As Gen Z Reshapes the Social Media Landscape, Marketers Need to Be Open to Change

Flexibility and an interest in exploring new channels will go a long way

Announcing! Brandweek is headed to Phoenix, Arizona this September 23–26. Join us there to explore the future of marketing, discover cutting-edge strategies and network with the best in the business.

Believe it or not, Gen Z is entering its prime working years. The 13- to 24-year-old cohort’s spending power is estimated at somewhere between $29 billion and $143 billion, easily eclipsing that of the millennial generation.

But marketers trying to make Gen Z grab their wallets can’t default to the marketing tactics that worked with millennials. This notoriously particular generation isn’t interested in Facebook ads littered with OMGs and LOLs. No, marketers must meet Gen Z consumers on their social channels at the right times and with campaigns the generation cares about.

The channel conundrum

The trick to reaching Gen Z isn’t sticking with any one channel—it’s hopping around.

Marketers learned a powerful lesson with millennials: New generations have little interest in the channels their parents prefer. But while millennials and Gen Z can agree that streaming video is the way to go, the latter group is more interested in bite-sized visual media like YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram than their older peers.

Surprisingly, however, Gen Z seems to consider visual media the main fare and social interaction the side dish.

“Gen Zers’ migration away from social media is part of a larger trend,” Dara Treseder, CMO for GE Business Innovations, explains. “Their ‘digitally native’ status transcends selfies and Snapchat; it also means that they’ve grown up witnessing the dangers of overexposing yourself online.”

But the trick to reaching Gen Z isn’t sticking with any one channel—it’s hopping around. Gen Z tends to find new products on Instagram, with 45 percent using it for brand discovery. They then turn to YouTube for product research at twice the rate that their millennial brothers and sisters do. Once Gen Z decides to make a purchase, many head into brick-and-mortar stores, where they’re more likely than any other generation to share their shopping experiences on Snapchat.

From start to snap

To make inroads with Gen Z on Instagram, marketers need another important lesson from the millennial generation: Get in with their influencers. But unlike the star-struck millennials, 63 percent of Gen Z wants to hear from peers and everyday folks, not celebrities. All told, Gen Z is 1.3 times more likely to purchase a product recommended by one of their favorite influencers than by a television or film celebrity.

Gen Z learns about products on Instagram, which has quite the network of influencers. Although every influencer relationship must make sense with the brand, some of Gen Z’s “Insta faves” include amateur comedian Liza Koshy, dilettante-turned-actual-musician Alex Aiono and Nickelodeon star Cree Cicchino.

On YouTube, Gen Z is looking for something a little different than music-loving millennials: education. Unlike past generations, Gen Z prefers to learn via video. A YouTube video about how to decorate cakes is unlikely to make millennials look twice, but Gen Z is hungry for how-to clips that showcase new products and skills.

Beware, however, because Gen Z doesn’t spend much time on any single video. The youngest generation clocks just an eight-second attention span that makes millennials’ 12-second span seem lengthy in comparison. Although ad lengths have been trending downward for years, it’s Gen Z that is convincing marketers to make six-second pre-roll ads the new industry standard.

What happens after Gen Z learns about a product they like on YouTube? Rather than open a new tab to buy it online, as their millennial counterparts are apt to do, Gen Z heads into a brick-and-mortar store. Surprisingly, the National Retail Federation claims that 98 percent of them shop in physical stores “some or all of the time.”

Although Gen Z considers Snapchat their social home, with over half accessing it 11 or more times per day, what differentiates the youngest generation on this platform is that they fire it up in-store. Some 40 percent of them use Snapchat while shopping, compared to about 15 percent of shoppers as a whole.

Reaching Gen Z on Snapchat is all about making in-store displays snappy enough to share. According to Snapchat-commissioned research, 37 percent of users send snaps to ask their friends’ opinions, while about 35 percent do so to share where they’re shopping. Brands that have the hang of Snapchat follow their users’ style by showing products in their natural habitats beneath authentic lettering or sketches.

To some, Gen Z’s social media habits may seem contradictory: They’re spread across numerous platforms, yet united in their thirst for brand advocacy. Their heroes are online influencers, but they’re skeptical of baring themselves to the wider world. Although they prefer video media, they can’t seem to sit through one longer than eight seconds. The truth is, Gen Z is a product of the complicated world they grew up in, and marketers shouldn’t expect their social habits to be so simple, either.