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I do, however, have a question. How genuine is this category? Discussions of Generation Z seem to be distinctly US-biased. Nothing wrong with that. But to what extent does a Chinese, or a Sudanese, or a Bolivian Gen Z kid fit the category? Maybe the technology is creating a global phenomenon (see below). But I think we need to ask the question.
Who are Generation Z?
These are children born between 1995 and 2012. They’re coming of age right now, becoming eligible to vote, serve in the armed forces, enter higher education, and earn money. They face many of the challenges that teenagers have faced in the past: managing the change from education to employment, forming their own identities and finding social groups to belong to.
But they’re doing all this in an ultra-connected, fast-moving technological world.
This is the first generation in the history of humanity that has never been without mobile devices. And yes, this fact is global. According to Ericsson, as reported by The Daily Telegraph, by 2020 around 70% of the world’s population will be using a smartphone, and 90% of people over the age of six will own a mobile.
What defines Generation Z?
So, apart from being networked, what characterises this generation? From what I’ve read, I think we can render it down to three key features.
- They are technologically agile.
Their inseparability from their devices is what marks Generation Z out for most older people. According to recent research, a full 40% of Gen Z are self-identified digital device addicts.
Gen Z seemingly uses five devices per day. At school, they create documents on the school computer, research topics on their tablet or phone, take notes on a notepad and write essays on a laptop – while watching TV (or YouTube – see below) – often with the sound off. And they spend 41 percent of their non-school time looking at a screen.
The effects of such prolonged exposure to screens is not yet fully understood. This article, though, does offer some sobering up-to-date information.
Their technological agility makes Generation Z capable of genuine multi-tasking. They shift seamlessly from work to play, with multiple distractions playing in the background (much as Millennials work on computers with the TV flickering in the corner of the screen...)
- They are expert information managers.
Generation Z, then, lives in a world of continuous updates. As a result, these young people use Snapchat, Instagram and Vine to process information faster than previous generations. YouTube is Gen Z’s favorite website.
But we’re not describing attention deficit disorder. Altitude’s study suggests that these youngsters have developed what Jeremy Finch calls ‘highly evolved “eight-second filters.”’ Their options are infinite but their time is limited. They've adapted techniques to sort and collate vast amounts of information. They rely on trends – and trending on social media – to filter content. And they turn to trusted authorities (Finch calls them ‘curators’) to help them pick what’s relevant. Nothing especially novel in that practice, but the names are new (to me, at least): Philip DeFranco, for example, who has well over 5 million subscribers on YouTube, and Bethany Mota, who manages a cool 10 million.
- They're looking for security.
And what are Gen Z doing with all the information they hoard? Well, like all young people before them, they're almost certainly looking for two things: identity and belonging.
Gen Z certainly knows the value of independence, but they also know its dangers. Many are opting out of formal education, the traditional way to make a life for yourself. Why invest thousands and take on years of debt? With more affordable and accessible online alternatives, why go to university or college?
Others are opting to go straight to work, or to start their own enterprise. Perhaps they’ve been influenced by their individualistic, self-reliant Gen X parents and warned off the mistakes that their millennial elders have made. 72% of teens apparently say they want to start a business. But this entrepreneurialism seems more like a survival strategy than a drive to innovate or succeed. Generation Z is also characterised by a determination to plan ahead and persevere.
And all this chimes with another finding: that Generation Z is more frugal than the Millennials, and – interestingly – more risk-averse, practical and pragmatic.
This generation, then, is conflicted. They're big on individuality and big on being social. The insecurity about identity that’s natural to this age group has become amplified by technology. Their presence on social media (nearly 92% of Gen Z has a digital footprint) makes them intensely aware of the impression they make on their social network. They seek immediate acceptance through social media, where their friends live and where they find all the important conversations. There’s some evidence, in fact, that youngsters are developing different social media personas to please different social groups – and to minimize conflict or controversy.
What does all this mean for copywriters and marketers?
Six points here:
Create a conversation.
Focus more than ever on words.
Make it digital.
Create a conversation.
Generation Z has little interest in being advertised to. Marketing will need to be based on creating a sense of loyalty and community. It will need to contribute to a conversation.
And, like all conversations, it will need to be based on a sense of rapport. According to Marcie Merriman, executive director of growth strategy at Ernst & Young, these youngsters “expect businesses, brands and retailers to be loyal to them. If they don’t feel appreciated, they’re going to move on. It’s not about them being loyal to the business.”
The flip side, perhaps, is that, once a conversation has demonstrated attention-worthiness, Gen Z can become intensely committed and focused.
Words matter even more than in the past.
Ad tech firm Sharethrough found that, since many were watching video content outside the home, they turned the sound down. Two thirds (67%) liked to watch a video silently. As a result, headlines and descriptions become crucial in communicating a message, marketing or otherwise. 84% reported that the headline was a major factor in deciding whether or not to watch an in-feed video ad.
"It's like the rebirth of copywriting," notes Chris Schreiber, vice president of marketing and communications at Sharethrough. He adds that simply putting TV ads online had never been the key to a successful strategy. Indeed, in-feed autoplay has introduced the notion of what he calls the "attention audition".
"One of the key pieces here is the role of headlines and reading and the inter-relationship between copywriting and the likelihood for video engagement," he said. "You have the ability to get people to read your stuff now probably more than ever. Reading was maybe a billboard strategy, but now you have the ability to get this generation to read your copy throughout the day."
You must be as deft and agile as your audience. Tailor your material to fit on many platforms. Focus less on messaging and more on tailored, interactive experiences. Give them a reason to connect with you.
Start and end with a digital experience.
Companies – not just marketers – have to think digital-first for the entire brand experience: the messaging, the products themselves, the shopping experience and how they support the purchase. And don’t think of each experience separately: digital blurs the lines between product, marketing and service. Think digital, think connectivity, think big.
Generation Z, for all their novelty, are still young people. They place a premium on authenticity. Speak in a voice that communicates the core pillars of your brand and that speaks to the beliefs, values and – yes – fears of these people. But don’t try to be hip. And generic repurposing of existing marketing assets won’t connect with Generation Z. (Does it connect to anyone?) You must have a dedicated library of assets for the different channels that you use, based on the customer’s context when they engage.