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Engaging the Digital Generation

Every year students, traditional and non-traditional, arrive to campus with new and ever-changing use of social media tools. Recently I wrote about a trending app with teens and young adults called TikTok – which got quite the response! It can be tough to keep up – if not impossible. 

In this post I’m pulling us out of the nitty-gritty of daily strategies, and bright n’ shiny new tools, to look big picture at our society, demographics and social media, with the intent to approach social media for engagement, whether to students, parents, alumni, or stakeholders – across the lifespan. 

My philosophy to digital engagement is this: Reach your campus community where they are, with a strategy that intends to build genuine relationships, emotionally connects by documenting your values, and consistently shares authentic stories.

By trade and education, I apply a lens of human development and psychology to digital engagement. Human development is a lifespan perspective, recognizing our evolution from infancy through old age. Due to the influence social media has on our lives, it is essential to acknowledge this impact for all generations.

The social media training I provide to higher ed administrators, faculty, and executives are informed by this human development lens. I spell out the influence of technology in our lives over time. This accounts for multiple demographics and generations and recognizes how each individual is impacted uniquely.

This removes the pressure that each educator, administrator or executive in the room is not competent in social media or behind in their knowledge of technology. The goal is to unify and empathize.  

Collectively I call this approach engaging the digital generation.

Who is the Digital Generation? 

Let’s start by building an understanding of what generations are and how engaging the digital generation is different. 

By definition, a generation is a group of people who were generally born around the same time in history. In Generation Z, A Century in the Making authors Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace use the following definition of a generation “the entire body of individuals born and living about the same time.” Generations are made up of 14-20 years in common life stages.

Over time, as a collective, no matter the birth year, our society and individuals have been impacted and influenced by technology changes. When you first hear the term “digital generation,” many may point to Millennials (born 1977-1995) or Generation Z (1996-2015). With a trip down tech memory lane, you’ll soon discover how Generation X (1965-1976) and Baby Boomers (1946-1964) also experienced historic technology discoveries and shifts in society and daily life.

Let’s talk a tech walk back in time – to my favorite decade: the 80’s! 

The 1980s could be considered the home computer boom, bringing us the most powerful Apple product at the time, the Apple IIGS home computer. In A brave new world: the 1980s home computer boom the first home computers were described as “a technology that was going to change the world.” 

Parents were encouraged to buy computers for their children to help give them a good start in life.

As an 80’s baby, my first tech memory was a Speak & Spell – and came far before my family invested (or could afford) a home computer. What was your first tech memory as a kid?

Speak N’ Spell Commercial, 1980

Our computer finally did arrive later into the ’80s when I was in elementary school. My parents, born in the ’50s (baby boomers in their 30’s) discovered and built digital skills right along with my brother and me. I would show them how to work an epic program called Paint or convince them why I needed to print ANOTHER banner for my bedroom on our ImageWriter II.

90’s: New Tech on the Block

Then came the 90’s, famous for its complete dive into a plethora of tech gadgets, including, the Walkmen, the PalmPilot, and so much more. Beyond hardware, software, and a global network most drastically began to change society. The WorldWideWeb arrived for general consumption in 1990 as the first web browser — and serves the gateway to how we know technology as it is today. 

Although email has been around since the 70s, it did not become popular and “easily” accessible until the early to mid-90s. Platforms like Microsoft, American Online (AOL), Hotmail, and Yahoo! started to create their own email systems and revolutionized the way we communicated. 

In 1997, we were introduced to instant messaging when AOL launched AIM, AOL Instant Messenger. AIM was THE way to communicate with friends and other random users in the late 90s– remember the chat rooms – and oh the usernames!?! 

AIM, and the competitor MSN Messenger began to establish methods of how we talk to each other today, including abbreviations like LOL, TTYL, and BRB. MIT Technology Review, Julia Sklar claims, “AIM made social media what it is today.” AOL shut down AIM in December of 2017 due in part to the next wave of social media platforms I’ll discuss next…but there is speculation that it’s being resurrected.  

Blogging also became popular in the late ’90s with popular platforms like Open Diary, Blogger, LiveJournal, and Xanga launched. At this point, some Generation Xers were blogging about what it’s like to be a twenty-something. Were you blogging back then? I double dare you to go back and read/share one of your posts! 

00’s: Living in 21st Century World

The 2000s are THE decade of social networking: Friendster (2002), Myspace (2003), LinkedIn (2003), Facebook (2004), Youtube (2005), Twitter (2006), Whatsapp (2009), and Instagram (2010). The 2000s were pivotal in enabling the type of content sharing that is common on platforms today. Millennials would have been around the ages of 5 years old (kindergarten!) up to 23 years old in the early 2000s.

