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10 Higher Ed Marketing Trends In 2024

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Recruiting students who are part of Generation Z is a whole new ball game. Gen Z isn’t just questioning where they should attend college, but if they should attend at all. 

Just as prospective students are evolving, so are the marketing trends we use to reach them.

In our new whitepaper, “Unibuddy Higher Ed Digital Marketing Guide: What You Need to Know in 2023,” we touch on the trends you’ll see this year and how to prepare for them.

Here are five to keep in mind.

Language goes digital

Gen Z is a generation of digital natives. They’ve never lived in a world without digital technology or the internet, incorporating it into every facet of their lives – 27% can’t go longer than an hour without it! 

They use their devices for everything, so of course they’ll use them on their higher education journey. Your digital assets will help inform their decisions. In fact, recent Unibuddy data shows that nearly 3 in 4 prospective students will use your website for initial research.

Related: The Higher Education Data You Need to Make Prospective Students Welcome

To be as effective as possible, your language needs to take on a digital feel, too – that is to say, you must speak to them in their own language. Across all digital deliverables, language should include softer tones rather than professional or institutional ones. 

Some institutions are even getting rid of formalities altogether! When the University of Leicester used Unibuddy Community to connect prospective and current students, enrollment increased by 23%.

Using student voices

Speaking of current students: they are your best spokespeople, so make them part of your marketing plan! After all, they are the personification of your brand. 

Gen Z craves authentic connections that make them feel welcome and excited, and getting to interact with current students will create just that. Rather than speaking with an adult, they’ll get to speak with someone they view as a peer without ulterior motives or conditions.

Related: How to Foster Authentic Personalization in Student Recruitment

Don’t just take our word for it – more than 9 in 10 higher ed recruitment professionals say student-to-student interactions are a crucial part of the prospective student experience.

Recruiting is omnichannel

As the first generation of digital natives and omnichannel students, Gen Z uses technology at every corner. In 2023, prospective students have the ability to interact with your content anywhere at any time across a variety of devices. 

And that’s a double-edged sword for many institutions. As many businesses are having to pivot to digital-first models and focus on digital experience, so are higher ed institutions. 

For the best chance at attracting and engaging Gen Z, it’s critical that you have all of your channel bases covered.

Again, your best tool is the one right in front of you: your student ambassadors and faculty. Don’t underestimate their power – allowing them to engage with and create authentic connections through content will help you stand out from the crowd.

Social media is king

While you can never be sure which social media platform will be the next big thing, you know that its mission will stay the same: to provide a digital space for people to interact and gather information. In fact, 40% of users turn to TikTok and Instagram for information rather than search engines.

Related: Social Media Marketing for Higher Ed in 2023

It’s true in higher ed, too! Unibuddy Community, the higher ed answer to social media, saw over 110,000 messages sent in 2022 alone.

Now is the time to take advantage of it. When you allow your student ambassadors to monitor and participate in the discussions on several platforms, you’ll be able to ensure channel coverage and distribute digital content to an engaged audience. 

But don’t try to sell – just focus on being inclusive and engaging. Social media is meant to be social, after all. 

Value outweighs cost 

Marketing in 2023 will be all about a laser-like approach rather than casting a wide net with low-hanging keyword groups and broad audiences. 

Instead, marketing teams will be focused on the things that are specific to their institution’s unique offerings. They’ll use more precise keyword groups and long-tail keywords that indicate high intent.

For instance, an institution running ad campaigns for its digital marketing program would choose “digital marketing degree programs” rather than “top marketing school US.” While the latter may be less expensive, the former will be far more effective. 

That’s because there’s a  much higher likelihood of it reaching the target audience, who will take action. Combined with competitive density and mid-range cost-per-click, the value far outweighs the cost.

You know your audience best. Using the right words, even if they’re more expensive, leads to a far greater payoff. 

At Unibuddy, we partner with higher education institutions to provide platforms that help you keep up with the trends and reach your goals.

How Can Universities Appeal to Gen Z?

Brands around the world are trying to pin down Generation Z. They’re environmentally-conscious digital natives, with an offbeat sense of humour and a focus on social justice. Gen Z are unlike any generation that came before, and brands have had to adapt to survive.

