Editor’s note: Nate Cusick is a business and marketing development representative at market research tech company Discuss.io, Seattle. This is an edited version of a post that appeared here under the title, “What Gen Z can teach your insights team.” 

I have found myself fascinated with Gen Z (born after 1997) consumers. With technology readily available, they are empowered like no generation before to make savvier buying choices. They are more informed, more aware and even more vocal than Millennials (*gasp*). 

You cannot rely on generic ads, celebrity endorsements or legacy brand name loyalty anymore. Born with iPhones in their hands and Instagram accounts boasting millions of followers, these kiddos are your brand's biggest challenge. What is important to them? How can your brand stand out and make the cut? 

To get a better understanding of a specific Gen Z demographic I spoke with Rob Biebly, VP of analytics and insights at Whiteboard Higher Education, about college-aged Gen Zers and his perspective on how to efficiently break through the noise.

Nate Cusick: Could you tell me a little more about your team at Whiteboard Higher Education?

Rob Biebly: Whiteboard is an enrollment services firm, focused on recruitment and aid strategy. We help institutions identify, engage and enroll best-fit students. Everybody at Whiteboard has some sort of higher education background. I came from a higher education PhD program and worked in the world of financial aid leveraging and admissions and financial aid consulting for a couple of years. I work with partners in that component of the business where we build statistical models and advise clients, who are post-secondary education institutions – generally private schools – on how to best structure their financial aid offerings and how to develop their admissions policies and practices to bring in the classes they want.

NC: How powerful are Gen Z college students in terms of spending power?

RB: In terms of the higher education industry they are the spending power as we deal mostly with first-year enrollments. As we move forward they are our tuition revenue. In terms of spending power, they are continuing to drive the industry forward by being more informed and aware of the cost than previous generations. The market is shifting where students are better equipped to make smarter buying choices. Previous students were somewhat blind to the net cost of attending. Gen Z students are going in with a better idea of what it actually costs.  

NC: How do students make and justify expensive decisions such as where to go to college?

RB: That's really interesting that you asked that question – there has been a major shift in the past couple of years in terms of how students are engaging with colleges. They have so much information available to them in terms of price ... particularly net cost.

When we talk about the cost of higher education, what really matters is net cost. Many of those schools [private institutions] have a 50 percent discount rate. State school is not much cheaper than private schools if you are not getting a lot of financial aid. Last year the federal government changed the FAFSA regulations so that students can now use their tax returns from two years ago to file for aid. Now we are seeing kids filing for aid in November allowing them to be better informed on the net cost of attending these institutions. Sticker price is much clearer. 

However, affinity matters sometimes more than the net cost. The programs and alumni network that a school offers also plays into the decision for a lot of students. If you get admitted into one of your "stretch" schools, even if it's a little bit more than you think you should be paying ... a lot of families are willing to take on the additional debt for the tradeoff of more opportunities. 

NC: How do institutions or brands go about authentically connecting with the next generation of consumers? 

RB: It is about telling students – or consumers – who you are as an institution/brand. One trend we are seeing in higher education over the past couple of years is schools moving toward defining their own identity and using that to align well with students that we know are going to want to enroll there.  

Campus visits are still massive for this next generation. Getting them there and actually experiencing what it would be like to be there and living their day-to-day is so powerful.

NC: Do you think AR and VR will be incorporated into the campus touring experience?

RB: I would love this! I have seen a vendor already doing this focusing primarily on international students. There is a lot of opportunity to bring the visit to the student. Virtual reality would be a great alternative for students not able to travel and augmented reality could be incorporated into the campus visit. I have a few clients who have a ton of international prospective students; it would be amazing to be able to give those kids the same experience as being on campus without having to fly across the globe.

NC: What is effective when marketing to Gen Z and what is not?

RB: I think for Gen Zers, experience and emotionality are both more important than flash and flare. The effort that our company makes to provide them an in-depth understanding of what an institution/brand stands for is a lot more important than maybe more flashy, colorful and generic messaging. … making a meaningful connection between who the brand is and who the consumer is and why those two are interrelated is the best way to drive engagement.

NC: What part does technology play in gaining insights into college-aged Gen Z consumers?

RB: Technology has helped us really get a better understanding on what sort of messaging works with students and what doesn't. Things like AB testing across social media, e-mail tracking and ad engagements all play a part. We can then use that data to better help our clients be more effective when creatively engaging with prospective students.

NC: What changes in the market research space are you seeing when it comes to collecting insights or conducting research on Gen Z? 

RB: Qualitative research has the ability to push the connection even further. We can do some cool stuff in quant but qualitative research allows [brands] to empathize with consumers. One of the cool things my former employer did to add some more qual was [to include] pop-up video responses in surveys. The ability to actually see the respondents’ facial reactions through video evidence is so powerful. I would love to see more of this in higher education research. In my previous roles [consumer MR], being able to capture the consumer voice was by far the most effective way to communicate research data to clients.

NC: How can brands correctly leverage quantitative and qualitative data to make informed decisions around Gen Z Consumers? 

RB: Polling and surveying continue to be important factors to understanding as well as behavioral data. The combination of quantitative data helps to get a better perspective of the Gen Z profile. But then when we think about empathy and how to move a brand forward ... it's really about connecting face-to-face with consumers and finding out what is important to them. I believe that there is a lot of opportunity to leverage newer qualitative tools among the broader Gen Z population to better understand what this generation is about.