Referring to anyone born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z is now starting to reach the age of adulthood and exert a bigger influence in the world of business. As the first full generation of Digital Natives, these are people who are used to being active on their devices at all hours of the day and have never known a world where 24/7 connectivity was not the norm.
Naturally, this emerging group of consumers has a different approach when it comes to online behavior in general, and of course, this impacts their shopping and purchasing habits. In a context where digital literacy, creative online communities, and rapidly shifting trends are the order of the day, brands need to evolve their marketing strategies and reconsider how they use platforms to reach younger audiences.
How Gen Z habits differ
It will come as a surprise to no one that young people spend a lot of time online. Those aged 16 to 24 spent an average of seven hours per day online in 2019, three of which were spent exclusively on social media, according to GlobalWebIndex. And yet, their online habits defy that of their predecessors.
Infographic provided by Visual Capitalist
In markets like the US, for example, growth on platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook is notably decreasing. At the same time, TikTok continues to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with. Brands have also been relying on influencer partnerships, paid posts, and adverts between videos on YouTube. But to reach Gen Z in the online communities they engage with, unidirectional paid posts from an influencer are proving to be a fickle strategy.
And these marked changes in how young people engage with social media is happening alongside continued growth in advertising budgets devoted to social channels. According to eMarketer, in 2021
“Total digital ad spending will reach $455.30. Of that, 55.2% will go to display advertising, and 40.2% will go to search. As recently as three years ago, the gap between display and search was only around 10 percentage points, but now it is 15, equating to $68.12 billion more in spending for display than for search. Consumer shifts toward social media and digital video are accelerating the rise of display.”
To connect with younger audiences, brands need to stay in tune with the changing online behavior of Gen Z.
The rise of Dark Social
After witnessing any number of prominent personalities and celebrities be dragged through the mud, Gen Z is understandably wary of what can happen when you conduct all your online business out in the open. Unlike Millennials, who seem to be more willing to go to bat to defend themselves online, Gen Z appears keen to avoid the drama. As Vogue Business has summarized succinctly,
“Due to concerns over cancel culture and privacy, Gen Z is moving away from open and exposed networks to more private platforms to share content. ‘Dark social’ networking sees users sharing content via private messaging apps or encrypted channels like WhatsApp and Telegram. It is difficult for brands to trace traffic that comes from such social networks.”
As GANDT CEO Remco Livain commented, “This shift shows the need for a different kind of lead generation and a focus on closed groups and communities. The rise of “dark social” is leading brands to produce short-form content shareable on private channels like WhatsApp.”
Facebook is getting the message
And we see platforms picking up on this desire for private, close-knit communities. Facebook, for example, continues to go all-in on cross-platform instant messaging, merging Facebook messenger and Instagram-chat capabilities. As they stated in a September press release,
“Our goal is to help people feel connected even if they can’t be together. That’s why we’re super excited today to be bringing you new group messaging features to share with your friends and family. You can now start cross-app group chats with both Messenger and Instagram friends, outfit your chats with new chat themes, and watch exclusive content from Cardi B, Steve Aoki, and Travis Barker. We believe that messaging should be about people – like your squad, your family, or your fellow foodies.”
We’re not sure if their references to Steve Aoki and Travis Barker are totally on point. Still, you can definitely see their intention to facilitate the kind of online communities Gen Z has already been crafting on their own.
Entertain me, please
In addition to providing the kind of content that Gen Z may be willing to share in private chats, brands should think increasingly about how they can engage their audiences through entertainment. Most of this happens on TikTok, but due to relatively expensive advertising and a lack of familiarity with the platform, many marketers haven’t become experts at reaching customers on TikTok.
The platform only launched its ad platform in beta in April 2019, so ads are still only available at a premium cost of around $10 per 1,000 views. In additon, to perform well—TikTok content must appear unfiltered and organic in order to be picked up by the audience-led video algorithm, which doesn’t prioritize videos based on the creator’s follower count.
Photo provided by Business of Fashion
The Rise of Genuinfluencers?
When it comes to brands deciding who they can recruit to strengthen their online presence, they also have to take a slightly different approach when it comes to the Gen Z audience. No longer just an area to showcase products, there is a new subcategory, “genuinfluencers,” a term coined by WGSN, as one of the key trends this year.
It refers to creators who command huge followings but whose online persona does not align with the standard definition of an influencer. Alternatively, Genuinfluencers are more interested in sharing advice, diving into topics they are passionate about, and providing unbiased information on current social and political issues—instead of pushing a new product or collection.
Best practices for marketing to Gen Z on social media
Of course, the behavior and online engagement patterns of Gen Z will continue to evolve. In the meantime, though, here are some general points and practices to keep in mind.
- Gen Z shows a solid attachment to accounts that align with their interests — or that introduce them to new ones. Understanding their unique social media engagement requires identifying their primary interests.
- Video and stylized visual content should be a top priority. In the wake of so many new apps, social features, and creative filters, anything that’s considered static or “boring” won’t stand a chance with this crowd.
- Brands with a sense of humor are performing well. Tied into the importance of entertainment, Gen Z wants to support brands that they see as fun and witty. As a result, humorous and meme-centric social content is hugely popular among the younger crowd.
- Gen Z expects brands to speak up about what is happening in the broader social and political climate. Therefore, they are receptive to brands taking a stance on social issues, such as the vaccine effort.