The millennial generation has made college students one of the largest demographic groups. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were 20.2 million college students in the fall of 2015. As a college professor, I spend my days thinking about creating content my students will actually care about. Their engagement is difficult to win, but necessary in my classroom. With their population number and their real and online networks, as a content creator, engaging students is also necessary for you. So how do I appeal to this group?
1. Understand they are a diverse group. In October 2014, NPR collected information about millennials, asking anyone inside the 18-34 age range to share how they define themselves outside of the census details of age, sex, and ethnicity. Millennials see themselves as unique, so they use a huge variety of terms to identify themselves, including things like “activist,” “pacifist,” “feminist,” “traveler,” and “human.” Although NPR’s sample size is larger than ours, they help us see the trends that hold true for college students as well.
As diverse as college students are, there are still some tactics that will help you create content that they care about.
2. Connect with them. As you create content for students, you need to focus on the student as an individual. How does your content, your message, your brand impact him? Or how does it impact her? Students will care about things that they feel directly connected to. Without sparking a political discussion, one of the best examples I’ve seen of connecting to students has been happening in this election cycle. Two of my students traveled over nine hours during the busiest part of the semester to attend a Bernie Sanders rally. They were passionate about what he said, they talked about him constantly, and tried to win everyone to his side. With Bernie’s ideas of what he would do as president, he explained how his work would impact these students as individuals. He connected with them and commanded their attention by focusing on them as individuals and their individual lives.
The example of Bernie Sanders brings up an additional point with connection. College students are interested in how the world is being shaped and how current trends and choices are going to impact the world. One of the common disparagements of millennials is that they only want to do a job if it is a job that will change the world. As content-creators we don’t need to worry about whether that trait is a positive or a negative, we just want to understand it. College students do care about the world around them, but they still see the connection to the world through what impacts them personally. For many of my students, the first time they expressed an interest in climate change was after reading a New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan where he discusses climate change entirely through individual choices.
3. Tell engaging stories. Engaging stories deepen the connection. But they also bring your content to life and make it memorable. There is not a specific type of story to aim for here, but to make it engaging, a story has to have good details. Details make a story real.
One of my best stories gets all twenty-five students in my classroom hanging on my every word. It’s a simple story about driving on a snow-covered icy road early in the morning, but I embellish it with details. Some of those are basic details about the steep hill with the stoplight at the bottom, but most of them are about my emotions as I drove down the steep hill to the red stoplight. The emotions pull my students in and engage them as I spin out a long story to lead into a technical lesson. Some emotion is dramatic, but the humor in my story is also a valuable emotion. Include emotion to tell an engaging story.
I’ve mentioned some of the common statements about millennials, and the last one I’ll address is their attention span. Millennials are accused of not having an attention span and are the first who were diagnosed with ADD/ADHD in large numbers as children. The usual idea is they’ll land on your page for five seconds before they are off to the next thing. That is true if you don’t connect with them. Establish the connection, tell engaging stories, and you will be able to keep their attention. [Tweet it]
A caution: don’t drag something on longer than it needs. College students are smart about how they can get the information. If a bulleted list is all that is needed, they won’t spend the time to read a long article.
College students seem to run through their lives at 100 miles per hour. But with personal connection and engaging stories, you can catch their attention and win them and their networks.
5-Star writer Emily M is currently faculty at a community college where she has been teaching writing for 8 years. As a writing teacher, she has become a master writer herself. She constantly writes and covers a wide variety of topics, including those that she is actively involved and interested in, and those that are less familiar to her. No matter her level of knowledge of the subject, she is a capable researcher and is able to craft interesting and engaging writings.
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