The reality is, though, that Gen Z is after one thing: honesty. McKinsey calls them “True Gen” because of their “search for truth”. A 2014 study by Cohne and Wolfe found that the No. 1 quality or behaviour which Gen Z demand of big brands is communicating honestly about products and services.

Flashy, big-budget marketing campaigns aren’t really appealing to Gen Z. Authenticity is much more important.

So how does a university market itself honestly? By using students as content creators, giving prospective students the resources to crowdsource their decision making, and being in on the joke.

Students as content creators

Gen Z loves creating content. We’ve been saying it for years, but 2020 proved it with the rise of TikTok. It’s not just dance crazes. Young people around the world are collaborating together on incredible pieces of content: including, most recently, a full length musical based on the movie Ratatouille.

So your students are creating content with you or without you – and smart marketeers are harnessing those content creators!

If you need further proof, look to YouTube – where the most viewed video about ‘university life’ is not a flashy marketing video or a high production value advertisement, it’s “A Day in the Life of a Harvard Student”, an independently created student vlog, with 6.9 million views.

Prospective students are looking for this content, and your students will create it – your university should engage with that.

Newcastle University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences decided to start utilising student-created content in their marketing efforts. Each month, the faculty gives their ambassadors a topic to write about (based on their content calendar for the year). They also provide a template to help them write their blog.

They have received 12,000 unique views and also high conversion from reading a blog to becoming a lead. After viewing the blogs page, students were 3x more likely to start a Unibuddy chat than those who hadn’t viewed the blogs page.

Katrina Savage, Head of Student Recruitment and Marketing, for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, said: “We know the power that a credible voice has, and all of the research and our experience shows that authenticity and authentic content works, this is why Unibuddy blog content is so important to us.”

Crowdsourcing decision making

But actually, if you speak their language and build loyalty – they can become your best advocates.

Their decision making has been described by Campaign Monitoring as “crowdsourcing”. They seek the opinions of their peers, influencers, and reviewers. That same report goes on to recommend:

“Invite Gen Z into a collaborative relationship with you … find ways to allow your audience to become a part of the conversation and emphasize co-creation.”

A recommendation – even from someone they don’t know – is a powerful aide for decision making. An incredible 73% of Gen Z consumers read or watch reviews before making a purchase and even more will do some degree of online research. If they are seeking opinions for even everyday purchases, imagine the consideration and research that will go into the biggest financial investment many have made – what university to go to.

Traditional marketing doesn’t work with Gen Z and for good reason. Gen Zers are estimated to encounter 10,000 marketing messages every single day – that’s a mindblowing number. So it’s no wonder that the non-marketing messages, those authentic reviews, are the ones that stand out in the crowd.

Use social channels to improve presence

Social media serves as a powerful tool for establishing genuine communication with potential students. It’s particularly effective in addressing issues like summer melt or capturing the interest of new students, as Generation Z is consistently engaged with these platforms.

  • Leverage Instagram Reels to tell compelling stories and highlight the vibrant campus life at your higher education institution. In the cinematic reels below UCLA us showcasing university buildings and student life in the campus.


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A post shared by UCLA (@ucla)

  • Highlight campus social life through stories, assisting prospective students in visualizing themselves as part of an active and engaging community at the institution.


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A post shared by UCLA (@ucla)

  • Utilize feed posts to share details about your institution’s facilities. Prospective students have diverse interests, ranging from sports and music to reading. By showcasing your sports complexes, libraries, and performance venues, you can resonate with their varied passions.

    For instance, Harvard University recently shared the reopening of the refurbished Weld Boathouse. In this post, members of the women’s rowing teams toured the boat bays, training facilities, and locker rooms, re-familiarizing themselves with a space they hadn’t visited in nearly a year.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Harvard University (@harvard)

Besides these strategic posts, ensure you research and utilize trending hashtags. It’s also beneficial to infuse your content with humor and a sense of fun.

Utilize virtual campus tours

Implementing virtual campus tours is a crucial step in appealing to Generation Z. With in-person visits not always possible, these virtual experiences offer an interactive way for students to explore various campus areas and gain a sense of the college environment. It’s about more than just displaying facilities; it’s about effectively communicating the campus’s atmosphere and culture. These tours can be offered in different formats, such as pre-recorded videos on the website or YouTube, or as live events where prospective students can engage directly with tour guides.

