The Latest Insights on Gen Z, Tomorrow’s Target Audience

In the 2018 film Eighth Grade, Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a 15-year-old who spends every day after school scrolling through Instagram and YouTube in her dark bedroom. She rarely meets up with friends in public, and her father has no way to know what she’s watching or reading. She’s obsessed with appearing carefree, and she does her makeup and hair for the sole purpose of posting selfies and vlogs online.

The film is beautiful and excruciating. Older viewers may recognize the pre-teen angst, but we can’t fathom how Extremely Online Gen Z is. The great drama of their lives plays out on social media, and the events that happen at school or at parties somehow seem less real. What’s very clear is that today’s kids and teenagers—the target demo of the future—have a unique relationship to content.

Today, Gen Z is “approximately 80 million strong” and is well on its way to being the largest generation in human history. So who are these people?

According to marketing insights delivered at AdExchanger’s Industry Preview, Gen Z can be characterized in a few specific ways. They’re the generation most fluent in online communications, they don’t see a big difference between network TV and streaming or social content, and they don’t find ads as obtrusive as the rest of us old people.

Based on the insights I heard at AdExchanger’s Industry Preview, here are the four characteristics that content marketers should know. Not every brand is going to seem cool to Gen Z, but we can all avoid looking like Kayla’s principal.

Gen Z is used to seeing branding everywhere

Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer at Publicis Groupe, told the crowd at Industry Preview that today’s kids learned the language of the internet from streaming services, social media, and mobile gaming. What do all those services have in common? Constant ads.

“Gen Z is pretty accustomed to taking a little pain through short ads to get to the pleasure.” Tobaccowala said, “They’re desensitized.” He added that Gen Z doesn’t seem to care as much about the difference between content marketing and independent media as other generations.

Gen Z kids have never known a world where their private browsing data wasn’t commodified. They’ve grown up surrounded by brands tweeting memes, partnering with influencers, and angling to profit off their attention. That’s probably why they’re no less likely to share content if it was produced by a corporation, or if it has a promotional or advertisement bent. The line between UGC and branded content has gotten blurry.

Their friends retweet Wendy’s and Arby’s memes, and they hear YouTubers hock products at them constantly. The eternal ad message, which is still “ask your parents to buy you this stuff,” is proliferated throughout every part of their day, to the point where promotional messaging just sounds like the norm.

On one hand, that’s a little disturbing—ideally humans should know and care when they’re being sold a product, and companies like Facebook have already been caught taking advantage of Gen Z’s mindset. On the other hand, this opens opportunities for ethical, useful content marketing in the next few decades. As these kids grow older, they’ll be less hesitant than previous generations to enjoy branded content, and your brand can lead the movement to sell to this demo ethically.

Gen Z splits identities across platforms

Habitual users of social media know that each social network calls for a different tone. No one understands this better than Gen Z, the most likely demographic to run “finstas,” or Fake Instagrams where they can post privately for close friends without the fear of public backlash.

At Industry Preview, Forrester principal analyst Joanna O’Connell warned the crowd that blasting the same message across all social media platforms means the whole industry is “hurtling toward crisis.” Younger users, she pointed out, don’t just open social accounts to experiment. They identify with the personas they create on specific platforms, which means marketers need to choose where they transmit messaging carefully. If you’re selling financial advice to Boomers, for example, Instagram should be low on your list of priorities.

According to a study by Response Media, Gen Z gets its news primarily from Twitter, and almost never from Facebook. They post their aspirational selves on Instagram and save less filtered content for Snapchat. Keeping up with this fragmentation is like a full-time job. Some Gen Z kids even report checking social media 100 times a day.

Later at Industry Preview, Signal CEO Mike Sands posed the idea that tomorrow’s consumers, namely Gen Z and younger, will prefer brands that can recreate one-on-one customer service experiences online. They’ll be less interested in the public feeds of big brands, pursuing brands that use chat apps, Twitter DMs, and personalized survey content, instead.

Gen Z is not afraid to follow the money

As young people start to earn disposable incomes, analysts expect them to care more about “cause marketing,” than previous generations. Recent research Gen Z cares the most about issues like climate change, frugality, and equality. Over a third of people report knowing someone who identifies as gender non-binary. These kids are opinionated and they prefer brands to support their views.

However, Tobaccowala pointed out they’re also quick to spot hypocritical messaging. O’Connell agreed, adding that “cause marketing” isn’t worth it if a brand appears to be “bandwagoning” or touting their ethical values “for show.” Think about how often celebrities are “cancelled” today because someone rooted around in their Twitter archive and found problematic messages from 2013. That kind of detective work is a skill Gen Z has already acquired.

That means brands have to be cautious. Don’t take a stance on something that clashes with a comment the CEO made two years ago. But if your brand is truly committed to something, like Patagonia and a love of the outdoors, you’ll stand out by donating money and creating content about, say, preserving public lands.

Gen Z does not care where they watch video

Gen Z watches network television at a similar rate to their parents—specifically Sunday Night Football, The Good Doctor on ABC, Young Sheldon on CBS, and CW’s sexed-up Archie Comics reboot Riverdale. What they love more, though, is multimedia content they can access on their smartphones.

It might come as a shock to older readers, but Gen Z actually watches more YouTube content (34 percent of their daily video intake) than Netflix (27 percent). They are the primary viewers of Snapchat stories, Instagram stories, Tiktok vids, and YouTube channels, averaging 68 videos a day across platforms. Regardless of whether a video is posted on social by Cartoon Network or Coca Cola, Gen Z will share something if they enjoy it.

This generation may be a mystery to some. Like Kayla from Eighth Grade, they joined Twitter in middle school. They downloaded Snapchat in 5th grade. But that entire generation is getting ready to replace millennials as the world’s most desirable target audience

Right now, they’re shuffling through school with their eyes glued on their phones. But soon they’ll be all that marketers care about.

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