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How Different Generations Use Social Media—and What this Means for Your Business

Demographic data is a key building block in defining your target audiences on social media. Generational nuances have a huge impact on how people interact with your brand, from the awareness stage all the way on to advocacy.

The Harris Poll, on behalf of Sprout Social, surveyed over 1,000 US consumers to understand how they use social media today, and how they plan on using it in the future. To investigate how age plays a role in these decisions, we broke down the data by the following generations:

  • Generation Z (survey respondents ages 18-24)
  • Millennials (survey respondents ages 25-40)
  • Generation X (survey respondents ages 41-56)
  • Baby Boomers (survey respondents ages 57-74)

The results shed light on several distinctions in social media use by generation. Although trends do change based on age, one thing is for certain: every generation increased their social media use over the past year.

As social adoption surges across all age groups, understanding how different generations use social media is more important than ever. This guide outlines everything you need to know about the social media behaviors and expectations of each generation, so you can tailor your efforts for maximum impact.

Section 1

How Gen Z uses social media

Generation Z (also known as “Gen Z” or “Zoomers”) are extremely online. In fact, most of these digital natives have had some kind of social media presence for more than half their lives. 

This social-savvy generation represents a changing tide in social media usage. Sixty-six percent of Gen Z consumers state that social media is an essential part of their lives, but their reasoning is unique. The most common reason Gen Z uses social media is to kill time, making them the only generation to rank that above connecting with family and friends. 

As the years pass, Gen Z’s social media usage continues to climb. Sixty-five percent of Gen Z consumers have increased their use of social media in the last year, and 45% expect it to continue to increase over the next three years. This is and will continue to be a huge trend driver across the social media landscape. 

How Gen Z uses social media

Generation Z (also known as “Gen Z” or “Zoomers”) are extremely online. In fact, most of these digital natives have had some kind of social media presence for more than half their lives. 

This social-savvy generation represents a changing tide in social media usage. Sixty-six percent of Gen Z consumers state that social media is an essential part of their lives, but their reasoning is unique. The most common reason Gen Z uses social media is to kill time, making them the only generation to rank that above connecting with family and friends. 

As the years pass, Gen Z’s social media usage continues to climb. Sixty-five percent of Gen Z consumers have increased their use of social media in the last year, and 45% expect it to continue to increase over the next three years. This is and will continue to be a huge trend driver across the social media landscape. 

What Gen Z consumers expect from brands on social media

Gen Z is eager to interact with brands beyond the storefront. Seventy-six percent say that social media enables them to interact with brands and companies, and 78% report using social media to learn about new brands. They’re bringing the awareness stage to social, and they expect brands to keep up. 

Raised amid countless data privacy discussions, these informed consumers have a deep understanding of what businesses can do with their personal information. Rather than shying away from sharing their data, Gen Z wants businesses to make smarter decisions using the information they have already made available. Consider the following: 

  • 64% of Gen Z consumers expect a more personalized experience on social media based on previous interactions.
  • 61% of Gen Z consumers want companies to know them better based on their social media activity. 
  • 52% of Gen Z consumers expect companies to read and analyze their social media posts.

Gen Z shoppers expect businesses to use their data to create a level of familiarity that mimics the in-person shopping experience without being invasive or overbearing. Keeping this balance in mind can build trust and loyalty among this coveted audience. 

What this means for your business

To target Gen Z, prioritize social content that sparks two-way interactions and engages them in relevant conversations.

LA-based brand Topicals does this by using Twitter polls and threads to start conversations around common skincare questions. By asking a question before taking a deep dive into the topic at hand, they give their audience a chance to speak for themselves and show what they know. 

To mimic this approach, you’ll have to tap into the conversations happening around your brand online. Don’t wait to be tagged. Instead, use a social listening tool like Sprout to ensure you never miss brand or keyword mentions that could lead to meaningful interactions. 

Find out how your brand can harness the power of social business intelligence by requesting a personalized listening demo today.

How to use social to reach Gen Z beyond marketing

Gen Zers are the second-fastest adopters of social commerce, behind Millennials, with 43% percent having already purchased natively from a social media platform. Pair this with their inclination to discover new brands on social, and you’ll find an audience eager to manage the entire sales process in a single channel. 

That includes the post-sale process, as well. Fifty-eight percent of Gen Z consumers have used social media for customer service, and 35% who reach out to companies on social do so to express love for a product or service. 

What this means for your business 

To make waves with Gen Z, audit your customer experience through a social-first lens. Here are a few questions you can use to start evaluating your strategy: 

  • Does your awareness content promote engagement (e.g., polls, user-generated content, quizzes, etc.)? 
  • Are your profiles optimized to support social commerce features? 
  • How long does it typically take your team to respond to questions or comments? 

