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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The key to reaching Gen Z is speaking their digital language

May 30, 2018 | By Vicki Brakl, Vice President, Marketing—MNI Targeted Media Inc. @birdytalk

You thought marketing to Millennials was tricky? Meet Gen Z. They’re not only digital natives, they’re social and mobile natives too. To gain insight into this generation, MNI Targeted Media Inc. commissioned a study of Gen Z behavior, surveying students at major universities about their media consumption habits. And we learned a lot.

This generation, born between 1995 and 2012, are mobile-first, and rarely seen without their phones in-hand. But don’t put them down just because they’re constantly staring at their smartphones: Gen Z-ers are socially fluid change agents with tremendous purchase influence.

They may be young, but they’ll be voting soon – and they’re more fiscally savvy than you think. Gen Z is entrepreneurial, saving up for and buying the things they want. Their purchase decisions are partly influenced by their peers and personalities they admire. But take note:  These influencers also need to align with Gen Z values and marketers will want to recognize that Gen Z are influencers and entrepreneurs unto themselves.

It’s equally important for marketers to keep messaging relevant and authentic. Interestingly enough for Gen Z, celebrities aren’t their “go to” source. For a generation that lives on social media, their influencers can be their fashion forward friends, political influencers or even fellow Gen Z members who have already gained notoriety on their own terms. In this regard, context matters and the platform on which they engage with influencers will be as important to marketers as their messaging. Businesses that take the time to understand how this generation consumes media, how they grow to trust and how they shop and make purchases stand to benefit.

This generation is smart, and they’ll see right through attempts to “buy” them. But if you approach them with authenticity and engage them on the channels and platforms where they’re most receptive, you may just win them over. Publishers need to adhere to these same insights, with an appropriate responsiveness when there is urgency from their audience. We can look to the recent news of ABC canceling its #1 ranked comedy Roseanne after the star’s bizarre Twitter rant. In this case, we saw the network put authenticity and value before revenue – which in the end I suspect will pay off in spades.

The key to making a connection with them is to make sure you know and understand all the channels in which they consume media – that means podcasts, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, for starters. There’s more to it than just advertising or posting on these channels: you have to speak their language. You will want to have subject matter experts who really understand how Gen Z communicates on each channel so that your content is authentic. The language across channels varies, and the nuances will be important. Getting it wrong could mean losing this audience’s confidence for the long term.

With this in mind, here are six laws of marketing to Gen Z:

1. Keep your content platform-specific

This generation moves through social channels seamlessly, and they understand the value of the storytelling within each platform. They expect the brands they follow to do the same. You need to know the rules of engagement for each social network, and map custom content for each in a unique way. Here’s what they expect across channels:

  • Snapchat – A way to share real-life moments
  • Instagram – How they showcase their aspirational selves
  • Twitter – Their top news source
  • Facebook – A source of general information
2. Keep your prices competitive and your quality high

This is a generation of savvy shoppers. They like to save money and they know how to compare prices. If a competitor is selling a product for less, they will buy it for less. That said, they respect good quality, and will pay more for a better product.

3. Let them tell the story with their own original content

If you give Gen Z customers an opportunity to create user-generated content related to your product or brand, they’re likely to do it. There are big payoffs to relinquishing control of your branded content:

  • They like seeing their peers using products – and it will create a positive ripple effect.
  • They like posting content to their own channels.
  • They like getting noticed, and your brand benefits from going along for the ride. You get to enjoy the dividends by driving engagement and reinforcing your brand identity.
4. Be authentic

Millennials had a reputation for insisting that brands be “real,” but Gen Z takes it a step further. They want to feel like they know the people behind the brand, and they like brands that care about the issues that are important to them. Brands like Tom’s and Bob’s that donate to charity do well. Mattel’s support of same-sex marriage and Dick’s Sporting Goods halting sales of assault rifles were both Gen Z-friendly moves.

5. Want to capture them in-store? Consider testing AI

More than half of Gen Z shoppers go into stores, while their millennial contemporaries prefer to shop online. AI can help target and engage these younger customers while they’re in-store, creating more personalized and unique experiences. Sephora, for example, has created a new, AI-driven feature that helps shoppers find their ideal shade of foundation.

6. Ask them for feedback, and then listen to their responses

As digital, social and mobile natives, Gen Z is comfortable engaging in discourse with brands they care about. If you’re unsure about how a particular campaign or message you’re working on will resonate, solicit their opinion. They’ll respond, and they’ll be honest.

Adding Gen Z employees to your organization is the best approach to engaging them as consumers. These young adults have a language and a style of their own that is hard to replicate. So, bring in the real deal, and integrate them in with your older team members. Not only will this help your organization better understand how Gen Z moves through the world, it will ensure you’re not embarrassing yourself by posting three-month-old memes to your social channels. Gen Z team members will make sure you’re always authentic, and that your messaging is always current and on fleek.

I mean, on trend.


Vicki Brakl is Vice President, Marketing of MNI Targeted Media Inc., and its three business units, Targeted Media Health, MNI, and Harpoon Digital.  A 16-year multi-channel marketing veteran with a rich background that spans executive management, strategy, branding, positioning, promotion, experiential and event planning, public relations and internal communications, Vicki has extensive experience developing innovative multi-platform brand plans and media strategies. Her previous roles include client and agency-side positions at PepsiCo, several below-the-line Omnicom agencies and a few startups in the CPG, Publishing and private-public partnership sectors.  She has crafted and executed high-impact marketing plans for Pepsi brands, Walmart, Bank of America, TD Ameritrade, Citibank, Skinny Water, and countless others.

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