Generation Z concerns marketers and media executives around the world because its members represent something new, something unknown, perhaps even revolutionary.
But that’s nothing for marketers to be scared of. Yes, Generation Z is different, but different can be good and, if approached in the right way, offers amazing opportunities for engaging with a vibrant, open-minded, international and, above all, young audience.
We’re talking about a group of individuals who make up more than a quarter of the world’s population and who already have direct control over at least US$44bn in the US alone and influence around US$600bn more.
Born after the mid-1990s, they are the first generation who have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones, broadband and fast, omnipresent wi-fi. This generation spent their formative years with Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005) and WhatsApp (2009).
They didn’t just embrace them, they developed new expectations and behaviours on the back of transformative technology, unhampered by the expectations of the past.
This is a generation who grew up with social validation from ‘likes’ and who have been told that anyone can make it if they can build up a fan base. They are the most connected, versatile and demanding group we’ve ever known.
They are not, as many suggest, the hardest generation to reach, but they are certainly the most media-savvy and the most prone to ad avoidance. In their hyper-connected world, it’s the only way they can stay sane. That’s because they consume media in a totally different way to previous generations.
Unfortunately, the people running big brands and TV channels are from a completely different era; everything they know about communicating with audiences is based around ‘old fashioned’ ideas of media production, funding, delivery and consumption.
YouTube TV appears to go against what YouTube is about Senior executives are still programmed to think in terms of TV stations and channels, newspapers and magazines, books, films, games, songs and albums, as if what is important is the medium, the format and how the content is curated and bundled, rather than the content itself.
While they have begun to get their heads around the idea that linearity is no longer important, and that content can be consumed anywhere in the world and any time of day or night (assuming the right kind of device and an internet connection), they are still very much bound by a 20th century broadcast mentality which plans things and allocates them a time slot. Muscle memory is strong!
None of this sits well with Generation Z. This audience values immediacy. They want instant gratification. They are the IWWIWWIWI (I Want What I Want When I Want It) generation.
They also value authenticity. The internet gives them access to feeds showing seemingly professional-quality pictures from a significant percentage of the two billion people with camera-equipped smartphones in the world, and what Generation Z want is a story they can believe in, told in a way that is stripped of over-complicated production techniques and isn’t overly ‘processed.’
If they don’t get gratification and authenticity, then they will move on. Look at the success of Minecraft YouTubers like Sky Does Minecraft or Stampylonghead.
Incidentally, that’s why I’m in two minds about the launch of YouTube TV, which seems to go completely against what YouTube is all about, offering a mix of mainstream channels. It’s TV, but on YouTube. Generation Z are grazers, snackers and bingers, not just in food and drink, but in media as well. They also seem to like either ultra-short content or ultra-long. One moment they will be spending hours watching videos on YouTube, another they’ll be downloading multiple seasons from Netflix and gorging on them.
In fact, the rise of Generation Z calls into question the whole raison d’être for TV ‘channels’ in the first place. The idea of waiting for a particular time on a particular day of the week to watch a show is alien to them. They have no idea what the Radio Times is, and as for ad breaks…
They also fast-forward through the bits that bore them (which doesn’t just mean the ads!). They can watch a one-hour TV show in 30 minutes or less, and a two-hour film in an hour or less.
Generation Z consumers expect to be able to select what they want to listen to, watch and play from an online, infinitely big warehouse. Paradoxically, though, while they may have thrown off the tyranny of the programme guide, they have replaced it with peer-recommended choice. They have an insatiable appetite for content discovery and connectedness.
They will rely on their social circle and on trusted figures like YouTubers, bloggers, vloggers and other ‘influencers’ to recommend what they should be listening to, watching, playing, eating and wearing. You could say that this is a logical response to the sheer volume of experiences that are now available to them online; in the brave new world of the 21st century, there is a need for explorers to blaze a trail on the digital frontier.
Unfortunately, by its very nature, content that appeals to Generation Z will often feature strong flavours and opinions that may cause problems for media owners and brands if they associate themselves with it. Generation Z’s favourite explorer-influencers can sometimes betray their inexperience. They may be authentic and their energy may appeal, but they are also, all too often, amateurs. For every natural-born presenter amongst them, there are thousands who will fail.
In some ways, today’s YouTubers, Snapchatters and online influencers are very like the pioneers of pirate radio stations or the early US radio ‘shock jocks’: raw, unfiltered and uncontrolled. They can get away with a lot because they are the first, and they have managed to build a massive audience from the roughly 25% of the population who make up Generation Z.
From the point of view of brands and media owners, however, they may also make mistakes that could damage not just their own reputations but those of anybody associated with them. Take the recent PewDiePie fiasco as an example. The answer is to marry experience with enthusiasm. Generation Z vloggers need to take on board some of the craft of old-style content creators, learning how to make something that can be immediate, impactful and appealing, while at the same time avoiding causing offence or breaking the laws and regulations.
Marketers, on the other hand, need Gen Z experts to be able to talk to the latest generation in a language they understand. No one wants to sound like they’re trying to be the embarrassing, ‘cool’ parent.
Published in C21Media May 16th 2017