As a recent college graduate and member of the coveted 18-34 demographic, I’ve encountered a lot of marketing that is supposedly aimed at me. I say supposedly because some of the efforts led me to question whether the writers had ever met an 18-year-old, even in passing. Colleges and universities must compete for the attention of teenagers and young adults in order to exist, leaving their marketing departments with a dilemma: how do you produce compelling content that appeals to a high school senior without sounding like you Googled “what do teenagers like?” Through in-depth research (read: conversations with friends while eating Chinese take-out and watching Jeopardy), I’ve gathered a few bits of advice based on things we liked and couldn’t stand when colleges tried to write for us.
1. Slang is not totally awesome.
Here’s the problem with slang: it’s meant to be fleeting. Even if you are able to figure out which terms are popular right now (I certainly can’t) or if what you’ve written sticks along for more than a month, it’s going to become dated. Though the “totally awesome” example may be exaggerated, it’s not far off from some college marketing materials I’ve encountered. Even current slang sounds strange in a formal context. Students don’t want the place that’s supposed to educate them trying to use the words “hot” or “in” unless it’s in reference to temperature or physical proximity.
2. Don’t be afraid of being casual.
Informal language doesn’t mean using slang. It means talking to the person like you want to have a conversation with them, like you have exciting, relevant information to share, and that information does not consist of a legal document or an academic paper. When I want to write casually without sounding like I’m trying too hard, I imagine I’m writing to one of my friends, an intelligent person I want to have a conversation with—and there lies the next point.
3. Think of your audience as smart.
My single biggest pet peeve when it comes to marketing for young adults is people talking down to me. It’s true that a high school senior doesn’t have the same amount of education or life experience as someone who’s been working in marketing for a decade. But if you’re writing for prospective college students, then you’re writing for an audience who we trust to drive a car and vote (or at least vote soon). I’ve always maintained that the best way to write for teenagers is to write exactly the same way you would write for adults. Just take those same writing techniques and write about what your audience cares about.
4. Figure out what teenagers and young adults care about (it’s a lot of the same things adults care about).
You don’t have to fill your content with the latest pop culture references to appeal to a younger audience. Most of the time, pop culture references fall into the same trap as slang. Nothing reads more awkward than a university referencing the most popular song of two months ago or a TV show everyone stopped watching three seasons earlier. If you want to drop references, classic usually works best—I have no idea if any of today’s Top 20 songs will be around in twenty-five years, or even ten. But I know the Beatles’ songs are. Just because something was released before you were born doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about it.
But I think the most important answer to this question is one that may not initially seem helpful: they care about different things. It’s impossible for every college to appeal to every student—and why would you want to? If you offer small, academically rigorous classes where students have to work hard and develop personal relationships with their professors to succeed, then talk about that, with excitement and in detail. Passion transcends age. Reality shows do not.
What did you love and what could you not stand when you were researching colleges and universities? What tactics do you use when producing content for a younger audience? I’d love to hear (though, sadly, I don’t have any Chinese take-out to offer.)
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Taylor Davidson – Content Marketing Writer