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What you need to know about Generation Z

Angela Cross-Bystrom
What you need to know about Generation Z Angela Cross-Bystrom

Who is Generation Z?
To them, CDs are vintage ephemera. Friendships are quantifiable by Facebook, and Foursquare isn't a schoolyard game. Welcome, Generation Z. Different sources define Generation Z according to varying dates, but for the purposes of this article we will define them as born approximately between 1994-2004. The oldest among them are taking to the roads with glossy new driver's permits, and the youngest are just now entering first grade. Their children's books are read from Kindles and iPads, their nursery rhymes downloadable at $.99 a pop on iTunes. They're a bevy of group-oriented individuals. A tough crowd of skeptical idealists. They're smarter than us, and they're demanding we take them seriously as future consumers.

To say Generation Z is well-integrated with technology is to say marketing flirts with consumer needs. Generation Z is technology. They have been growing up on websites designed specifically for their consumption since before they could even speak. Generation Z-ers are also bred early to be social-media savvy by parents who witnessed social networking shift from embryonic and faulty, to stalwart and unavoidable. These parents are often co-curators in their children's online personas, monitoring their entry into the world of social networking sites. In short, from the very beginning, Generation Z-ers have grown up in a world that is all about connecting through technology. 

Branding 101 is happening before they hit middle school
When looking at Generation Z, brands and marketers need to recognize that the prospective consumer has become an expert brander themselves. Generation Z understands the implications of tagging photos and detagging others, and that endorsing products with a simple "Like" button can bring either scrutiny or praise. Generation Z is a generation of self-branders. They're not easily impressed with old marketing tactics because they themselves are realizing that there is a new way that is more effective: viral, a self-defining endorsement. In this new world, simplicity and transparency will reign.

What does this mean?
This isn't necessarily bad news, and it certainly looks like we have some things on our side when it comes to communicating with them. Generation Z is not as skeptical of advertising as previous generations, but they are smarter and savvier. They are multi-taskers, and they are evolving to cope with the ever-increasing volume of media byproducts by becoming astutely skeptical and relentlessly discriminating. We do not need to defend ourselves or mask our intentions; we simply need to smartly compete for their fleeting attention.

Social media as a platform to mobilize efforts
Generation Z saw the first president within their lifetime become elected through the mass efforts of the social networking technorati. They understand that 140 characters is not just a word count, it's a call to arms. And perhaps this is one of the most defining features of Generation Z: the pragmatism of their socialization. While there are certainly legitimate concerns around kids spending too much time interacting online vs. in the real world, one can also ask if this is necessarily a bad thing.

Thanks to Facebook, Skype, Facetime, etc., they are communicating in a "real" way with family members and friends across the country, or even around the world, without being in the same physical space. In fact, you could argue that the many ways that they are communicating -- with IM, constant updates, thousands of texts a month, etc. -- all add up to a continuous stream of real-time dialogue that also often includes actual visual interaction throughout. Compare this to when I was a child and occasionally chatted on the phone or saw my grandparents and summer camp friends during a rare visit. These relationships were much different than the long-distance relationships that exist for kids today, thanks to technology. Generation Z has begun to redefine "face-to-face" interaction, and they know how to maximize it, too.

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What does it mean?
Generation Z-ers will mobilize around causes that they care about, and they look to be even more socially and environmentally aware and concerned than Generation Y. It is also very likely that because they are so naturally tech savvy, they will do things bigger, better, and at a younger age than previous generations. As marketers, we should obviously be looking to engage with Generation Z in ways that are not only authentic and intrinsically motivated (meaningful), but that are also highly actionable as in digitally downloadable and socially uploadable. Our challenge will be to embrace these contributions as long-term investments toward building lasting relationships.

Generation Z is smarter, younger
Weened on technology and social media, Generation Z-ers at 20 will also more closely resemble present understandings of the 30-year-old consumer. Because of simulated social media games such as Farmville, Generation Z is practically born business savvy. Their mantra might likely become: "Take fewer risks, but take the right risks." They're calculated and practical, and the most effective marketing aimed at Generation Z will have to be as well.