If interactive content and social commerce haven’t been at the forefront of your strategy, think through what they could look like for your brand. Test new content at least twice a week, and see how those posts perform against your standard social content. 

As for response times, Sprout users can use the Internal Engagement Report to see just how quickly their team responds to messages in the Smart Inbox. Use the report findings to set new benchmarks and identify process improvements to accelerate your time to resolution. 

Section 2

How Millennials use social media

Millennials are often saddled with outdated stereotypes from their early years on social, which doesn’t give marketers an accurate picture of who they are today. They aren’t college kids taking duck-face selfies. Most are navigating early adulthood and the excitement and uncertainty that comes with it, including job milestones, parenthood and eldercare.

Seventy-two percent state that social is an essential part of their lives, the highest of all age groups. When identifying the most common ways Millennials use social media, the survey found that: :

  • 61% use social to communicate with family, friends and acquaintances.
  • 51% use social to kill time.
  • 47% use social to learn about new trends
  • 43% use social to get breaking news.

Millennials use social media to connect with their peers and with the world around them, and that’s not slowing down. Sixty-three percent have increased their usage over the past year, and 46% expect it to continue to increase over the next three years.

What Millennials expect from brands on social media

Associating your brand with a lifestyle, activity or subject of interest can make it easier to connect with Millennial audiences. Seventy-five percent of Millennials say that social media enables them to interact with brands and companies. That interaction opens the door to connections with other fans across the world.

Millennials are taking a unique approach to their careers, family life and future compared to previous generations. Businesses can play an instrumental role in these major life moments by building online communities where fans can connect with each other and with your brand.

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out the Instant Pot Community. This Facebook group provides value by creating a space for members to share recipes, cooking advice, meal plans and more. This constant engagement strengthens the Instant Pot brand, even when the conversation ventures away from the product itself.

What this means for your business

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy to creating a brand community. However, there are a few essential steps to ensuring its success.

Start by identifying the purpose behind your community. Conversations specific to your product or service will get stale after a while, so zoom out. Align your brand with high-level topics that encourage long-term discussions.

Social listening tools like Sprout can help identify broader topics of interest that relate to your brand. Analyze conversations happening within your fans, competitors and industry overall. Once you’ve identified some common threads, use that information to inform a community-specific content plan that promotes ongoing engagement.

How to use social to reach Millennials beyond marketing

Millennials have high customer service expectations, but they’re generous when it comes to a job well done. Forty-two percent of Millennials who reach out on social do so to express love for a product or service, the most of any age group.

The survey also found that 60% of Millennials have used social media for customer service, by sending either a private message or posting publicly on a brand’s page. Social is quickly becoming their primary channel for customer support, and businesses who prioritize it as such can make an impact with this valuable audience.

What this means for your business

You don’t have to hire an army of support reps to meet Millennials’ expectations. You just need to give them options.

Millennials want the opportunity to solve their own problems, without having to wait for a support time window or follow-up email. Cater to their efficiency cravings by setting up a customer service chatbot that can manage common questions and inquiries.

With Sprout’s Bot Builder, you can streamline conversations and map out experiences based on straightforward, rules-based logic for both Twitter and Facebook DMs. This 24/7 solution ensures your customers can get basic support needs taken care of at any time, freeing up your staff to handle more complex service issues.

Section 3

How Gen X uses social media

Generation X is sandwiched between the much larger Millennial and Baby Boomer generations,  Although this group is small in size, they make up a large number of users across top social networks.

Gen X adopted social media right alongside Millennials, and their usage isn’t slowing down. Fifty-two percent say their social media use has increased over the past year, and 29% believe it will continue to rise over the next three years.

Seventy-four percent of Gen X also say that social media is an essential part of their life, putting them on par with Millennials and even Gen Z. When it comes to platform preferences, Youtube and Facebook reign supreme, suggesting that this group is more likely to stick to the social channels they know.

What Gen X consumers expect from brands on social media

Gen X doesn’t grab headlines the same way their Millennial and Boomer counterparts do, causing them to often feel ignored by brands and marketers alike. Businesses targeting Gen X will often find that simply acknowledging what motivates them goes a long way.

The “latch key generation” is filled with natural self-starters. They value their independence and prefer to make their own assessments of a product or service. Fifty-six percent of Gen X consumers learn about new brands on social media, and many value the additional product research opportunities a brand’s active social presence creates.

Gen X expects brand content to educate and excite. Give them all the how-to videos, tutorials and in-depth explanations they need to envision your brand as a solution to their problem.

