Skip to content
October 20, 2023 SHARE

Also Listen On

As teens use TikTok more than Google and launch their own college search process online, higher ed marketing must appear not only memorable, but authentic. ‘Lo-fi’ content continues to engage teen demographics in campaigns, with higher ed institutions now employing this style strategically.

Show Notes

Two leaders in creating compelling and engaging advertising and brand campaigns for Gen Z discuss:

  • Getting noticed because of good design
  • Why authenticity matters to teens
  • Balancing brand standards with trends
  • What brands stand out and how
  • How to stay inspired to do your best work


Read the Transcript

Cathy Donovan [00:00:00]

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Innovating Enrollment Success podcast. Anyone working at or with a college or university to grow enrollment knows that enrollment success and innovation in enrollment are far from easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And it doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun talking about what is getting the attention of the most distracted prospective student pool in history. It’s about reaching them where they are with content that resonates. That’s key. I’m Cathy Donovan, agency marketing director at Paskill, a higher education enrollment marketing firm, where we know creative across all channels needs to align with institutional brand, as well as engage prospective students authentically and effectively.

Today, I am very pleased to have the in-person company of two talented creatives leading multi-platform campaigns for all kinds of institutions from the highly selective to those with open enrollment. For the next half hour or so, we’re going to dive into some design and content trends that are resonating right now with today’s teens. When it engages, when it doesn’t and how to stay, stay inspired to do your best work.

Brian Kelly’s 20 plus years of experience expands across higher education and top consumer companies. He’s concepted and executed brand and advertising campaigns for partners like Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences, Penn State Dickinson Law, Harrisburg University, and the United States Coast Guard Academy. His previous agency work in Knoxville, Tennessee and New York City includes supporting clients like Lowe’s, Visa, Milky Way, and Pepsi.

Frank Delaney concepts and art directs for a range of Paskill higher ed partners, including Three Rivers College, Goldey-Beacom College, and the United States Coast Guard Academy. He’s also led agencies in Baltimore where he created for top consumer brands, including Fila Sportswear, Mug Root Beer, Kawasaki, Dewalt, and Doubletree by Hilton. Welcome Brian and Frank.

Brian Kelley: Thanks for having us.

Frank Delaney: Glad to be here.

Cathy Donovan: Well, let’s get started. We’re talking about teens and we know it’s a hyper saturated world for them, to grab their attention. What content is getting noticed right now? And is that good design?

Brian Kelley: Yeah, so I, I like how, uh, just right out of the gate, you don’t pull any punches.

Cathy Donovan: I have to, I’m charged for this. Let’s go.

Brian Kelley: No softball questions here. That’s the whole gig, right? Is trying to get attention. That’s always been the gig. But now, like you said, hypermedia saturated, there’s so many different avenues this target now can go to.

So I think, um, now this has always been important, but now more than any time I can think of is relevancy. Real estate, they say location, location, location. I think now in marketing, it’s relevant, relevant, relevant, and you got it right out of the gate it’s got to be instant that, oh, this is for me. This is something, you know, I’m interested in. Then after that, then you can layer on all the different things like, you know, from music selection or, you know, humor, you know, something local or whatever that is, but really to me, I think the most important thing is it’s got to be relevant to them.

Frank Delaney:  Yeah, I think the short answer is motion content. Video content is key. Content is a buzzword nowadays, but if I were to say what gets noticed, what’s sort of like a piece of content, it’s, it’s always that motion content. I know we’re going to talk about it, but authentic motion content, whether it be video or animation, but that’s usually gets attention, looks really good in the analytics, at least when we go to start to judge the creative to see if it’s resonating and it’s hitting its KPI, but definitely motion content is I don’t know if that’s a trend necessarily, but it’s sort of a necessary media.

Cathy Donovan: Absolutely.

Brian Kelley: Trend can have many meanings. I’ll just say for us personally, I know four years ago, five years ago, we would get media spec sheets for the campaigns we were doing a lot of static ads, a lot of display, a lot of native carousels. And then you’d have a couple video buys for like, uh, in feed video. Now that’s flipped it’s, it’s like 80 percent video and then a couple static ads, maybe retargeting a little bit of display. Those are most always retargeting, but that’s where the platforms went. Platforms first came out they were just static images. And the other thing is, you know, technology has improved so much that people can get high speed internet most anywhere now, and that’s really ramped up where before it’d be hard maybe to watch video on a bunch of different devices, and now you can. So really it’s um, about not only keeping up with marketing trends, but keeping up with trends of the world, keeping up with technology. You know you gotta have your finger on the pulse, you know, of so many different things.

