Enough talk about millennials. Let’s talk about Generation Z, loosely defined as anyone born since 1995. Are these younger counterparts of Gen Y really worth all the recent hype?
At one quarter of the population (and growing), Gen Z represents $44 billion in annual purchasing power in the US, according to a study by ad agency sparks & honey—which, for marketers, is definitely not something to ignore.
Regardless of whether Gen Z is your target audience, understanding this group’s social media habits—and how they differ from those of the much-touted millennial demographic—is essential to positioning your brand for long-term success. Here’s what you need to know to keep current.
$44 billion: annual purchasing power of Generation Y in the US
—sparks & honey
Drawing the line between Gen Y and Gen Z is a bit elusive: Some consider Gen Zs to include anyone born from 1995 to the present; others classify them as 7- to 17-year-olds born between 1998 and 2008. Simply put, Gen Z represents the post-millennial generation, those under 20 years old, who’ve never lived a day without mobile phones, social networking or online video.
Meanwhile, their impressive purchasing power comes mostly from their allowance—an average $16.90 per week. With the income Gen Z does make, much of it is spent online.
From the outside, these digital natives look strikingly familiar: They’re online all the time and using social media more than ever. But looks can be deceiving.
Millennials may be digitally savvy too, but they grew up in a world pre-mobile phone and just on the cusp of the Internet boom. Thus, they learned to experiment and adapt with a rush of changes, from dial-up Internet and iPods to MySpace and Google Maps to text messaging and tablets.
Meanwhile, most Gen Zs could swipe before they could walk. Screens were always a part of their lives. Their parents shared their first birthdays, first steps and first words over blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They have laptops in elementary school. They use Google Drive for homework assignments. They make online friends around the world on video games and social networks.
Whereas tech-savvy millennials might have two screens, the tech-innate Gen Z often have five. Needless to say, these small differences have led to some surprisingly disparate attitudes toward social networks and online behaviors.
“They tend to see online more as a tool for getting things done rather than a place to be discovered.”
—Executive Jayne Charneski
Consumer Insights and Strategy Executive Jayne Charneski points out that for every trend, there’s a counter-trend—and the same could be said for Gen Z.
“Whereas Gen Ys were known for their excessive online consumption, Gen Zs are known for their selective consumption,”Charneski said. “Sure, they’re living their lives online, but they tend to see online more as a tool for getting things done rather than a place to be discovered and chase their 15 minutes of fame like Gen Ys.”
This can be illustrated in Gen Z’s obsession for Snapchat. The self-destructing messaging app sends a personalized and private photo or video directly to one friend or perhaps a handful of friends rather than to a whole feed of Facebook followers, which millennials were the first to do.
61% of Gen Zs would rather start their own business than work for someone else.
—sparks & honey
Gen Zs like making stuff instead of sharing stuff. They live-stream. They co-create. They take photos and videos, and edit them to perfection. With this focus, they’re also less likely to pin and Retweet.
In fact, a Gen Z study by digital agency Deep Focus found that more than 50% of people in this group spend their free time building new skills, such as graphic design, video production and app development. Perhaps that’s because, as the sparks & honey study shows, 61% of the people in this generation would rather start their own business than work for someone else, proving their entrepreneurial spirit runs high.
Why send a word when you can send a picture instead? Emojis, pictures, videos and GIFs replace words to make text conversations and social networking fast and visual—or what some call snackable. That means content that’s short and sweet, which appeals to Gen Z’s quick attention span.
Don’t forget the fact that this generation grew up with high-def video and photos as well as touch-screen iPhones with icons. It’s no wonder that sites such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat rank so highly with them.
80% of Gen Zs are aware of the environmental impact humans have on the planet.
—sparks & honey
Charneski adds that Gen Zs are researchers instead of surfers and activists instead of slacktivists.
According to sparks & honey, 26% of 16- to 19-year-olds are currently volunteering, and social listening has found that Gen Zs want to “make a difference” and “make an impact.” They’re concerned with the economy, the environment and social causes, and 80% are aware of the impact humans have on the planet.
