The past 15 years have seen countless think pieces on millennial attitudes, trends, and preferences, and how to engage that group born in the ’80s through mid-’90s. But if you haven’t noticed already, 2020 marked a seismic shift as the next generation—”Gen Z”—has taken the spotlight.
You can think of Gen Z as anyone currently in school or launching into their early career. We don’t yet have a solid end point—defining generational transitions tends to be a retrospective task—but the eldest Gen Z-ers are approaching 25 years of age. Already, they have made their mark on higher education, the music industry, and social media. And they are only just beginning to move into the workplace, where we’ll truly see how their attitudes evolve into a more mature form.
Here are a few things we know about Gen Z already:
- They’re the largest and most diverse generation in American history.
- Most weren’t born before the 9/11 attacks and were too young to remember much about the 2008 financial crisis; but, the unstable aftermath of these events were ever-present on the news and at their dinner tables.
- They’ve never known a world where the Internet was not part of daily life. They were the first generation to have their baby pictures shared via email, Facebook and Instagram.
- Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets were commonplace by the time they were in middle school.
- Online bullying and lack of privacy were defining features of their school and social life.
They prefer raw and candid authenticity over scripted and polished production…unique and quirky over safe and predictable.
Given the above, it comes as no surprise that the following are also true about Gen Z:
- They’re more likely to shop on mobile (2 times more than even millennials), and they’re more accepting of companies tracking their data to deliver personalized ads and experiences.
- They’re widely recognized as being more practical and pragmatic when it comes to spending and finances.
- They’re strong advocates for a more just, equitable world.
- They prefer raw and candid authenticity over scripted and polished production.
- They prefer the diversity of the unique and quirky over the blandness of the safe and predictable.
All of these characteristics are feeding into a few macro-trends that today’s marketers need to understand in order to effectively reach Gen Z.
Macro-trend 1: More visual/video-based content; less traffic to websites
Millennials drove the explosion of Facebook and Twitter, where text-based status updates, blogs, and article links filled your social feed. Gen Z, however, came of age as social media (and data bandwidth) matured to allow more visual content, and they accordingly prefer the video-centric experiences offered by Instagram, YouTube, and newcomer TikTok.
Of course, Mark Zuckerburg has been working to add TikTok-esque functionality to Instagram and to better integrate the cross-platform experience between Instagram and Facebook, both of which are helping to slow the shift away from their networks.
This isn’t to say that Gen Z entirely eschews text-based communication, but most of their chatting has moved into more private messaging apps like WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook).
The takeaway here is twofold:
- First, video content is no longer optional (more on that in the next section), and…
- Second, Gen Z’s optimal online experience is built more around a handful of self-contained apps and social content than a collection of websites.
The paradigm in which brands used to view their website as the primary hub of audience communication is now outdated, thanks to Gen Z; marketers must now aim to engage and inform audiences where they are already, only driving them back to the website for details and special offers. This has huge implications for content marketing strategies.
It should be noted that, along with video content, the online gaming world has grown massively. Indeed, gaming platforms are an often overlooked form of “social media,” where popular titles like Fortnite are bonafide cultural landmarks.
Macro-trend 2: Low-fi “authentic” content goes mainstream
The world millennials grew up in had two types of people: celebrities and everyone else. Celebrities were seen in professional content made for the masses. Average people just shared their mostly low-fi photos and videos with friends. The lines began to blur with the rise of “influencers” who carefully curated their pseudo-celebrity personas. This trend picked up steam, cameras got way better, and, eventually, the perfectly composed photos of lattes and tourist destinations became millennial staples. “We can’t all be celebrities, but we can look like it.”
By the time Gen Z came of age, the idea of letting others into your little world evolved from a protected novelty to a thing everyone just does. To Gen Z, the difference between a celebrity and non-celebrity is whether one’s content goes viral. We are all creators and potential celebrities, therefore, and everyone has a stage. For these people whose whole lives have already been captured and shared online, that stage is a place to offer up their full selves, not a polished production.
Gen Z values authenticity. They publish social content the same way they would talk to a close friend, and they expect others will engage with the same level of raw honesty.
We saw this trend ripple across culture in 2020, when actual celebrities were forced to perform concerts and host talk shows from their couches. In some respects, the rest of the world has simply joined Gen Z and brought their stripped-down, low-fi approach to content to the mainstream.