Cathy Donovan: Right, and I know teens like, just to say hi, it’s not just the text sometimes, they’ll record a video of themselves and then send that. I think they’re producers themselves of video.

Brian Kelley: Everyone’s a content creator now, now to what level, how good it is. Everyone’s kind of great in content now…

Cathy Donovan: … right, the expectation of that content. So, you know, we talked a little bit about authenticity and I think like that could be a philosophical term, but I think for teens, it’s like when you use the word resonate, so like just getting out a little bit, like if you’re a teen and you’re distracted and you know, you’re consuming content different ways, how do you define authenticity? Do you define it differently for a demographic like teens?

Frank Delaney: I think this generation, Gen Z, they grew up with social media. So they’re very accustomed to being that content maker, that curator of their own life. And I think they’re just looking for it in all of their advertising. They’re looking naturally for it. I guess the challenge for us as creatives is to like, tap into that authenticity stream, so to speak. Whether it’s, you know, whatever the client necessarily is, but this Gen Z audience, they don’t want to be sold.

At least from what I can gather from reviewing research, having my own anecdotal stories of my teenager, they consume content through that device. And everything comes through that to Brian’s point about the bandwidth, the media, the device, the technology is so much better than it was 10 years ago that it’s perfect platform for motion and video content.

Brian Kelley: I’ll say for me, it’s interesting where I’m Gen X and when I was their age, it was big production, New York City, Madison Avenue. It was LA, it was slick. And you wanted it that way, like the bigger, the better.  You wanted Michael Jordan. You wanted these like huge names, slick ads. But over time, I just think people became wary of that because you are being sold something.

And then I think with Gen Z now, like Frank said, they’ve grown up in social media and it’s been largely on a phone, which is a small screen. Produced, slick big vistas or whatever, don’t play very well in a small handheld vertical format. But what does play well is intimate, up close. You know, you think about, I think some of the best marketing done on these platforms, particularly for Gen Z is shots up close of like small groups or single people.

And again, that’s how they are communicating with the world. That’s how they’re communicating with their friends. Whether it’s FaceTime or sharing content, it’s within this screen to be authentic. We have to kind of match what they’re seeing. So if you’re on a, if you’re watching the big screen in the living room against a TV show, that’s you know, highly produced and slick that when you go to an ad, it should kind of match that experience. Same goes for on the phone. If they’re going through and they’re seeing content generated from their friends or just other brands that are tapping into this, then you need to feel native to that, you know, got to be relevant like I said, you can’t just put anything in there.

Cathy Donovan: But you use the word feeling. And I think that’s a big part of it. And I think that’s a challenge for creatives is to generate content that does elicit some kind of feeling.

Brian Kelley: As Gen Z would say, it’s a vibe.

Cathy Donovan: Totally. Yeah. So, higher ed schools that we work with, obviously it’s a big purchase for families, cost is a big concern, but it’s also a really valuable experience. So how do you counsel your clients to get at that authentic vibe in some of their content?

Frank Delaney: Yeah. I’ll go first. I think from a clearly visual design point of view to get there is to talk about students, students on campus, campus life. So if I were to give you like, just a quick list of how do we build out authenticity without saying authenticity? It’s take advantage of the location. How we dig deeper into generating content through photography or video. I think Brian and I both, whenever we speak with a client, it’s, we always say what assets or what assets do we generate? And we always want to build authenticity first and foremost through location, on campus, student activity, interacting. That’s something that be sort of a process that we like to follow. What that does is not only does it get us to the result quicker, but it gets that conversation started around how do we build very intimate, authentic, contextually right. Because if we’re talking about a campus visit or a certain subject matter, it’s always great to build or shoot content from within that experience.

