Feb 24th, 2017

Marketing to Gen Z: The Defensive Teen in the Social Sphere

Gen Z 4

For the past four years, J. Walter Thompson has closely studied the digital behavior of Centennials, also known as Gen Z - those born since 1997. Through this work, they’ve identified seven key trends illuminating not just how, but, why, consumers are moving towards a more nuanced approach to digital media, as well as three ways brands can innovate to stay relevant in a changing digital landscape.

On February 21, Kiera Wiatrak, JWT Atlanta’s Senior Digital Strategist, talked more about the agency’s Centennial Digital Landscape work and how brands and marketers can apply our key learnings to their digital and social media marketing.

Marketers are scratching their heads wondering what happened to the teens who liked and shared everything “cool.

When it comes to social media, the 2017 teens are on the defensive, and really, who could blame them?

  • Run-ins with trolls and bullies have left teens quivering.
  • Years of warnings from elders have scared the digitally-minded youth into submission.
  • Gen Z is hiding from a well-justified fear of a public footprint that can’t be erased. It’s no wonder sharing on Facebook dropped 21% in just one year.

Social engagements are no longer simple asks. Teens balk at requests to “like” or “share” content, which was once the hallmark of marketer’s engagement efforts. In focus groups, teens told us they hesitate because they expect to be judged by their friends and parents for every social action.

The divide between social persona and reality has grown to the extent that some teens are opting to have two Instagram accounts – the one that represents the life they “should” be living, and a “Finsta,” short for “Fake Instagram.” These “Finsta” accounts, which are typically only shared with close friends, have evolved into an outlet where teens actually feel they can be themselves, and brands are most definitely not welcome here.

Despite their newfound cynicism, Gen Z still relies on social channels more than ever before. For marketers to succeed, we need to re-examine the value they’re obtaining from social and, in turn, reframe our approach to match their expectations.

In our mobile tracking study, we’ve found teens are still consuming large amounts of content digitally for hours every day. According to data from GlobalWebIndex, more than 44% of people aged 16-24 say one of their main reasons for using social media is to find funny or entertaining content, while 49% say it’s a way to fill up spare time.

Marketers are talking to 2017’s defensive teen as if they’re still yesterday’s cool-hunting adolescent. By doing so, not only will they miss the mark in terms of ROI, but they risk shoving the brand under a negative light. When messaging speaks to an audience that no longer exists, people aren’t just annoyed—they’re offended.

For brands with a natural following among teens, or a healthy social media budget, one bright spot remains Snapchat. Adolescents haven’t grown jaded by Snapchat in the way they have with Facebook and other channels. This gives brands the advantage of aligning their messaging on a platform that isn’t stressing Gen Zers out all the time.

Successful marketing to this digital generation may look different than it did just a few years ago, but adolescents are still the angst-ridden, attention-seeking almost-adults we all once were.

Marketers must not only understand the defensive attitudes of today’s teen, but also adapt to and empathize with them. Those that do will have the best shot at winning the trust of a highly skeptical generation.

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