Macro-trend 3: Customization evolves to interactivity
Similar to the change in dynamics that makes everyone a celebrity, we’ve experienced a massive evolution from one-way communication (TV, radio, etc.) to two-way communication (social posts/comments), and now to something that resembles “hive” communication (content, conversations, and gameplay that occur via networks of people).
One person can create a TikTok of a drum beat. A dozen others might “duet” the post by adding their own instruments. Others can then add their own performance to the second set of videos, and so on, until there are hundreds of songs born from the same root. Take, as another example, the exploration happening in choose-your-own-adventure storylines for film and TV. While these may never become the norm, the experiments show how content creation is no longer the exclusive domain of high-paid producers and gatekeepers.
Gen Z expects a certain openness and interactivity to the creative process, where users are able to contextualize and contribute to the experience for themselves and for others. Gone are the simple (yet not-so-distant) days of personalized or customized content; this is the era of mass, user-generated content. Technologies like virtual reality and AI will continue advancing this trend in new ways.
Macro-Trend 4: Values-driven brand messaging
Millennials wanted their careers and purchase decisions to have meaningful impact, believing drivers of the economy shouldn’t only be focused on making money but also using their power to create a positive influence. Gen Z carries that same ethos with an even more activist bent.
Most millennials didn’t outright say they would support or avoid brands with certain political ties or positions. They were simply more likely to purchase from a brand that was doing something to serve others. In today’s highly polarized political environment, and with the rise of “cancel culture” and public virtue-signaling, young people are looking to associate (or disassociate) with brands depending on their stances on major issues. For Gen Z, buying a product is more than buying a product; it is casting a vote of support for a personified brand and what that company stands for…a reflection of their own identity and the change they want to see in the world.
A few bits of advice
So, what do we do with this information? How do we reach, engage, and cultivate relationships with Gen Z?
#1: Focus on your video content strategy
What does your presence look like on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok? Are you creating regular video content that answers questions your audience has? Are you bringing humor, narrative, and originality into your content (or should you)? Are you doing live streams and webinars?
Consider the devices people are using. If you’re targeting Gen Z, you should probably be shooting/editing video for both horizontal and vertical formats that will translate on smartphones.
We’ve all gotten accustomed to the idea that everyone needs a blog. But if Facebook and text-based content are no longer the dominant inbound marketing channels they once were, the next time you go to write a blog, you may consider shooting a short video instead (or at least alongside it).
#2: Evaluate everything you’re doing through the lens of authenticity and interaction.
Ask yourself, “Am I making a personal and human connection here, or might this come across as manufactured or manipulative?” This isn’t to say there’s no place for high-quality production and scripting, but we should be far less reliant on traditional assumptions about what people expect and want. Where Gen X and Millennials may have seen high-value production as a sign of credibility and trust, Gen Z is more convinced by spur-of-the-moment, I-had-a-thought-to-share-and-didn’t-even-change-my-clothes transparency, especially if you’re not afraid to also invite your audience to contribute in some way. Vulnerability is highly valued. There is a time and place for polished content. But, there is also a growing place for spontaneous, low-fi brand content.
For Gen Z, the choice of which brands to engage with is deeply personal.
#3: Think about how to make your mobile experiences as seamless as possible.
Do you sell products online? How easy is it to see something in a social post, browse similar items, and make a purchase from a phone—or, even better, without leaving the social app? How easy is it to try alternatives at home and/or send back unwanted items? Do you have augmented reality features that let people see an item in their home?
Even if you don’t sell products, does your website and/or app allow people to easily get info they need and take important actions from their phone, or is the experience a little clunky on mobile devices? Consider how information architecture can be designed for mobile gestures and screens, mimicking the kind of UX found in popular social media apps.
#4: Have the courage to plant a stake in the ground when it comes to values and public issues.
Brands who wish to connect with their Gen Z audience must do so in a way that resonates with their audience’s values, ideas, and interests. There are millions of brands out there, and they are all equally accessible online. For Gen Z, the choice of which brands to engage with is deeply personal, and whether it becomes a loyal relationship or not depends on how well the company delivers on its promise and values. Keep the promise and they’ll be your brand advocate. Break that trust, and they will not hesitate to move on.