Many colleges and universities have been educating students for decades or even longer. But that past experience doesn’t always translate to working with today’s Generation Z students. This population was born sometime in the mid-1990s through about 2012. They’re the first generation of true digital natives, and that should matter significantly to higher education institutions.
While we’ve all adjusted to technology over the years, Generation Z is a bit different. They’ve never experienced life without cellphones, the internet or social media. One survey that polled close to 80,000 Generation Z’ers reports that nearly all of them have a smartphone, and they spend an average of 4 hours and 15 minutes on their device each day.
Generation Z is immersed in the digital world. So naturally, they have expectations when they’re consuming content online. A poor digital experience isn’t going to hold their attention for very long, which means your college’s website needs to meet their standards. From layout to language, there are a number of things you should keep in mind when creating a Gen Z-friendly website.
Generation Z students expect your institution’s website to …
1. Be transparent and authentic
In many cases, a user’s intent is pretty clear. A student who navigates to the tuition and aid section of your website — and Generation Z are among the most cost-conscious students — is most likely interested in finding out how much an education there would cost. Make it easy on them by prominently featuring relevant information. And be honest.
There’s evidence to indicate that Generation Z value authenticity more than previous cohorts, possibly because they don’t think brands are very truthful. One recent study reports that while 90 percent of Gen Z’ers care about receiving honest information about products, only 42 percent of them think brands are actually providing that type of transparency. In the case of tuition, make it clear. Trying to disguise cost will only make potential students skeptical, and they will probably seek clearer information elsewhere.
If you’re ever unsure of which information is most essential for a given page, consider connecting with your admissions team to find out what sorts of questions prospective students are asking. What are their common concerns? How can you address those head on?
Authenticity extends beyond words as well. Many colleges rely heavily on stock imagery. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that tactic, consider that Generation Z may perceive such imagery as fake. It’s also common to see the same individuals, if not the exact same image, across multiple higher education institutions. That hardly helps your college stand out to potential students. It’s a better idea to leverage in-house photography featuring your own students whenever possible.
2. Use carefully crafted language
Everyone, not just students, reads online content differently than they do printed material. Research has shown that people tend to scan, look for keywords and be more selective when reading digital content. And online readers don’t feel obligated to go through everything from top to bottom. These insights can help inform how you use text on your institution’s website. That often means avoiding language that’s too scholarly and adopting a less-is-more approach.
Keeping content minimal is particularly relevant for a Generation Z audience, because they’re not beginning their research with your website. These students are often learning a vast amount of information on YouTube. By the time a Gen Z’er arrives on a college website, they’ve likely already gathered a lot of the basic knowledge they need.
Also bear in mind that not every prospective student gathering information on your website is on the cusp of applying. The last of Generation Z weren’t born until the 2010s. It’s important that the words you use are digestible for these readers as well. Being skeptical of brands and critical of cost doesn’t mean Generation Z think higher education is a waste — nearly 90 percent see college as valuable. It means they’re already thinking about their future and starting their research.
3. Provide a simple, clear user experience
In an ideal world, every person who visits your website would immediately know where to go to find what they’re looking for. It would be easy to navigate, maintain design consistency, prominently feature action buttons and have a clear hierarchy — both in terms of the overall website structure and the order in which the content appears on specific pages.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good search function, either. When students use a website’s search tool, they expect it to work like Google to return the most relevant information based on the keywords. College websites sometimes fall flat in this department. Search functions that return results based on whether a word appeared on the page aren’t terribly helpful. Neither are search functions that arrange results by date. Worse yet is when the top results link to pages that no longer exist on the website.
Keep users in mind when you’re determining what you want them to get out of any particular page. While it can be tempting to include a call to action (CTA) for everything from requesting information about a program to starting an application, too many options can overwhelm potential students. You’re better off providing one obvious option. And it should be easy for them to take that desired action. A short, on-page form is less of a barrier than directing users to a new destination and then asking them to take additional steps.
4. Load quickly
Slow load times aren’t just frustrating to Generation Z — they’re frustrating to everyone. We’ve all come to expect a certain degree of immediacy during our online experiences. Not only that, but a sluggish website load time can also result in SEO penalties. If users grow frustrated with waiting and exit soon after landing on your website, it sends negative signals to search engine crawlers.
There are numerous ways to increase page speed. If your site is slow to load, consider looking into whether it’s possible to clean up the code, optimize image formats and minimize redirects.
5. Have a mobile mindset
Once a novelty, smartphones are now considered a necessity for many people. Usage has soared since they were first introduced. Today, more people access the internet from mobile devices than from desktop computers.
Some organizations prioritize responsive design that caters to desktop users first, then adjusts for mobile users. That tactic can certainly work, but remember who your audience is. Gen Z are most likely accessing your website from their phones. Designing your website around a mobile device’s limited screen size and bandwidth will better meet potential students’ needs.
That said, it’s wise to think beyond smartphone versus desktop computer. Think of how many devices are now part of our day-to-day lives. TVs, gaming systems, headphones, wearable devices and many more tools are all part of the internet of things (IoT). Does your website translate across devices?
6. Look nice
Given Generation Z’s propensity for spending time on social media and YouTube, it’s easy to assume that excess is the way to go. This doesn’t seem to be true. Nielsen Norman Group conducted research to observe how teenagers use the web and what they prefer. These studies make it clear that Generation Z users like clean design with plenty of white space. Furthermore, they tend to find too many interactive features to be off-putting. Flashy content only works if it adds value.
Enhance your digital presence
A thoughtfully designed website is key for connecting with and ultimately recruiting Generation Z students. That experience should continue outside the confines of your college’s main URL as well. Every touchpoint — your college’s blog, your YouTube channel, your email campaigns, your social ads — contributes to the larger brand ecosystem where these potential students live.
It’s likely your marketing efforts will expand to new territory in the not-too-distant future as well. While it can be intimidating to try new tactics on different platforms, a number of large consumer brands have proven it’s possible to do so without losing sight of your identity. To learn more about how your college can approach advancing technology, read our article, “Evolve With the Times Without Changing Who You Are.”