Brian Kelley: The other side of that is with messaging. I think the client has to be really, uh, honest with themselves about who they are, what they can offer, and then lean into that, accentuate your positives. But don’t try to be something you’re not, because if you do, you know, uh, Gen Z will see that in a second, I think.

Cathy Donovan: That could take some time with some colleges or universities that, you know, answer to faculty or answer to who they want to be. How do you shape that?

Brian Kelley: I think it’s okay to be aspirational. And like I said, accentuate the positives. This is marketing, you know, you want to put your best foot forward to put it in a certain light to make you seem advantageous over your competitors, but you have to do it in a way that’s true.

You know, we can exaggerate slightly maybe, or, or you just, you do things in a certain way to like build some hype or excitement or whatever that the case may be, but it’s gotta be true to yourself. If one of your main selling points is the fact that you are small and that you have small class sizes and that you’re not going to get lost in the shuffle, then tell stories about that. Talk about that. You’re not competing with the big D1 schools.

Then I’ll say for myself, when I was looking to go to college, I wanted to go to biggest school as I could. I wanted that big sports, lots of big, you know, events and the excitement of all that. My sister was the opposite. She wanted something where she knew her professors and they knew her and to be honest, she was probably a little more concerned with her education than I was, I was kind of looking for a little bit of a good time maybe. Knowing who your student is and then laddering that up to what it is that you really can deliver and then go for it.

Cathy Donovan: That makes sense. So colleges and universities obviously care a lot about their brand. That’s not an easy thing to create and govern and all of that. But sometimes with these newer trends where it’s lo fi video or an authentic smaller screen, you know, it feels like the brand guidelines could be challenged a little bit to evolve with those trends. Just curious what your thoughts are of maintaining that strong brand, but also kind of keeping current with trends.

Frank Delaney: Yeah, I think, um, in the design space, we use the guidelines as a, as truly as a guide. I professionally use it as a launching off point because those guidelines don’t anticipate everything. They don’t anticipate motion necessarily, or a real time trend. I keep looking to TikTok, not so much as a platform, but it’s the quickest medium for students to share information. I think I’m seeing now is they share these challenges for better or worse. They communicate and they challenge each other. One thing I’ve noticed on campuses they share tours. One thing when we’re speaking on perhaps the brand point of view, part of it is if it’s on campus, are we showing the school in a positive way? Are we taking advantage of the differentiators that might exist on campus? Like, I’m thinking of the Coast Guard, for instance, where a lot of their campus is distinctly to them, like there’s a sailing ship, the Eagle. It couldn’t be mistaken for any other place. So when the context is in the location and your students, to Brian’s point, have this authentic, true experience, it only helps accentuate the brand. It helps support it.

Brian Kelley: Yeah, I agree with Frank. There are guidelines. And I think what you always have to remember is what’s the purpose. And the purpose is that across all channels, all platforms, when someone in your target audience sees that piece of communication, they know who it’s from. And as long as you keep that in mind, and you’re not doing something that’s so out of left field that it doesn’t feel like you anymore, then you’re doing your job.

They can get really specific brand guidelines can. But to Frank’s point, a lot of times they don’t go into certain things like, I don’t see brand guidelines that talk about TikTok videos or reels. So we have to interpret those brand guidelines for that particular platform. But again, as long as it still sounds like the client and it still feels like the client, then you can go with any trend that you want to. Again, if it’s appropriate, there’s some trends out that there aren’t appropriate.

Cathy Donovan: Absolutely.

Brian Kelley: So we’ll be honest about that. But those are the easy ones to see. I think the more difficult one is like, “hey, this is a cool trend. It’s appropriate. How do we do it our way?” The worst thing you can do is spend money on something and the target audience says, “man, that was awesome. Oh, who did that? I have no clue.” We got to keep first and foremost, that you have to come away with that was really cool of what so and so did. And that’s how you gain traction there.

Cathy Donovan: I think talking about brand, you know, now it’s absolutely a brand experience. You know, it’s not just this logo, but it is, it’s the field, it’s the hallways, it’s so much. So, I’m just thinking of, are there any folks in the higher ed space that are doing brand experience in ways that, you know, inspire you?

