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Getting inside the mind of your Gen Z audience

Gen Z people standing around a big Z

Imagine a world without social media. For those of us who are old enough, we don’t have to strain too hard. But for Generation Z, a world with social media is all they’ve ever known.

Born between 1997-2012, just as social media was gaining worldwide popularity, Gen Z are more connected than their predecessors. These stats tell the story of just how much time Gen Z spend online:

  • They spend over 10 hours each day reading, watching, liking, creating and sharing content across their devices (Adobe)
  • 66% of them report using more than one internet-connected device at a time (IBM)
  • They log on to social media for roughly two hours and 55 minutes each day (WEF)

You get the idea. On paper, Gen Z should be a marketer’s dream. So, why can they prove such a tricky audience to advertise to?

Overcoming Gen Z’s ad resistance

Gen Z have got very little time for traditional online ads. Either they find them disruptive to their online experience or, arguably worse for advertisers, the ads don’t even register.

CM Group’s recent study found that 52% avoid ads at all costs, more than any other generation.

So, how do you sell to a generation that doesn't want to be sold to? Drop the sales pitch altogether.

Gen Z craves authenticity from brands. They want their style and opinions to be shaped by real people, not necessarily a brand that’s selling something.

In AdAge’s study of Gen Z, it was revealed that 79% of this generation will trust a company more if the images its brand uses are not photoshopped. Meanwhile, 84% trust a company more if they use actual customers in their ads.

Influencers calling the shots

When you think about it, this fits with what Gen Z have grown up with. Instead of brands dictating their buying habits on social media, it’s the rise of influencers in the last decade which has had an increasing impact on where Gen Z spend their money.

As per Onbe’s recent study, more than 70% of Gen Z have made a purchase decision based on an influencer’s recommendation.

It’s not a hugely surprising stat. But you might not have made the link between influencer marketing and native advertising using branded content. CM Group found that despite Gen Z avoiding ads “they are less likely to object to ads that are relevant to their needs and lifestyle. In this regard they prefer native ads more than any other generation”.

Makes sense - Influencer marketing is built on matching the form and function of the platform upon which it appears. You could just as easily call it sponsored content, as brands are paying the influencer to subtly sell their products.

Content and commerce have merged. As the report explains:

“To Gen Z, content and commerce experiences are becoming indistinguishable, and they expect the brands they patronise to deliver not only the products they need, but also the information and entertainment to go with them.”

Group of people sitting around a table using their phones

The value exchange of content

To put it another way, in exchange for their money and data, Gen Z want value that goes beyond the product or service that the brand offers.

Forgive me whilst I indulge in a bit of sociological and psychological theory. But the Social Exchange Theory, developed by George Homans, is relevant here. It underpins every exchange between humans and is the fundamental basis for all profitable business.

Homans states: “Social exchange theory posits that relationships are formed by the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives.”

In other words, people need to feel like they’re getting enough out of exchange for it to be worth their while.

Helpful or entertaining branded content – delivered in a format that your audience is familiar with – is a great way to tip the value exchange in your prospects’ favour.

At TAN, we regularly work on campaigns for some of the UK’s top universities. I’ve been across seven years of data and its unquestionably useful content for prospective students that outperforms everything else. As tempting as it might be for institutions to write purely about themselves, helpful content about the application process, grants / loans and what student life looks and feels like will always outperform “look at our new science lab”.

Proving brand values

There is however one thing Gen Z really want to know about you. We’ve mentioned the importance of authenticity to this generation, but there are other factors which influence their purchasing decisions.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Gen Z and previous generations lies in how much they scrutinise brands.

Not only do they want to get to know you through a content-led value exchange, they also need to see some evidence that your brand is prioritising sustainability and inclusivity, and taking a stand on issues which matter to them.

So, when it comes to messaging that works for Gen Z, advertisers need to spend as much time communicating their brand values as they do their product benefits.

Marketing to Gen Z isn’t going to be easy. They’re the most socially and politically conscious, agile, and digitally literate generation to date – and they seek to hold brands to greater accountability. But some of them are now graduating and entering their adult life; ultimately, they’re set to become a significant source of consumer spending in the years to come. Content is key to winning their business, but crucially it must pitch perfect to land.