What this means for your business

To connect with Gen X, look to your social media video marketing strategy. Use video tutorials and how-tos to help them get a better understanding of your products and brand.

This is also a great way to prime consumers for a larger purchase. Costco’s “Quick and Easy” video series does this by showing how several products can be used in combination to make simple meals and desserts. Showing how your products can be used together or separate can help you get the most out of your video budget, whatever it may be.

There are DIY video production tips that can work on even the leanest of budgets. If you’re looking to get started with video, use the Sprout Post Performance report to find out which of your products could benefit from some time in the limelight. If you notice that a certain product always gets more likes or general engagement, a video tutorial might be just what it needs to push Gen X to purchase.

How to use social to reach Gen X beyond marketing

Gen X trust is hard to earn, but it’s also hard to lose. Research shows that Gen X are some of the most loyal consumers, often willing to pay a premium for products from brands they trust.

Brands can foster this type of loyalty by doubling down on their dedication to customer service.  Thirty-seven percent of Gen X consumers have used social media for customer service, making it a key channel these consumers turn to when they need to resolve an issue.

Brands offering omnichannel support are better equipped to provide the stellar customer service needed to build loyalty with Gen X.

What this means for your business

Providing exceptional customer care is an incredibly effective way to increase brand loyalty. As Gen X moves toward social for questions, complaints and everything in between, brands will need to bridge the gap between their social and customer support teams.

Between 2020-2021, there was a 110% increase in consumers who identified social messaging as their preferred channel to resolve customer service issues. Taking advantage of options like Sprout’s bidirectional integration with Zendesk can help ensure your team has a complete view of a customer’s history with your brand when responding to and resolving a problem.

Section 4

Baby Boomers and social media

Only 40% of Baby Boomers view social media as an essential part of their lives, and the majority (73%) use it to stay connected with friends and family. That being said, Boomers are still casually browsing about as much as everyone else. Fifty-three percent say they use social to kill time, putting them right on par with other generations.

Baby Boomers and older adults may have been slower to adopt social media initially, but after months of separation and social distancing, that’s starting to change. Thirty-seven percent of Baby Boomers have increased their social media usage over the past year, and 16% expect their usage to continue to increase over the next three years.

Like Gen X, Baby Boomers share a preference for more established platforms, particularly Facebook. The number of Boomers on the platform nearly doubled from 2012 to 2019, signaling a growing acclimation toward digital life.

What Baby Boomers expect from brands on social media

Boomers and older adults are not a monolith. Across the demographic, however, Baby Boomers share similarities in how they look to connect with brands.

Thirty-five percent of Baby Boomers use social media to discover new brands, and 48% say social enables them to interact with brands and companies online. Boomers are less likely to create profiles on new social networks, but they are open to trying new methods of communicating with businesses on the platforms they’ve already adopted.

What this means for your business

If Boomers make up a large percentage of your target market, consider tailoring your platform strategy based on where they’re more active. Differentiating content across social media platforms can help promote more engagement and let you focus on the channels that are most likely to convert for your brand.

Sprout’s Profile Performance Report brings key metrics for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest together into one streamlined report. Use this report to keep track of where your most active following is. If you notice your audience is most engaged on a single network, allocate your resources accordingly.

How to use social to reach Baby Boomers beyond marketing

Pushing Boomers and older adults past the awareness stage on social will take time. Only 20% say they have purchased directly from a social platform, and 21% have used social media for customer service.

Although most Boomers have begun shopping online, many still prefer shopping at physical stores. The rates at which they use social media suggests that it still plays an important role in the research process.

Brands will make the biggest impact with Boomers by using social media to complement their brick-and-mortar strategy. Sharing timely store updates, information on discounts and pictures of new merchandise will motivate this audience to do some in-person shopping.

What this means for your business

Almost every consumer search starts with Google, and that’s no different for Baby Boomers. If you want to entice Boomers to visit your location, make sure you’re using all of Google My Business’s features to your advantage.

Keep essential business information—like your store hours and phone number—up to date, share “What’s New” posts and engage with customers through online reviews. You can also use Google’s Business Messages to chat directly with customers via live chat. Your Google My Business presence can be managed from both the Sprout platform and mobile app, giving you the power to share updates at a moment’s notice.

Section 5

Conclusion

Social media is no longer a young person’s game. People of all ages are participating in the billions of conversations that take place online. As adoption continues to rise, brands need to be even more intentional about who they’re trying to reach and how.

By assessing social performance across key demographic factors, companies can learn what resonates with their customer base and identify market trends that can influence how and where they show up to consumers.

Social media has revolutionized how businesses interact with customers of all kinds. Start your free trial of Sprout today and tap into the information and insights you need to transform your brand.