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5 ways media companies can better reach — and engage with — Gen Z  

April 26, 2022 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism–University of Oregon @damianradcliffe

True digital natives, Gen Z grew up with smartphones, social media, and video on demand. “Understanding Gen Z’s media experiences and entertainment preferences is a priority for publishers,” Michelle Manafy, DCN’s Editorial Director, observed, “ because they provide a proxy for the future of digital media.” 

Image via eMarketer / Insider Intelligence 

Not to be confused with millennials, Gen Z’s outlook and media habits are very much their own. A powerful demographic — and audience — in its own right, Insider Intelligence noted Gen Z is expected to constitute more than one in five (20.2%) of the U.S. population in 2022. With nearly 70 million tweens, teens, and young adults falling into this category, “Gen Z is the most racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse generation in history.” 

So, what do we know about this demographic, and how can publishers best reach and engage with them?  

1. Understand their social media habits 

Given that this group was “born digital” it is no surprise they are active users of social media. One key segment of this demographic, teens, spends around four hours a day on social media new research from Piper Sandler shows. This latest semi-annual Taking Stock With Teens survey also revealed TikTok is teens’ favorite social media platform (33%) surpassing Snapchat for the first time (31%). Instagram ranks third (22%). YPulse’s social media monitor reports that, although Gen Z’s use of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat increased slightly last year, “no platform has seen growth comparable to TikTok’s in 2021.”   

Image: via YPulse 

2. Create digital campfires  

Gaming platforms and emerging social spaces also present some intriguing possibilities. For example, YPulse found Gen Z is more than twice as likely as Millennials to use platforms such as Discord (34% vs. 15%) and Fornite (25% vs. 10%). They are also less inclined to use products like Facebook (42% vs. 75%) and Facebook Messenger (42% vs. 62%) although that may change as they get older.  

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Sara Wilson remarked on “how younger audiences are leaving many public-facing social platforms and flocking to smaller, more intimate online destinations.” She calls these spaces “digital campfires.” 

With roots in gaming culture, but not exclusive to gamers, Wilson argued, “digital campfires have become a force defining not only how Gen Z audiences connect, but also how they experience and shape the culture at large.” 

“For that reason, marketers can no longer afford to ignore them,” she said. The same argument can be made for publishers and other content creators too. Twitter Spaces, live streams, and AMAs are just the mainstream tip of this intimacy iceberg. Other platforms like Roblox, Geneva, and Discord should also be on your Gen Z radar

3. Keep it real 

“Connecting with Gen Z means much more than just creating a company TikTok account,” suggests Max Pinas, Executive Creative Director, Dept. “As digital natives with a sixth sense (and zero tolerance) for insincerity, Gen Z is expecting more from brands,” Pinas told AdWeek.

That means “you must earn their trust, as they need to believe in your product as well as your purpose,” according to Erik Huberman, the Founder & CEO of Hawke Media, a full-service, award-winning marketing consultancy headquartered in L.A.  

For media players, that may mean everything from providing more behind the scenes stories on Instagram Stories, as well as having a more defined voice on issues that matter to Gen Z. Those subjects include climate change, social justice and the wider uncertainties faced by this generation; uncertainties impacting Gen Z’s economic prospects and their mental health.  

Having a voice on such matters may challenge traditional journalistic concepts of neutrality and objectivity, but can be clearly seen in outlets such as VICE, Complex, and The Recount. These are publishers I find many of my Gen Z students naturally gravitate towards because of this.  

4. Lean into their content preferences 

Video, mobility, and short-form content all matter to this cohort. DCN’s research established the primacy of video. Gen Z values video over other media platforms by a margin of around 2-to-1.  

More than half of their daily video viewing is on Netflix and YouTube (both 30%) Piper Sandler showed.The research also found ​​87% of teens own an iPhone; with 87% expecting an iPhone will be their next phone too.  

“Gen Z typically have an attention span of just 8 seconds,” the IAB reported, “a few seconds shorter than millennials, who come in at approximately 12 seconds.” From Under The Desk News on TikTok, to Axios’ penchant for bullet points (a format they’ve trademarked as Smart Brevity®) and the emergence of audio “microcasts,” no medium is immune to this short-form trend. Given that it’s not just Gen Z with infinite sources of distraction and entertainment available to them in the palm of their hand, short-form’s prevalence is only likely to grow. 

5. Find fresh ways to make it pay 

“The number of those [Gen Z] investing in cryptocurrency in the US increased by a whopping 200% since Q2 2020,” GWI highlighted last month. This presents intriguing possibilities for outlets seeking new content verticals, as well as new ways to secure reader revenue.  

As I demonstrated in a list of 231 Ways To Make Media Pay, publishers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, Time, and The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) have already been experimenting with cryptocurrency payments. More widely, Gen Z’s propensity to consume media on platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify may mean they’re more in the habit of paying for premium content. 

Examples of tipping on social media, via The Information 

In a similar vein, the tipping culture manifest in parts of the creator economy also offers some fascinating possibilities. Publishers may want to tap into Gen Z’s relationship with influencers and above-average propensity to use platforms like Discord and Twitch where this type of functionality is baked in. 

Lastly, as more and more publishers seek to add e-commerce into their revenue mix, the emergence of social commerce — and Gen Z’s growing habit of not only drawing inspiration from social networks but then purchasing products and services directly through them — is another area publishers must pay heed to. 

Implications for publishers 

For content creators chasing after Gen Z consumers, the data suggests it is important to be active on newer, more visual, video-led social networks like Instagram and TikTok. At the same time, YouTube remains the most popular social media channel used by Gen Z and the rest of us, a traditional platform many publishers do not make the most of. 

And it’s not just social video attracting Gen Z. Spotify’s data shows that Gen Z (and millennials) actively use audio to access diverse viewpoints and to find out about social issues, potentially creating a space to dig deeper and offer more long-form content. 

Embracing these platforms, certain characteristics of the gaming ecosystem, as well as the style and tone of voice Gen Z expects from much of the media they consume, is essential if publishers are to develop long-term relationships with Gen Z. Given their size and purchasing power, Gen Z is a group no publisher can afford to ignore. 

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