Are Questions More Important Now Than Ever?

We live in a unique time.

When faced with uncertainty in our personal or professional lives, what is the smartest first step? To take positive strides forward, would it help to more frequently lead with a question?

In a year of significant change, we are sensing a growing consumer and societal influence for college students. In our primary research at Newbridge, we are seeing clear student preferences for dealing with today’s more pressing issues. How might marketers and recruiters benefit from understanding how best to engage students in these dynamic times? Will others share in our optimism about the changes students will affect?

How Can We Minimize Mistakes When the Stakes are High?
From our seats as marketers, this doesn’t feel like a “toss the spaghetti at the wall” moment. Misguided steps in the market can elicit backlash to go along with their inefficiency, while well-designed consumer research can have faster feedback loops and boost efficacy.

We see our smart brand partners investing to better understand consumers and quickly adjusting plans based on those insights. The implications go well beyond marketing efficiencies to also include supply chain optimization and HR preparedness.

Today’s uncertainty comes from dramatic recent changes in living patterns, shopping behavior and spending power along with a significant boost in action on behalf of social causes. Is it possible that the positions of consumer influence are shifting significantly as well?

Why Are College Students So Important to Understand?
We launched as a college marketing agency when today’s freshmen were three-year-olds. We’ve always seen students as key consumers for a number of important product and service categories with a high lifetime value for brands. That may be only part of the picture today.

In 2020, is Gen Z becoming a more important piece of the consumer marketing puzzle due to increased influence? In recent years, we’ve seen them speed up their elders’ adoption of new technology. After spending so much time together in the house, is their influence currently growing on topics ranging from parents’ cooking and shopping habits to social and political views, let alone their Tik Tok dance moves?

Does a better understanding of college students have a ripple effect throughout an organization beyond just adapting to their changing consumption patterns? With their growing influence and eye for authenticity, they can become partners in marketing and also have a significant impact on product development, logistics and HR.

In our research with college students, we are seeing historically high survey response rates, helping to shine a light to better understand students and benefit from their insights. It is clear that students today are very different than students just 10 years ago.

Is There a Reason for Optimism?
Change can create anxiety, yet positive change is essential for business and society.
Whereas previous generations were less comfortable addressing issues of equity, today’s students embrace it. Equality is clearly the top social concern for current college students, as 37% listed it as their #1 cause in our August 2020 University Recruiting & Career Survey (even ahead of the environment, which was the second most popular #1 choice at 22%). When Millennials were in college, the environment tended to rank above all other causes. We see this as a clear boost in passion for equality which is accelerating during 2020, not a reduction in passion for the environment.

Will Gen Z’s open-book approach to engagement put difficult discussions on the table which were more easily ignored in the past? When COVID-19 advanced in late March, by a margin of 2.5 to 1, the 2,892 college students we surveyed preferred that companies address the virus in their advertising messaging rather than avoid it. In our August recruiting survey, on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the highest, 82% rated the importance of companies’ Diversity & Inclusion efforts as a 4 or 5 in importance when considering their future career steps.

Some may ask, are their opinions just trees falling in a forest with nobody around to hear them? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Gen Z has increasing influence and is action-oriented as consumers and employees.

Do college students speak out more for human rights due to increased understanding from living in more diverse environments? Or because they are looking at it with fresh eyes? Or both?

How to React When an Industry Gets Turned Upside Down?
In our college marketing, recruiting and research work, amidst a sea of changes across it all, recruiting is the area where we are seeing by far the most dramatic shifts. HR managers need to hire students without visiting campuses. No career fairs. No face-to-face interviews. No live presentations. They’ve had to adjust to this while designing virtual internship programs.

What replaces the old model? Webinars. Campus club engagement. Student ambassador programs. Virtual coaching sessions. Extensive digital outreach.
Glass Half Full: Was the model due for an upgrade? You bet. The model which will exist after students are all eventually back on campus likely will look more like the new model than the old one.

In our August recruiting survey, 25% more students told us they plan to find a job or internship via virtual info sessions with companies than those who told us they plan to find opportunities via their university career centers. Gen Z adapts quickly in a changing, digital world, and HR is adapting along with them.

The smartest companies will continually do their homework, see the growing influence of Gen Z and adjust tactics to build their loyalty and advocacy as consumers as well as employees. To do so, it starts with asking the right questions.

Born More Recently, but Not Yesterday?
As we think about the societal challenges of sorting truth from fiction in a photoshopped world where some may prefer an echo chamber, is GenZ best equipped for this environment? Today’s students have grown up with social media and tend to be some of the most discerning consumers of marketing. They appear best suited to also filter out unfounded conspiracy theories.

In our August career survey, 60% of students say Black Lives Matter has impacted how they view companies they may work for in the future. The top five changes in approach show an impressive look behind the curtain and include detecting “performative activism” and looking for a history of equity support before it became a trending issue.

We see similar discerning approaches when surveying students about purchase and consumption habits. In our Healthy Products & Lifestyle Survey in March 2020, 67% told us that they read nutrition facts and ingredients before purchasing. Simple, but important.

These sorts of behaviors force real change as companies do listen.

It is clear, whether in their marketing messaging or their employee recruiting, the companies taking a stand to make the world better through natural ingredients or positive social change will be rewarded. That naturally creates a positive circular reward loop for all of us.

How Should We Engage Students?
To begin, they prefer being “engaged with” rather than “talked to”. Questions create two-way discussions. In our student outreach, we find that conversational tones and added context boost engagement. When surveying students, we let them know that brands are asking us these questions. Rather than us guessing how they might be thinking, we’d rather let them speak for themselves. As a result, survey response rates have never been higher.

Even better than a good conversation, they prefer doing real work together. Both parties get better acquainted and generate real impact. This creates a great recruiting pipeline in the process. We recommend this to corporate partners and live by it ourselves. My two teammates editing this article, each less than a year from their ambassador and internship work with us, would attest.

Students embrace the tougher questions, look to invest their time in meaningful change and want their voices to be heard. They understand the silent downside of agreeing to disagree.

Is this also good news for those marketing to or recruiting today’s college students? We think so. Students want to share their opinions and their voices are clear, so there is little need for guesswork in your decision-making and fact-finding is more efficient.

Where Else May We Benefit from Asking Questions First?
Can this approach be helpful outside of our business lives as well?

Whether discussing politics or pandemics, we see deep divisions. Are we missing an opportunity for more productive dialogue?

What if more conversations began with a genuine question to understand history, data or shared experiences? Is it possible we have more common concerns, values and desires than we think? Or, is it possible that the division is what it appears to be, but we simply need to seek a better understanding to reduce the chasm? Either way, asking the right questions feels like an optimal first step.

As we see so often on campus, discussing topics openly and challenging societal norms and pre-conceived constraints via the questions we ask or receive may benefit us all.

Questions may provide the ingredients we need in our recipe for progress:

  • a teaspoon of constructive dialogue
  • a tablespoon of better understanding
  • a heaping spoonful of personal empathy

Personally and professionally, that seems like a good place to start. Don’t you think?

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Steve Schubert

Co-Founder & Senior Partner