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The ABCs of Connecting With Generation Z

It’s time to put away your avocado toast jokes and shore up your social consciousness, folks. Generation Z consumers have arrived, and they are forcing companies to rethink the terms of marketing relationships.

Born between 1995 and 2012 (though the precise years vary depending on the source), the post-millennial generation has begun to cross the threshold of adulthood and is poised to take over the workforce and the marketplace in the next few years. We’ve all heard the stories about how challenging it will be to forge strong bonds with this distracted and discerning demographic; industry pundits cite perceived short attention spans, disinterest in brand messaging, and general disregard for impersonal experiences as compelling reasons for marketers to regroup and refine their content strategies.

But how many of these broad characterizations are accurate – and which of this generation’s confirmed traits should content marketers focus on in their outreach efforts? Let’s take a look.

It’s their party (and they’ll buy if they want to)

Here’s what the generational research and anecdotal observations are telling us: Born with one foot firmly in the digital age and the other rooted in old-school values, members of this pivotal demographic group expect greater transparency, accountability, and personal validation from every online experience they choose to engage in.

Gen Z expects greater transparency & personal validation from every online experience, says @joderama. Share on X

Why? Well, it should come as no surprise that a demographic colloquially called the “iGeneration” expects to see their personal needs and interests reflected in the experiences marketers create to engage them.

Further, if their high usage of social networks like Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch are any indication, social status and community mean a lot to them; they are more likely to seek content opportunities endorsed by their idols and influential peers (or which enable some form of collaboration with them). Need proof? Just 24 hours after Taylor Swift urged her 112 million-strong Instagram fan base to vote for Democrats in the mid-term elections, nonpartisan voter advocacy group registered a whopping 65,000 new voters. Now that’s the power of persuasion.

Of course, the right branded content can still make it onto their radar; any extra effort it may take to produce and position such experiences is worth it, considering how much economic power this audience segment wields in the marketplace. According to Barkley’s Gen Z Insights Center, Gen Z already has up to $143 billion in direct buying power with the potential to impact more than $665 billion in family spending. Furthermore, this group is projected to make up 40% of consumers by 2020.

Gen Z is projected to make up to 40% of consumers by 2020 via @barkleyus. Share on X

What will make a content experience more likely to click with these smart, savvy, and socially responsible digital natives? Read on for some helpful perspectives and ideas.

What to expect when you’re connecting

In his recent Content Marketing World presentation on the subject of Generation Z, FutureCast President Jeff Fromm characterized this demographic group as “old souls in young bodies.” While they are digital, social, and mobile to the core, he says, their values are more strongly aligned with their baby boomer counterparts than those of the generation that came directly before them (millennials).

For example, though they don’t remember a time when all the world’s information wasn’t available to them in exchange for a little personal information, they have seen firsthand what can happen when you disclose private data without a thorough understanding of how that data might be used – or misused (Cambridge Analytica and the Equifax data breach are two examples that come to mind). As a result, they may be more reluctant to swap personal details for access to brand content unless your brand provides full transparency on what they are signing up for and what the risks and benefits are.

Jeff explains more about Gen Z in this video from our Mastering Content Marketing series:

A 2017 Salesforce report, Trends in Customer Trust, supports this assumption, finding that among millennials and Gen Z 91% are more likely to trust companies with their personal information if they receive a clear explanation on how its use will deliver a better experience.

Consider: Marketers should cultivate a reputation of reliability they can trade on before expecting Gen Z to engage with and take action on content – a goal that Robert Rose has succinctly summarized: “You must win every moment of trust to win the moment of truth.”

You must win every moment of trust to win the moment of truth, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

Trust exists on a time clock

In his CMWorld presentation, however, Jeff, the man who wrote the book on marketing to Gen Z (literally) reminded marketers that any initial trust earned with this audience may be fickle and fleeting. Calling it “the trust trap,” he contends that brands can’t give lip service to the concept of trust; they need to build it over time, demonstrate their worthiness of it in tangible ways, and continually reinforce its worth to make a lasting impact on Gen Z’s perceptions and purchase behaviors.

One Gen Z favorite mastering the art of sustaining a value proposition is Ben and Jerry’s. Take its YouTube channel, for example. Among its videos that introduce new ice cream flavors, dairy-free products, and special recipes, entire playlists are devoted to raising awareness of important issues like marriage equality, climate justice, and getting a second chance in life – all of which feed fans’ love of ice cream while speaking to the credo that Ben and Jerry’s is a brand that’s “made of something more.”

Let’s get “phygital”

Despite being raised in an environment of unprecedented digital connectivity, Generation Z is no stranger to feeling alone in the world. In fact, according to a 2018 research report conducted by Cigna, it may be the loneliest of all generations, with more than 50% reportedly experiencing feelings of social isolation.