What does this mean?
It will be our charge to keep up with them or suffer the wrath of instantaneous rejection. Their greatest strength threatens to become one of marketing's greatest risks: underestimating the maturity of the Generation Z consumer. They are not like the youth of the past, not at 6 years old, and certainly not at 16 years old. Brand communications need to be mindful of this to a fault.

Instantaneous influence
This generation, like those before them, looks to their friends as the authority on products and brands. While this may not seem to be much of a ground-breaking observation, it becomes interesting when one considers how fast this happens now. Because of the speed with which Generation Z consumes media, it is very likely that the key "moment of discrimination" inevitably will be highly influenced by an almost immediate social response. Simply put, as soon as a brand communication is made live, it will immediately come with a publicized reaction. The reaction time is faster, and though the peer pressure of consumption might not be inherently changing, the rate at which social attitudes are broadcast most certainly is and along with it, its power to influence.

What does this mean?
The task then becomes how to best compel Generation Z to market for us. Consider the "Like" button present on many social networking sites. "Like"-ing a product might provoke friends to do similarly, and spontaneous brand loyalty will be spawned from the consumers themselves. As brands and marketers, we must view Generation Z as marketing allies, be open to their involvement, and work to provide them with increasingly interesting and unique ways to customize, share, and evangelize for us.

The next shift in social media will be one that adopts a macrocosmic approach that infiltrates the consumer's total experience. What is emerging is a vision for a new total digital experience, one that is more naturally inline with Generation Z consumers. Our industry has long been moving (or at least talking about it) in the direction of thinking less about TV vs. print vs. online, and more about how best to communicate in a digital world. Thankfully, this all-too-necessary evolution is speeding up. What we need to realize is that the up-and-coming Generation Z consumers are already expecting and searching for it to happen even faster. They are creating it where brands give them the tools and the opportunity, and they will continue to push the boundaries on their own.

Will your brand be part of what Generation Z makes happen next?

Angela Cross-Bystrom is director of strategic planning, DOJO.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: John Huff

2012, August 17

As an adjunct faculty at a community college I teach the introductory art class and website design. Community college has a wide range of age groups (18-60+) The younger students don't come into class with the same sense of creativity that the older ones have. They want to rely on the computer to give them the answers, not their own intuition.
It could be said that intuition happens when one searches and finds the right solution through technology. However, it isn't original. It's not something that comes from the students own brain. And that is what "bothers" me about the future of children raised on technology.

Commenter: Angela Cross

2010, August 23

Thank you to all that made comments and sent emails. I appreciate the feedback!

It is an interesting subject to many of us and one that will continue to move to the forefront. The reality is that kids are brand savvy younger and younger. By choosing which website to visit or which toy or gadget makes the cut and is on their birthday wish list they are already influencing brands. And we should be prepared that because Gen Z is so comfortable with technology they will naturally continue to have more of an impact.

Brands and marketers have been targeting kids via TV for years - why won't they target them in these spaces as well? Rather than deny this I challenge that we try to have a more responsible relationship with them - both for the sake of future generations and (let's be honest) also for the health of the brands we represent.

Commenter: Nancy Meeder

2010, August 20

I have a Generation "Z" and a Generation "Y" child and I think you make too many assumptions yet. My 12 year old is no more ready to influence marketing then she is to decide whether to play with Webkinz or Club Penquin. My Generation Y is not as into the internet games as my Generation Z but I also must comment that although they may be savvy with the internet, in many ways they are both younger than generations before. They want to be kids and are not ready to make influential decisions yet. In fact, there have been many articles as to "why" Generation Y is afraid to grow up, and honestly, I see the same with Generation Z. With all the media around them, the big thing they need to learn is focus. They do multi-task well but many times projects suffer because they are not focused. Great thoughts on the article but too many assumptions--its too soon to tell.

Commenter: Clark Cogbill

2010, August 20

I think you are jumping the gun in identifying "Generation Z" as a marketing target. Arguably, the last of the Gen Xers were born in the early 1980s. Although there are not firm definitions, some consider the younger end of Gen Y to include those born in the early 2000s. In that case, "Gen Z" would be children who are 10 and under. I'm not ready to start marketing to this group just yet. Let's leave them alone for a few years and just let them be kids.

Commenter: Guillermo Corea

2010, August 20

First time I hear the term generation Z.