Frank Delaney: Every college or every, uh, university, they create tours, campus tours. I guess a few years ago, the drone shot was like a, you know, was like a new approach to show in that environment in a really interesting way. I think one thing I’m seeing now, Indiana University comes to mind, LSU, big schools and small schools, mid majors, is the student-led campus tour. And you’re seeing that more on social, organic posts. But what I’m also noticing is that some of that content is then being repurposed or like a direct advertising paid media play. It’s borrowing the aesthetic.  Back to Brian’s point earlier, where it’s sort of like very intimate, very, um, built for the vertical phone and the device that’s in your hand.

There’s these tours that are not so grandiose, but a little bit more kind of feet on the pavement, so to speak, you’re actually walking through the campus and I’m, I’m seeing that I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a trend, but it’s something that it’s a new approach to the same challenge. Like, how do we bring people into the campus in a nice, unique way, show the space, do it in this sort of like holistic one-to-one relationship with like a student.

Brian Kelley: I’ll say from big picture, big marketing across all channels and everything, it’s easy to look at some D1 schools because they got budget and money. Penn State always sticks out to me. Part of that’s because they’re in our backyard a little bit. They do it so well. You know when it’s Penn State, they’ve got that really simple yet bold Nittany Lion. No logo that they use. They also have this, you know, we are Penn State mantra. Very consistent with it. That blue. So sometimes it’s not like, wow, they they just did something so crazy or whatever. It’s more just being able to be consistent like that, across everything that you do on a smaller scale. I was talking to Frank about this one earlier. We talk about this all the time saw something from DePaul University and it created this really beautiful video that showed their campus. It was just music. So it wasn’t like about the details. It was just kind of eye candy a little bit. Then what they did is. They took this five-to-six-minute video, which I’m sure they had a lot more content. They captured while they were making that. And then they would focus just on one area of the school, maybe like the student union or, or, or a specific building for quad or something.

And they would make ads, TikTok or stories just about that. So shorter, you know, format. And we always talk about that, that when we’re capturing stuff, we’re thinking beyond the thing we’re making. We’re looking at it as kind of building a library while we’re here, and quite often we’re shooting video.

We’re like, hey, while we got everyone here, let’s bring a photographer because you got the students there giving their time. You got the, you know, administration that said, all right, you can use the building at this time. So while we have it, let’s capture stuff. Even if we don’t have a plan in the moment, it’s so good to be able to capture that stuff because the last thing you want to do is something new comes up. You got to go use stock because you don’t have anything. Instead, you’d be like, hey, we got this whole library here, not that you’re just running and gunning and shooting haphazardly. You have a plan like the types of things you want, but you don’t necessarily have a media plan always for those.

Cathy Donovan: But that’s when a partner helps because I think when you’re inside, you’re overwhelmed. You see all the possibilities, but art directing, you know, does take skill.

Brian Kelley: Absolutely.

Cathy Donovan: And it helps for outside perspective to stage that and set, set that up for success. Do you have any examples of that, of working in kind of unique ways with an institution to help them build that asset library?

Brian Kelley: Yeah. So to give an example for PA College of Health Sciences, it’s a client we’ve had for a number of years. The most recent campaign we did for them, we did exactly what I just said. So we had a set production schedule over a few days of here is we are capturing content for these specific ad units. They’re thought through, copy’s written. All we’re doing now is just, you know, capturing it to make this great campaign.

While we’re doing that, we had a second crew that was capturing mostly photography, but some video as well. And some of it was, we had a plan for some things. A lot of it was take advantage of the time we have, take advantage of the students being here, take advantage of the fact that parts of the school are sectioned off for us that we could use, and, uh, helping them build a library over time.

We also help them with their organic social content, which isn’t always the case with a lot of our clients. A lot of the times their organic content is created in house. Well, for them, we help supplement it. They do some, but we, we do some as well. Selfishly, it was, you know, for us too, because every month we have to do, you know, like 10 posts for them. So we want to have new content to be able to draw from.

Frank Delaney: Yeah, that’s a great point. I like what you said about take advantage of the time you have with the client location, the school, especially the students, because oftentimes what makes it authentic is you’re, you’re working with real student talent that are sharing their experience just by being in a photograph. Goldey-Beacom comes to mind where we had the opportunity to work with, um, an internal producer that was working within the marketing department and their communications.

