the school and they thought it was really cool what I was doing and being able to put information out there and not make it look like an ad, make it look like an opportunity for other people to see things they would have missed if another person hadn’t posted it.”
With COVID-19 restricting access to campuses and facilities, executing outreach initiatives can be challenging. While there may not be a replacement for the real thing, our influencers offered up some creative approaches and advice on how to maintain enthusiasm amongst your target audience.
“I have taken a college virtual tour and it was actually really fun. There is a very good way to go about doing that and I feel like the tour I went through was very well choreographed. They included faculty members and star athletes. A simple slide show, I think, would be wasting everyone’s time but if you choreograph it in a way that puts it all together well, it can be very beneficial,” explained Aiden.
For Julieann aligning your brand and logo with relatable, trustworthy personalities was the primary way of improving brand awareness and spreading the message. “For the campaign I was involved in, we never actually went to the campus. We got sweatshirts and (branded items) and took creative photos with them and got information on the college to display to our viewers. I got a lot of people asking me about what I was doing. It got them interested and looking into the college.”
For Courtney, two-way engagement is a great way to boost interest and awareness. “I think people are looking for something interactive, a way to connect with other people. If you can make your content something where they can easily comment, or use your story as a way to answer questions, people would react well to that. We’re spending a lot of time on social media with this free time at home.” She also added, “Even though we’re all home right now, we still have something to look forward. Address the fact that we’re all going through a similar thing right now but going to college, or selecting a college, is still something we all have a chance to think about for the future.”