Know your memes

You can connect with your Gen Z prospective and current students by connecting with their sense of humour.

Gen Z love weird – and there’s been lots of exemplary social media case studies where universities and other companies are overcoming Gen Z’s skepticism of brands by getting in on the joke.

When done right, efforts will be applauded and rewarded by Gen Z consumers. The humour is absurd, self-aware and sometimes self-deprecating. When done well, your first reaction might be ‘no way they really posted that’.

When done badly, of course, there’s an air of “how do you do, fellow kids”.

So involving your students and content creators in your central marketing strategy is a good idea to ensure the messages and memes you’re sharing will resonate with your audience.

Learnings from 2022 Still Applies to Today’s World

Leveraging Crowdsourcing Habits of Gen Z

Making a decision for Gen Z often involves consulting a variety of sources, like peers, influencers and reviewers. The opinions these groups have hold a lot of weight for Gen Z as they’re considered more honest, and with fewer hidden motives. Collecting information from a bunch of sources means that they can get an accurate and aggregate picture of what they’re seeking to understand. 

Maybe a prospective student is hoping to find out that the particular program that they’re interested in has good employment connections before they ever graduate. All of the higher education marketing material says so, but hearing first hand from someone who has been through the experience is going to carry a lot more weight. If they can hear from current and recent students, they can start learning what skills they’ll need and what kind of connections to form right away.

Using Conversational Marketing

Typical higher education marketing often lacks warmth and personability, things that instantly signal to Gen Z prospective students that human connection is not emphasized here. Conversational marketing is a way to speak to Gen Z in the medium they prefer, with the language they respond to best. They’re not looking to read a polished brochure or sift through overly formal webpages.

In addition to looking for information about your higher education institution, they’re looking to find out what the “vibes” are; how does your school make them feel? What kind of warmth is in the place where they’ll be spending a lot of time? Using the right tone can convey information to answer the questions your prospective students are looking for, and give them the idea that an education at your institution will be the experience that they’re hoping for.

Utilizing Data Insights

It’s no secret that you can gain valuable data from interactions with students, but with so many channels of marketing and even more students, sifting through the data can be a herculean task for anyone. However, with the use of highly nuanced CRM systems and software, analyzing the data is a matter of inputting what you’re looking to understand–whether it be where a student is on their decision-making process or what is influencing their decisions at the stage they’re in.

Unibuddy has analyzed student conversations with ambassadors and in community chats, to help you break down the insights from these interactions. We’ve categorized students based on field of study, country of origin, level of study, stage of application and more. With this data, you can provide a solution that best meets them where they’re at in their journey, targeting your approach for fewer wasted efforts and a higher return on your investment of money and time.

Personalized Messaging

Perhaps because Gen Z prefers digital marketing, they’re adept at spotting marketing that feels inauthentic and impersonal. Though digital marketing seems to have a universal appeal, marketing with all audiences in mind is too broad and doesn’t have that warm feeling that Gen Z is looking for.

Personalizing your messaging through segmenting your population helps you to understand what each student is looking for and gives you the opportunity to arrive at the right time with the right message for them. And though Gen Z lives online, their preference is still to speak to another person. With Unibuddy, providing that 1-on-1 connection with trained ambassadors is easy, and yields a wealth of information on how to best support your prospective students in making the decision that best fits them while keeping them engaged through the compelling individual stories of your ambassadors.

Short-Form Video Content

Video content is an important way to engage Gen Z prospective students. Knowing your audience means knowing what they want to hear and how. One of your main mediums in communicating with students is through social media, and given that most students applying have their own accounts, content can be shared with a tap.

Create content that shows students what your higher ed community and life is about. Some ideas for making captivating content are: video campus tours, answers to FAQ, mini-tours from students on their favorite places, like their dorm, the gym, the cafeteria or other interesting spaces that make your campus unique.

Learn more about trends like these in the new “Unibuddy Higher Ed Digital Marketing Guide: What You Need to Know in 2023.” 


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