Business leaders need to pay attention to the series of student protests shaking up American college campuses. Last month, students at the University of Missouri protested racism on and off campus (and the school’s lack of response to it), and it led 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.)
Meanwhile, 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 recently 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. As the most diverse generations ever, 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. They take it personally when somebody uses language that violates their inclusive ethos.
Concerns over economic equality, wages, job opportunities and student debt are also fueling the fire. Anger is starting to boil over, and students are directing their frustrations at the colleges themselves.
Technology is a factor, too. Before social media and SMS, organizing protests involved handing out flyers to change people’s opinions. Now, a single student can quickly mobilize hundreds, if not thousands, around a certain issue.
This revolution isn’t isolated to post-secondary institutions. As students graduate and become employees, customers and entrepreneurs, they will bring this movement to the wider business world. Companies must learn now from the student protests and adjust their practices accordingly. Here are three lessons companies must consider.
1. Make every word count.
The examples mentioned above show that one ill-conceived message can spark a massive backlash. That’s why every piece of your communications to customers and employees needs 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.
To avoid mishaps, companies need to invest in their relationship with their Gen Z customers. The best way to know if your marketing campaign is offensive is to ask your target audience. Use your customer intelligence platform to test potential campaigns and communications. Ask for their honest feedback, and gain a deeper understanding of their attitudes and the language that authentically speaks to them.
2. Do what you say you’ll do.
These recent protests show 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 your customers, engage with them to find out what’s important to them. Ask for their input on how your company can address those issues. And most importantly, close the loop and let them know how their feedback helped shape your decisions. A more transparent approach to engagement helps demonstrate that you’re not just listening—you’re actually taking action.
3. Don’t ignore their feedback.
Older generations often ignore feedback from younger people. But as the recent controversies at the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College demonstrate, doing so is not a winning strategy.
Companies must 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.
Empowered by social media, today’s students are starting a revolution and are demanding more from colleges. Soon, they’ll turn their attention to the companies they interact with every day. To win the business of younger generations, companies must make positive changes to the way they conduct business. The companies that fail to adapt will suffer the wrath of empowered young customers.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Dec. 10, 2015, in Engage:Teens.