We treated this fella just like one of our own vendors or one of our own team members. We briefed them on our point of view because Brian and I both worked on it. We created some mood boards and just walked them through the process of what we expected on our production day. And it worked out great because he had this intrinsic knowledge of the campus, the students. He reached out to friends and other, you know, colleagues that on campus and it just made the work more rich. As far as the day of the production, I think that’s how we’re trending where we like to take advantage of that day, shoot as much content as we can. We do have a deliverable, but you know, the hardest thing is getting everybody in one place.

That was a great example of where a lot of this came together. And then some of that great content then influenced more media by, so it almost happened in reverse where everyone was, I wasn’t surprised at how well it was, but I think our team was, this is great. We can find more applications, whether it was a billboard. I think we also did some digital billboards.

Cathy Donovan: Those strong images or video, they just don’t happen. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it. And I think that’s it’s hard for folks who are at higher ed institutions that want that or the folks around them say to get it, but it takes it takes a strong partnership to be able to point it out and do the planning.

And that’s what we do. We innovate enrollment success, which is a is a tagline that we have to share how and why we’re doing it. So I just need to ask both of you, you know, how you might be doing that. Sometimes it’s an everyday ways, innovation sounds lofty, but sometimes it could just mean a change of perspective, or it could be a commitment or problem solving.

So I’m just asking you both, you know, how you might deliver on that innovating enrollment success in an everyday way, or maybe even an epic way.

Brian Kelley: I really like what you said there. Innovation can just be changing thought process or something. It’s a guy we work with a couple of years ago. He did a really great in agency seminar.

We started this thing called innovation lab and he was saying a lot of times innovation gets mistaken for invention. Invention is usually like something brand new, you know, something hadn’t been thought of before where innovation is just moving something forward, thinking about a different way. Like you said, I think one of the things that we do, and this is a little bit of, uh, like you said, an everyday thing is we’re always educating ourselves.

We had for a while and we were talking about doing some more again. Now we have this thing called storming digital. Where it was a agency wide thing where we had some leaders throughout the agency would come and give like these hour sessions on different parts of our industry when it comes to digital media, how you target, how you communicate with them, what are mindsets.

What are the tools like each one would have a different focal point. We also do work shares every month. And that’s a great way for all of us to learn to see what we’re all doing. And because so often you are educating yourself in the moment, you know, and, um, you really should be if you want to innovate and you want to be doing something different. Um, so each time it’s not just a rinse repeat. So if you want to do something new, you’re constantly educating yourself. And then we try to share that with one another. And I think that helps us stay relevant. But we said at the beginning, not only does the marketing need to be relevant for the target, we need to be relevant within the industry and the way you do that is by constantly seeking out the things you don’t know, seeing what others are doing and then seeing how you can apply that to your own work.

Frank Delaney: Yeah, that’s a great point. I know your team, creative team fosters a open door policy, constantly asking questions to Brian’s point as we push things forward. It’s just, there’s always a thought leader in an area within the agency. Always someone who knows the best format for TikTok with the content we have. So it’s just being encouraged to ask the questions to if you have a question about the media plan, it’s as easy as a Slack or an email to set a meeting and talk about it and to understand the goals of the client. The media that’s been proposed is there wiggle room? I definitely am in that camp like Brian where sometimes innovation is just having the right conversation, having the empowerment to have that conversation, to evolve the creative based on media.

Based on trends, so to speak. So yeah, that’s a really encouraging thing when you work with a team that you’re able to share. I’ll be honest, as much as I love hate with Slack, it’s a quick way to get gut checks on creative, share things you’re seeing in the industry. So I think that’s been an invaluable tool.

Having the empowerment to share, to even give opinions on work that may not be your own, but you have a point of view on different media. Different trends.

Cathy Donovan: Your team is very valuable. And I know for some folks in higher ed, they could be on a small team or they could be on a big team. But I think if you’re a creative person, that’s a lot of pressure to keep producing and resonating. So, you know, some, some words to those folks out there in the trenches, you know, what’s some inspiration for them to keep up doing their best work?

Brian Kelley: To be honest, I’ll say for myself, most of the creatives that I’ve known throughout the years, they have something inside of them that makes them do that.

