Gen Z is here – and marketers need to start looking beyond their media habits

Generation Z aren’t just millennials with bigger mobile data plans – here’s why marketers need to start looking deeper

June 30, 2016

If you’ve ever had a discussion with me about marketing demographics you’ll know that I can get a bit tetchy when it comes to how our industry defines them. We seem to be obsessed with labelling the next generation as quickly as possible, and when stuck for something to pin on them we quickly resort to media habits or the devices they own – as if the only thing we need to know about a generation is which screen they’re looking at.

We need to break this habit quickly – because it’s not going to tell us anything new or useful about the next generation on the marketing agenda. We’re told that Generation Z (those born after 1995) consume media for up to 18 hours a day – and that the mobile is the centre of their media universe. But aside from being a little bit tenuous (18 hours a day? How many teenagers are really sleeping for just 6 hours a night?), such stats tell us very little to distinguish Gen Z from millennials – or even from those of us who are a little bit older. They are differences of degree, the finer points of media planning. They are missing the main point in a big way.

Gen Z aren’t just millennials with bigger mobile data plans

Last week I was fortunate to be a part of the Gen Z forum hosted by Teads and Marketing Week at Cannes – and it was a great opportunity to talk through what Generation Z should mean for marketers. It was also very timely. The next day, the UK voted to leave the EU against the wishes of the vast majority of those born in the last two decades. It’s just another factor adding up to a distinct world-view that is genuinely different to any generation that’s come before. Gen Z aren’t just millennials with bigger mobile data plans. Their formative years are taking place in a very challenging cultural, economic and political context – and it’s this that we need to start planning around if we are to engage them successfully.

Gen Z – or Gen K?

One of the most interesting pieces of research that I’ve encountered on Gen Z doesn’t talk about Gen Z at all. It’s a qualitative study by Noreena Hertz, and it refers to those born after 1995 as Generation K – a reference to the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, of The Hunger Games, which for Noreena best reflects these young people’s view of the world.

This is the first generation in living memory where a majority believe they’ll be worse off financially than their parents, the first generation in much of the world that won’t take owning their own home for granted, the first generation that has absolutely no familiarity with the concept of job security, let alone a job for life. This feeling of a world that guarantees them nothing isn’t helped by the fact that the political process feels (for the moment at least) like it’s side-stepping them. It’s these distinct, dystopian, formative experiences that we need to be building our Generation Z strategies around.

How are Gen Z (or Gen K if you prefer) responding to their circumstances? The answer is: by making themselves as self-sufficient as possible. They are insecure and consequently, ‘pragmatically’ entrepreneurial in their approach to work. Only 6% trust corporations to do the right thing, and this affects both their openness to conventional marketing campaigns (witness the limited success of fast food sponsorship at the Euro 2016 championships, for example) – and their relationship with potential employers. They take matters into their own hands, invest a lot of time in building their own personal brands and take charge of their careers as they would a small business. They co-create and share content with peers rather than relying exclusively on traditional media. They mix and match their news sources via short video clips shared on social. They are profoundly cause-led, and this feeling only intensifies with their hardening view that the world is not the meritocracy it should be.

Finding the right context to engage

Crucially (and this is the irony in our obsession with the different digital platforms they use), Generation Z seems to have little emotional connection to technology. Constant mobile connectivity may be a given – but it’s not necessarily a positive. These aren’t proud ‘early adopters’ in the way that Apple Watch-touting Gen X’ers are. Reaching them through the latest touchpoint won’t earn you credibility as a brand – it’s how you engage them at the touchpoint that counts. They value technology most when it feels less like technology and more like genuine human interaction.

The other important point to consider when totting up the number of hours that Gen Z spends looking at their mobile screens, is just how much of that time is likely to be out of the reach of traditional online advertising. This could well be the first generation that rarely encounters an online ad they didn’t want to see. To them, ad blocking is a no-brainer – in fact, their parents will probably encourage them to download a reputable ad blocker to safeguard their online experience. From their vantage point, ad blocking doesn’t compromise some unwritten deal to protect the free web – it just makes their smartphone work better. We don’t have the option of interrupting their digital experience. Instead, we have to engage them within contexts where we can be a valid, and value-adding part of their experience.

What will those contexts look like? For me, this comes back to the core question of what actually motivates this generation. 

Why Gen Z matters to LinkedIn

More than anything, members of Generation Z aspire to take greater control of their lives. We’re looking at a generation that is fundamentally under more pressure, skeptical and insecure, but also has the potential to be very determined, driven and self-directed. The reason that Generation Z is so important to LinkedIn (the reason I’m writing this post) is because there’s a real opportunity for our platform to be part of the positive side of this equation.

The circumstances of Generation Z’s coming of age are immersing them in a professional mindset from the get-go. They start worrying about how they are going to earn money and support a family before they even leave school and head to higher education (if they decide that they can afford it). As a platform, it’s important to LinkedIn that we help them explore their professional aspirations from an early age, make informed choices about the skills they need to acquire – and the best way to acquire them.

Our vision of the Economic Graph (the way that we can use LinkedIn to connect talent to opportunity on a global scale) has never been more relevant or needed. To Gen Z, this really matters. While they don’t believe that the world is a meritocracy, that doesn’t mean they don’t want it to be. Taking a proactive role in opening doors and providing economic opportunity is surely one of the most effective ways to earn their attention and their trust.

The professional mindset is the mindset that Generation Z will occupy to attempt to address the challenges they find in the world. The opportunity is there for any brand that can show they have a role in helping them do so. But for that, we need to start thinking about a lot more than how much time they spend with their smartphones. More than ever, brands need to demonstrate a credible and consistent sense of purpose – and show how this aligns with the very particular issues motivating Generation Z. They also need to choose the contexts in which they engage with Generation Z carefully – focusing on the channels where brands and businesses are seen as having a valid contribution to make.

Talent brands will become even more of a priority – the key to businesses persuading Generation Z that they can make a trusted contribution to their lives and careers. Ultimately, the businesses and brands that are able to engage and motivate Gen Z as potential employees will have a powerful advantage when it comes to engaging them as consumers.

I believe that these strategies are within the reach of any brand – but not if they keep treating Generation Z simply as Millennials Plus. I’ll be looking in more detail at how marketers in different sectors can start building a Gen Z strategy today in my next post.