Gen Zs are leaving traditional marketers on read

Translation: Gen Z speak for ignoring traditional marketers

October 14, 2020

The real digital natives

You’ve all doubtless heard of Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials, but you may not be as familiar with Gen Z. I wasn’t.

Gen Z is the generation born roughly from 1996 to 2010. The defining feature of this demographic is that they are the first generation to have been born into a digitally connected world.

Mary Ellen Dugan is an expert on Gen Z. As the Chief Marketing Officer for WP Engine, the world’s leading WordPress digital experience platform, she and her team realised they needed to know how different generations use digital and what their expectations are.

‘If you look at Australia, 34 per cent of the population now is Gen Z’, she says. They’re entering the workforce. And they don’t know the world without the Internet. And so their needs are actually very different, even different from millennials.

‘They don’t really make a distinction between online and offline. And so maybe those terms don’t actually really even resonate with a Gen Zer. The digital experience is their human experience. And then this really interesting statistic: 52 per cent of Gen Zers cannot go more than four hours without accessing the Internet! Contrast that with 52 per cent of Boomers who said they could go more than a day or two. So holy smokes, if I’m marketing to Gen Z my content has to move very quickly or change.

‘The oldest Gen Zers are about twenty-five. And we know that business decision-makers can be as young as thirty. So brands have only a few years to get their head around marketing to this generation, because they’re going to be significant buyers, certainly in Australia with 34 per cent of the of the population.

‘And it’s not just B2C’, says Mary Ellen. ‘It’s also B2B now as they get older. For that reason, they’re in your organisation. They’re not only making decisions, it’s how they’re going to interact with your customers and your customers’ customers.’

Mary Ellen points to three major findings from their research:

The first finding is that 66 per cent of Gen Zers use the Internet for entertainment more than information. Other generations go for more for information. What does that mean?

‘I have never as a marketer figured out what my entertainment quotient of the brand is like’, Mary Ellen says. ‘Are we funny or are we serious? Are we provocative? There was always a tone of voice, but entertaining somebody in some way before they got to the information was not actually something that I have ever looked at.

‘And when you say entertainment, we’re all entertained in different ways. Some people like documentaries, some like humor, some like drama. So thinking about this whole change of entertainment first, then information, how do you hook somebody quickly in a B2B or B2C?’

The second major finding is that 44 per cent of Gen Zers are willing to give you personal information about themselves, but in return they expect you to predict their needs. Mary Ellen says they’ll say, ‘I’ll give you everything you want, but boy it better be good. And if you don’t give it to me, I’m leaving you.’ I think even in this pandemic we’ve really seen that people want quicker, faster. They’re like, I don’t have time, I’m online all the time and I want it to be more productive.’

The third major finding is that 75 per cent of Gen Zers said they would buy from someone who was active in social causes that they support. But Mary Ellen considers this both a positive and frightening statistic. ‘So if you hit it right as a marketer, you can really win. Seventy-five per cent said they are more likely to buy from your company or interact with your company if you promote a social cause they’re enamored with. But contrast that with the 34 per cent who said if you promote a social cause that they don’t like, they’re going to leave you.

‘If I went to the CFO and said, “Hey, we’re going to go promote this social cause. And the downside is 34 per cent of our customers might leave us”, I guarantee you my CFO would say, “Don’t do it. Don’t take the risk”. So I think what’s happened with this last statistic is we used to think of corporate social responsibility as just something you should do. It’s great if your brand has a program. But now you better pick the right cause.’

'The oldest Gen Zers are about twenty-five. And we know that decision-makers can be as young as thirty. So brands have only a few years to get their head around marketing to this generation...'

Social washing

We’re seeing a blurring of the lines between for-profit and not-for-profit businesses with the rise of social enterprise and all the different business models for expressing social conscience. And you need to be authentic.

The other day I heard the term ‘social washing’, like brainwashing. It’s when companies appear to be more socially committed than they are, and this can backfire. Your brand needs to be genuinely committed and passionate about the causes that it’s associated with. Tokenistic and overly promotional behaviours won’t necessarily be welcomed.

Mary Ellen points out that most companies have always had values, but that this goes deeper in that it’s how you are actually living it in a way that impacts the community and the world.

She thinks brands are generally ill-prepared to win the hearts and minds of Gen Zers, but that Australia is much more tech savvy globally than others. ‘I think that there are companies and brands who have jumped over and said, “No, we use technology and we understand these technology trends and different digital experience trends in a way that they are just embedded in our business model”. Every company is a technology company now because this next generation doesn’t want to work for a company that’s not very tech savvy.

‘So if you start from that end, it changes your mindset and then you’re more adept at what will this next generation need. So the good news is the oldest of them are only twenty-four. And so you haven’t missed the boat by any means. And I think there’s a real opportunity to understand more of this generation because I think they’re going to drag the rest of us with them.’

Key changes brands need to make

So what are the key changes that brands need to make and how much time do they have?

Mary Ellen thinks everybody’s got time, but that it is imperative to adapt.

One of the keys, as discussed, is authenticity. ‘Gen Zers actually see themselves as brand makers themselves. They are already saying what they do on the Internet is going to affect their job and their dating. They actually know that it’s really their brand. The Millennials grew up with YouTube stars and they were either actors or actresses and they tended to be more famous people. Gen Zers are saying, “I’ll just do it myself. I can be the next star”.

‘And so they know how to do content. They know how to do videos. They know how to build brands because they build them for themselves and they’re very conscious about what they should do and not do. So the first thing is you’ve got to be authentic. Be honest. If you make a blunder, quickly adapt. They are forgiving because they’ve also been on social media their entire life.’

Also, you need to embrace change like never before.

‘With the pandemic the front door has essentially changed for all of us. You’re either going to school online or your work’s online. And so lean into that a little more.

‘Eric Schmidt, from Alphabet Google, said in March when the pandemic hit that there were more advances in 30 days than in the last five plus years on the Internet! So things are moving really rapidly. Get out there and try to make some changes, acknowledge it. And nobody’s missed the boat, in my opinion.’

So ask yourself where your brand stands. Are you authentic? Have you embraced change? Do you appreciate and understand the impact Gen Zers have and will increasingly have on your business?

For more insights into this fascinating and critical demographic, I encourage you to have a look at WP Engine’s white paper: The Future of Digital Experiences: How Gen Z is changing Everything.

This blog post was inspired by our recent episode on Rebranding Branding: The Podcast, featuring special guest, Mary Ellen Dugan. If you would like to hear the interview, listen or subscribe here

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Darren Taylor

MD & Head of Strategy and Research

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