Especially for younger millennials, social media was surrounding their entire educational timeline. Being an “older” millennial, these tools showed up at the tail end of my undergraduate/graduate education.

Where in your life were you during the early/mid-2000s? How did you discover Myspace, YouTube, or Facebook? Who was influential in the adoption and learning a new platform?

The Tens: 2010-Present

During this current decade, 2010-present, we’ve been introduced to a variety of technologies that aim to make technology feel more human, interactive, and on-the-go. For example, we can vocally dictate to devices more seamlessly– Siri in Apple products and Alexa from Amazon. 

Technology has gotten smaller, portable, and wearable– Airpods, iPads, and the Apple Watch.

With augmented and virtual reality, video games have become lived experiences. From Pokemon Go (2016) available to all on mobile to more pricey hardware, but completely immersive experiences had on Oculus Quest and Samsung Vive.

Baby Boomers to Gen Z, technology has been an ever-present part of each generation – whether early adopters or resisters.

In 2014, I co-edited a New Directions for Student Services volume with my colleague Dr. Ed Cabellon titled Engaging the Digital Generation. This book was pivotal in the creation of my most popular keynote program – to no surprise is called: Engaging the Digital Generation

In this text we define this category through the following lens:

Engaging the digital generation is not a certain population or demographic, but addresses a collective shift.

(Cabellon & Ahlquist, 2016, p. 5)

In addition to recognizing a collective shift over time with technology advancements, Engaging the Digital Generation philosophy addresses that not every single person in our society is on all platforms, nor wants to interact with institutions, companies or leaders online. In order to genuinely and authentically engage the digital generation, you must know and speak to the community (audiences) who are active and welcome engagement on social media. 

Second, I stand behind the belief that digital engagement has the power to engage students, parents, alumni and other community stakeholders at the same rate of impact as in-person modalities. But it will take more intentionality. I have created three practices to help you with this.

Before we get to the three practices, first reflect on the following questions:

  • HOW can you pages create relationships online?
  • WHY is your organization even on social media?
  • WHAT stories need to be told – that personalizes your presence?

Three Ways to Engage the Digital Generation

We are all part of this collective shift, the digital generation, not just teens and young adults. There are three practices that I educate institutions and educators on.

These three practices include relational content, document the why and authentic storytelling. For you to reflect on your current digital engagement practices and future possibilities, I’ll define each method, offer examples, and give some homework.

1. Relational Content

Relational content is content that has the purpose of building genuine relationships with your audience and community. The goal is to share moments that will emotionally connect, by incorporating the personalities, passions, and traditions of your office, organization, or institution. 

Relational Content in Action: In this Facebook post from Marquette University, followers were asked to share the most recent Marquette-related photo from their camera roll. It received over 900 reactions, 300 comments, and 32 shares! Folks not only shared pictures of weddings, babies in Marquette swag, and residence hall reunions– but the stories that came along with the event.  

Talk about emotionally connecting with your community. Such a simple post and call to action created a nostalgic experience for the Marquette community.

Relational Content in Action: In a blog I wrote earlier this year titled, Cornerstones of Digital Engagement for Community Colleges, I mentioned that “a human element in your posts will resonate far more with the real people you’re trying to connect with.” Mission College captures that in this post celebrating the anniversary of two of their students. 

You’ll notice in the hashtags that this photo was a repost of the original, which shows that whoever is running their social pays close attention to the content that is being shared about their campus and prioritizes building relationships and sharing connections over on the nose promotions and branding.

When thinking about creating relational content and sparking relationships online, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who/what are the personalities in your office?
  • What are unique stories, passions, traditions?
  • What does your community love about your programs or services?

Try out these exercises and practices:

  • Comment and interact with your followers more than you post. 
  • Search relevant hashtags to find content your community is already engaging and interacting with.
  • Collaborate with campus or community influencers, feature their content and existing community. 
  • Include “call to actions” in your captions. For example, have your community share something about themselves in the comments.

2. Document the Why

Documenting the “why” on your platforms is taking a value-based approach to social media, meaning letting your values, your campus mission, your purpose to be reflected in what you post. Aligning your values into your digital strategy will humanize your approach to content.

Wonder if what you should post next or whether you should be on a new platform? Always go back to your why. For further introspection in spelling out your values on social media, check out something I wrote, A Values-Based Approach to Your Digital Brand.

Document the Why in Action: You can still be values-driven with a personality. Take California Lutheran University’s Writing Center for an example. On Twitter, they give writing, grammar, and spelling tips while being playful. Their presence on social clearly showcases their mission to create “a collaborative space where writers develop written communication skills and confidence in their writerly identities”, but in a way that is also relational (remember from the section above). 

In it’s own way this posts is also promoting the Writing Center, without it being on the nose promotion. 

Document the Why in Action: The University of Rhode Island’s mission statement reads that is is a “community joined in a common quest for knowledge.” What better way to illustrate this by showing their students across the world who are living out their quest for knowledge through summer internships. 

Questions to reflect on while documenting your WHY:

  • What is the WHY you’re online or on specific platforms?
  • What do you want to accomplish by investing in this platform? What could you do with your time if it was free’d up for more mission-driven work, from not being on this platform?
  • What questions do you get daily about your programs that could come to life online?
  • What is your community in need of certain times of the year – especially not during typical business hours?

Try out these exercises:

  • Answer your FAQs directly through posts.
  • In your social media planning documents/spreadsheets, add a column/section that connects each post back to the organization’s mission, values or even strategic plan.
  • Turn teachable moments into digestible graphics for platforms – including an instagram post that shows this.

3. Authentic Storytelling

In collaboration with documenting your big picture why, it’s important to document the moments daily. This approach asks you to consistently tell the real stories and experiences from your community. 

Authentic storytelling through digital platforms is like getting a snapshot of a day in the life – including those that have committed their careers to working in higher education: staff, faculty and campus leaders. For example, Jennielle Strother, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Services at Concordia University, lives for authenticity online and on campus. We chatted about this on a previous episode of Josie & The Podcast, Authenticity is Your Superpower

Authentic Storytelling in Action: After Fall move-in, Illinois State University Division of Student Affairs captured footage of the day. Including not just the laughs and energized student leaders, but also the moving crates, long lines, and strategic packing skills– a more authentic capture. The day came to life.

Authentic Storytelling in Action: OMG WVU Triplets!! The internet loves sunsets, puppies and of course babies – especially if the lil ones are outfitted in your school swag. You’re just a DM away from having your next post and celebrating your community! The proud parents/alumni shared this post and it was reshared on the institution’s main Instagram account. 

This post tells the story of legacy and love of WVU. The whole community of WVU shared in the love and celebration. Over time, WVU has fostered an incredibly strong alumni network, that shows up on and offline.  

Here are a few tips and exercises to consistently tell authentic stories:

  • Repurpose real stories our community is sharing everyday.
    • Search hashtags and location tags to find content that is already being shared about your office or campus and repost!
    • Add a list on Twitter or on Instagram create a saved folder from active students, alumni, community members 
  • Less promotions, more stories. 
    • Create a spreadsheet that tracks awards, promotions, recognitions for staff, faculty and students.
    • Create a holistic and balanced content strategy, not just a marketing plan. For example, Be aware and track weekly how often your posts are promotional vs storytelling vs celebrations vs education and so on. 
  • Share a first person point of view by documenting the behind the scenes planning process of a popular event. For example, a take-over of an account or a reflection from an organizers/participants after the event/experience.
  • Collect post event/experience reflections to share. 
  • Create a system for gathering, organizing & sharing yearlong. All the amazing photos you took at move-in or orientation can show-up throughout the year. Take the take to organize these or pre-populate future posts with them.

Final Thoughts

Your digital community is not just Gen Z. 

You are connecting with Millennial staff or faculty, Generation X family members, and Baby Boomer faculty. And we are all the digital generation. 

Engaging doesn’t require fancy tech tools or a new, hip app. Prioritize a personal approach that keeps your people in mind. Create content that builds real relationships, shares your core values, and tells the authentic story of your community. We ALL can connect with that.

I can help you take the guesswork out of social media and create measurable ways to engage the digital generation. In my keynote, Engaging the Digital Generation, I’ll show how to look ahead at the coming trends, and evaluate what platforms will truly serve your campus community. 

This talk isn’t just a pep talk or empowerment; you’ll get feedback and customized direction including:

  • I present a framework that guides your campus or organization to center student and community outcomes in your social media strategy.
  • To make this even more personalized, I complete an audit of your current social media practices, and will share campus best practices,
  • Document opportunities for immediate improvement for institutional and departmental accounts.

To get this message and service in front of your institution, division, department or future conference program – click here to get in touch!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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