For years, higher education institutions have seen a difficult future looming on the horizon. Budgets have been slashed, students have taken on crushing debt, and the generation born after 1995 simply isn’t as large as Millennials or Generation X. Though universities in growing states like California and Texas still enjoy high demand, schools in areas with declining populations like the Northeast must compete for fewer students.

Then the pandemic happened.

Surrounded by economic and social uncertainty, students increasingly view school as an investment rather than a rite of passage or an idyllic destination on its own. Having grown up suspicious of authority figures, this class of students needs more than administrative promises of a “transformative” college experience. They need a return on their investment.

Fortunately, as sophisticated digital consumers, your target audience is well-versed in the channels your university already uses. To stay competitive, you need to rethink your digital strategy to connect with an audience with unique expectations. And that discussion begins with how you approach content and communications.

Effective content strategy starts with storytelling

In the past, higher education institutions relied on intangibles like changing the world or being part of something bigger than yourself. These lofty—and pretentious—appeals were often accompanied by photographs of fancy buildings, lush quads, and packed stadiums. My personal favorite are the expensive videos of campus flyovers with a gravel-voiced narrator expounding on the virtuous pursuit of knowledge. Inauthentic and vague. Emotion without reason.

As your target audience grows more sophisticated, your storytelling must highlight your differentiating traits. For some schools, it’s as simple as leaning into numbers: We’re the top school for this field at this ranking. Or you can focus on outcomes, such as the percentage of students placed in jobs at a certain salary rate. If your school doesn’t have these numbers, you may be at a disadvantage when looking for a story that resonates.

Effective storytelling has been especially challenging for universities that rely on their surroundings as a differentiating factor. A school like NYU uses its city as a selling point, underscoring its capacity as a classroom with networking possibilities. As the pandemic reduced the higher education experience to distance learning and Zoom, NYU and many other universities lost a distinguishing characteristic.

With that uncertainty, institutions with deep geographic ties needed to lean into the power of their degree or other outcomes. For example, NYU’s homepage has leaned into promoting alumni achievements, such as Tony Award winners and MacArthur “Genius Grant” honorees, as well as the diversity of its incoming freshman class.

In evaluating what your university has to offer, keep in mind that prospective students want to see themselves in your stories.

The “basic needs” approach to university content marketing

For universities to attract students who are increasingly pragmatic about their higher education decisions, their content must speak to a core need. From a marketing perspective, the idea poses a longtime psychological challenge. How do you demonstrate the value of what you’re offering in a way that will connect on a fundamental level?

A recent Harvard Business School study identified 30 attributes that drive consumers. The bottom of the pyramid is built on basic needs such as “connects,” “makes money,” and “reduces risk.” At the top are more complex traits such as “self-actualization,” “belonging,” and “self-transcendence.” According to the study, the products with the most loyal customers were those that addressed their audience’s most basic needs.

Traditionally, higher education institutions promote what they can offer students by targeting needs at the top of the pyramid. Videos that promise a life-changing experience and self-actualization have been the norm. But to make a lasting connection, your marketing should address more fundamental attributes your institution may take for granted.

Today’s students want to know that their investment in higher education will pay off. Your content should focus on the connections they’ll make or how attending your school reduces the risk of not finding work after graduation. When you’re attempting to reach a pragmatic audience, you need to speak to the foundational concerns about their future.

Authenticity drives engagement for Generation Z

Growing up with multiple social channels within arm’s reach, this generation of future university students has a wealth of experience with digital content. From Instagram to Twitter to TikTok, anyone under 25 understands the nuances of how to curate their profiles and serve each channel’s purpose. If your higher ed institution comes off as inauthentic on any of these channels, this audience will recognize it right away.

When thinking about authenticity, your institution shouldn’t focus on applying the right filter or meme for a given situation. Instead, think about the voices beyond your message on a given digital channel. No matter where you’re posting, Gen Z is suspicious of anyone more than 10 years older.

Fundamentally, Gen Z views messages from your faculty, dean, or even president with some suspicion. “Of course this person is promising great things,” the thinking goes. “That’s what they’re paid to say.”

Your audience of prospective students wants to hear from people who look like them—people who are more likely to understand their experience and struggles. You can use every filter and lighting technique you like, but what really makes the difference is the speaker and the subject matter. You can also demonstrate that your content isn’t produced in a vacuum (or on a soundstage) by posting student-created videos about their experience. Student or alumni takeovers of social channels is another effective way to engage multiple voices in your content.

When your students are given a platform to speak honestly about their journey, a prospective student can relate. Plus, you underscore the message that your institution allows student voices to be part of the conversation in an authentic way.

Break down internal silos for stronger higher ed content marketing

The ability to create long-lasting connections is one of the core values any university should express to prospective students. But the capacity to create connected experiences should also be reflected in your institution’s content and communications.

As recent events have changed the stakes for higher ed, marketing or communications teams can no longer be the gatekeepers for every channel. Your communications team should provide guidance for best practices, but you need to decentralize your content and allow it to flourish across campus. To stand out in a competitive climate, you need every available resource working to connect with the audience you need.

To hear the full conversation about higher ed content marketing between me and Val Fox of Valocity Marketing, listen to Episode 19 of The Future of Content podcast.