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Companies will soon feel the impact of the series of student protests shaking up American college campuses. In my latest post for MediaPost, I share why the recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale and Claremont McKenna College aren’t isolated from the business world—and what business leaders need to do to meet the demands of today’s empowered students.

In November, students at the University of Missouri protested racism on- and off-campus (and the school’s lack of response to it), leading to the university president and the chancellor stepping down. The breaking point came when the football team threatened to boycott a game—an action that would have had PR and financial consequences. At Yale, there have been protests stemming from an e-mail that went out asking students to be sensitive in their choice of Halloween costume. Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles also dealt with twin controversies surrounding an offensive Halloween costume, and a senior administrator using ill-advised language when discussing inclusiveness (she also stepped down from her position).

Several important socio-economic factors have contributed to these controversies:

  • An inclusive ethos. Both millennials and Gen Z are comfortable with a “majority-minority” demographic. They have circles of friends from all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations and gender identities. Young people take it personally when somebody uses language that violates their inclusive ethos.
  • Dissatisfaction. Concerns over economic equality, wages, job opportunities and student debt help fuel the fire. As anger start to boil over, students are directing their frustrations at the colleges themselves.
  • Technology. Today, a single tweet can quickly mobilize hundreds, if not thousands, around a certain issue—something that wasn’t possible before social media and SMS, when organizing protests involved handing out flyers and talking to people one by one.

As I noted in my MediaPost article, this revolution won’t be isolated to post-secondary institutions. As students graduate and become employees, customers and entrepreneurs, they will bring this movement to the wider business world. That’s why companies must learn now from the student protests and adjust their practices accordingly.

Three lessons are particularly worth noting.

  1. Watch what you say.

One ill-conceived message today can spark a massive backlash. That’s why every piece of your communications to customers and employees need to be carefully vetted to ensure it’s not inadvertently offensive. Some of this vetting needs to come from an internal team with fair, diverse representation. But even a smart, socially aware team can’t know every subtlety that might be offensive to young customers.

Companies need to invest in their relationship with their Gen Z customers in order to avoid mishaps. The best way to know if your marketing campaign is offensive is to ask your target audience. Use your customer intelligence platformto test potential campaigns and communications. Ask for their honest feedback, and gain a deeper understanding of their motivations, attitudes and the language that authentically speaks to them.

  1. Mean what you say.

A key lesson in these recent protests is that young customers not only care about what colleges say—they care about what they actually do. Young customers demand transparency, and they see through empty promises.

To meet the expectations of younger customers, engage with them to find out what’s important to them. Get their input on how your company can address those issues. And most importantly, let them know how their feedback helped shape your decisions. Embracing a more transparent approach to engagement helps demonstrate that you’re not just listening—you’re actually taking action.

  1. Hear what they have to say.

Older generations often ignore feedback from younger people. But as the recent controversies at University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College demonstrate, doing so is not a winning strategy.

Companies need to figure out ways to harness the passion of Millennials and Gen Z and put it to good use. These young customers are demanding to be heard, so why not provide a platform where they can contribute? Create an online community where they can provide regular feedback to your company. This is one way of constructively working with young customers while providing tangible benefits for your business.


The recent college protests reiterate that today’s students are empowered and want to be heard. Soon, these young people turn their attention to the companies they do business with. To win the business of younger generations, companies must be prepared to listen and make positive changes to the way they conduct business.

For an example of how to engage with the empowered student, check out the Vision Critical customer story featuring SAIT Polytechnic.

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