Generation Z also cares about:
- Global warming
- The cost of education
- Texting while driving
- Gender equality
“Think YouTube stars and peer reviews.”
—CEO Tim McMullen
Tim McMullen, CEO of redpepper, an agency that’s created campaigns for a Gen Z audience, says this group craves personalized experiences that are quickly validated by friends.
“Gen Z is less influenced by celebrities but rather influencers,” McMullen said. “Think YouTube stars and peer reviews.”
Although Gen Zs may be tied to their phones, this lust for engagement with real people runs deep. Deep Focus’ study found that 63% of Gen Zs want to see “real people” in advertisements, while 37% prefer celebrities. That might explain why 85% of them visit YouTube more than any other social site, where an average Joe can get millions of views and comments.
85% of Gen Zs visit YouTube more than any other social media site.
Those average Joes on YouTube have become celebrities in their own right, thanks to a strong fandom behind the video-sharing network. Take YouTuber PewDiePie, for example, who has nearly 40 million subscribers.
Conventions such as VidCon let fans connect with stars at meet-and-greets, which leads to another contradiction: Although 41% of Gen Zs spend more than three hours a day on their computers for non-school work, according to sparks & honey, they love to meet up in person when the opportunity arises. But the contradiction doesn’t stop there. Around 20,000 fans showed up to this year’s VidCon to get a photo with favorite stars, which Gen Zs then shared proudly all over social.
Marketers at first seemed stumped in trying to crack the code on millennials—which is perhaps why so much has been written about this group for so long. Luckily, Gen Zs aren’t all that different, but knowing their preferences and quirks could add up to a bigger impact for your brand.
“Nuances like Gen Z’s preference for digital privacy like Snapchat compared to millennials’ social shouting on Twitter showcase how these distinctions can affect campaign performance—though both activities constitute spending time on social media,” McMullen said.
These subtleties must be considered before launching a successful social campaign. One thing both generations have in common is that they’ll take offense if something isn’t tailored to their desires.
“Both Gen Z and Gen Y are adept multitaskers, so vying for their attention requires a personalized and integrated marketing approach,” McMullen added.
Redpepper, the agency McMullen works for, produced Claire’s award-winning Project BFFcampaign, which drove tween girls in droves to a sweepstakes for a custom BFF necklace-creation tool. One lucky winner’s design was sold worldwide. Gen Z’s sense of creativity and individuality was peaked, and over 20 days, the campaign resulted in three times the Facebook growth, a 27% increase in Instagram followers and nearly 100,000 visitors to the website and mobile experience.
Tapping into the Gen Z zeitgeist is essential—giving this group a sense that it is doing something special or part of an important cause that’s being pushed forward.
“As activists, they want to change the world,” Charneski said. “Marketers should ask themselves, ‘Does this social campaign make them feel like they’re making a difference?’ It’s the feeling that your campaign evokes that should always be the goal.”
But that feeling won’t matter if you can’t find the right audience. While 81% of Generation Z uses social media, according to the Pew Research Center, they do not love being tracked by parents or anyone else. In fact, as sparks & honey notes, 25% of 13- to 17-year-olds left Facebook in 2014, and many have turned to less popular, privacy-focused sites, such as Snapchat and Whisper, which their parents have yet to infiltrate.
TL;DR: Too Long; Didn’t Read
Ordinarily, this section would live at the top, but in the spirit of Gen Z, we’re using it here to wrap things up. The key takeaway in differentiating these two generations is that Gen Z grew up in a world with an already-established landscape of social media and online behavior, which means they’ve been able to learn from Gen Y’s mistakes while laying the groundwork for a new path. If you want to capture Gen Z’s attention, you’ll have to react fast—preferably in eight seconds or less.
Aubre Andrus: Aubre Andrus is a Chicago-based tech journalist and content strategist who loves working with startups. By night she moonlights as a children's book author.