Cathy Donovan: Right. You know, so I just don’t, I just don’t have it.

Brian Kelley: It’s probably, well, I, you know, I don’t want to say that Cathy, but, um, it’s why you have to have deadlines. Because we’ll noodle something, even when it, we’re not making it better, we’re making it different, you know because that’s just sort of in our DNA a little bit.

You can sometimes find yourself in a creative rut a little bit. And I’ll just go back to what I was saying before. It’s, it’s looking outside of yourself. And I’ll say that’s, that’s a good thing for in, in different verticals. Um, and that’s why I like that. I work in a lot of higher ed, but I work in other verticals as well.

I think that’s good because you don’t want to just look and see, well, what’s everyone doing in higher ed because Gen Z is just not looking at college ads, you know, they’re, they’re taking in stuff from everywhere. So it doesn’t mean it’ll be an exact one to one, but you should know what athletic gear, how they’re marketing to Gen Z. You should see how streaming services are, you know, because that’s what they’re seeing and you never know where inspiration is going to strike.

So I think become a consumer of content is one of the best things you can do. It’s so if you, if you, you know, look at, my social channels myself, I’m more of a voyeur than an active participant. Um, but I need to know how all of these platforms function. And then I go and I like different brands that I’ll see something be like, Oh, that’s. That’s kind of cool. So I’ll follow them so that I can just kind of keep up with what’s going on. And, and now, of course, you know, um, a small liberal arts college isn’t going to have the budget that Nike does, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find inspiration in what Nike does, particularly because they’re often going towards a more youthful audience.

Um, so to come back, being relevant, you know, go be a student, be a fan of advertising. You know, I always have been, and it always, um, fuels me when I see something really good, cause I know how hard they worked to get that through all the different steps to finally get it in front of my eyes.

Frank Delaney:  I’m very much a nerd for advertising and to Brian’s point, I’ve always sort of jokingly said, I have to, I’m, I’m a consumer first and then I, I then appreciate the level of effort that’s put into certain projects and I always want to be in that room when they pitched it.

But I think if I were to give a tangible piece of advice, it’s to know a couple things that keep your eyes and ears open. Not everything you see is appropriate for right now, but document that, document why you like it, write it down in a notebook. It might not be appropriate for today’s client, but it’s something that is in your bag of tricks, so to speak.

And you can share it in a brainstorm or, you know, in those areas that are everyone can throw out ideas. That’s when you start to throw out those things like, I really like this Nike ad, or I really like this, you know, UCLA ad, or, um, a big D1 school. Once you put it out into this sort of conversation, everyone then overlays how they think it could come to life.

And, and you learn some things by doing that. So it’s, it’s being open. Having like ideas in the back of your mind that you want to implement eventually or sort of put out there in the conversation and then just listen to your team and see what resonates because you’ll be surprised that a diverse team get diverse input. And that could be like the nugget you need for the next campaign or next design.

Brian Kelley: You know, to follow up on that, you gave me a thought when you’re, when you were talking about kind of like track it or log it or whatever. I’ve seen so many creatives use Pinterest. Not to share with other people, but to like categorize design, art direction, maybe ads.

So they’re keeping it not to share with people, look what I saw before themselves, it’s a really cool place to kind of keep that inspiration and like Frank said, to catalog it. And then when you’re stuck, go back and like, oh, that, I do remember that. It might be from like six months to a year ago, but it jogs that memory, you know, that something inspired you to put it on there.

And, I always thought that was kind of cool seeing another creative’s interest when it comes to like design, art.

Frank Delaney: Pinterest is a unsung hero I think in the design community. We need more Pinterest activity, but yeah, definitely. There’s such a thing as a designer’s block so it’s just great.

Cathy Donovan: Fantastic. So thank you both for joining me today.

And if those listening want to hear more about Frank and Brian and their work, please see our show notes or find them on social. Where they’re posting and not just watching others. I’m sure they’re also posting, or if you’d like, reach out to us at Paskill. We’re always happy to chat about ways to innovate enrollment success at your institution and connect you with the right people to make that happen. So thanks so much.

One Roberts Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038

[email protected]

Request for Proposals

Share your marketing needs with us in one easy upload.

Submit Your RFP