But while their millennial brethren turn to online social networking to fulfill their need for human interaction, those in Gen Z may be more interested in filling that void with a new content construct: unique and differentiated experiences that bridge their physical and digital worlds.

Taking a “phygital” approach to customer engagement might just be the answer to marketers’ prayers when it comes to creating meaningful, content-driven experiences craved by Gen Z audiences. For example, Marketing Week recently offered a glimpse of how retailers like Caspar and Nike are delivering on shoppers’ heightened expectations for customized service by launching pop-up stores and augmented reality features that merge the benefits of their online and offline shopping environments.

Read: Marketing Lifehacks for Engaging Generation Z

Consider: According to cultural mythologist John Bucher, those in Gen Z likely gravitate toward these blended experiences because they allow them to experience something that’s hard to come by in their world: a chance to live in the “now.”

In his presentation on immersive storytelling at Content Marketing World, John asserted that the pressures of today’s tech-driven, always-on lifestyles have disrupted the natural sense of time and place. Because people have become conditioned to constantly monitor multiple sources of informational input at once, they are losing the ability to fully experience or process any one of them in isolation, or, in Bucher’s words: “We don’t hold space for the full realm of human emotion anymore.”

However, by creating immersive, multisensory, and mixed-reality content experiences – such as VR-powered video games, pop-up museums, escape rooms, and micro-theme parks – brands can counteract this detachment by removing external distractions while consumers are participating: “You put on a VR headset and you have no choice but to be fully present in the moment.”

Brands counteract detachment by creating immersive, multisensory content experiences, says @joderama. Share on X

So shines a good deed in a weary world

Beyond data transparency, message consistency, and experience tactility, another quality Gen Z values in brand affinity decisions is a commitment to social causes like environmental protection, equal rights, and philanthropy. According to the aforementioned Trends in Trust data, 54% of consumers say demonstrated social responsibility strengthens their trust in a company.

Yet, according to Jeff, contributing to meaningful causes may earn Gen Z’s respect, but it may not be enough to earn their long-term business. As he sees it, the purpose space is so crowded that brands need to take their commitment to social responsibility to the next level – a concept he refers to as “purpose plus.”

Brands need to take social responsibility to next level – purpose plus – to attract Gen Z, says @JeffFromm. Share on X

Consider: Naturally, content is an excellent technique for discussing important social issues that align with your brand’s core values. And its potential impact can increase exponentially when your business is willing to take a strong stance in support of those issues.

Nike’s Just Do It campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is a perfect example of this practice in action (Patagonia’s Bears Ears documentary is another). The brand risked alienating its more socially conservative customers, but the decision to align its content with its core values seems to have paid off (at least, so far): According to MarketWatch, after a brief initial dip, Nike’s online sales skyrocketed, and the company’s stock valuation experienced a surge, as well.

Read: 3 Purpose-Driven Marketing Lessons From Innovative Brands

Clear the path to personal growth

Even if they aren’t completely accurate, some of the commonly held stereotypes about Gen Z’s engagement preferences may be rooted in reality (affinity for avocado, notwithstanding). And though a recent Forbes article cautions against generational reductionism (i.e., subscribing to broad behavioral stereotypes that are based on decontextualized data points) on the whole, it also offers some insights that may help marketers craft the authentic, personally resonant content experiences Gen Z seems to crave.

One interesting point the article raises is, “Generation Z has come of age in the shadow of millennials who prize hyper-competence (or at least the appearance of it), which … has manifested in a strong desire to learn.” The article goes on to explain that, more than the preceding generation, this group seeks opportunities to add or sharpen their skills.

Members of Gen Z seek opportunities to add or sharpen their skills via @Forbes. @joderama Share on X

With this in mind, marketers may want to emphasize educational content – like product demos, online training courses, or process tutorials – that rewards their curiosity and helps them level up their competency in a relevant area of interest.

For example, through its Today at Apple program, the ubiquitous tech brand offers in-depth technical training sessions at its 495 retail stores. While these 30- to 90-minute classes are primarily focused on Mac-centric topics – like how to edit video using Apple’s proprietary tool sets – the skills participants learn can be applied to their broader life goals – like furthering a career in design or programming or impressing their friends with pro-quality videos on social media.

Read: Education as a Marketing Strategy: 8 Brands Doing Online Classes and More

Content conclusion

One thing about Gen Z – or any other generation – is that the best way to learn who they are and what content experiences they want brands to provide is to spend some time engaging with them on a personal level. Deploying an audience survey through email; sparking a community discussion on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter; organizing a focus group; or even just asking Gen Z coworkers for their ideas and opinions are a few ways you can gain valuable, real-world insights to inform your content efforts.

Before you think about adding your brand’s voice to the constant stream of conversations already whizzing across their screens, make sure you put in the time to listen to what Gen Z consumers have to say for themselves.

Miss the Content Marketing World sessions described above? Get access to all the 2018 presentations with an on-demand video access. Order today!

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute