Digital Belongs to Generation Z

Insight • By LEILA GUDDOY • 02 September 2016

As more and more of Generation Z (born from 1995 onwards) come of age in 2016, we’ve been looking at what makes the first wave of truly digital natives tick.

Some snap case studies to set the scene:

  • Self-taught programmer Jordan Casey submitted a chart-topping app aged just 12 and now at 15 is the chief exec of his own gaming company.
  • Nick D’Aloisio, born in ‘95, created content summarisation software Summly and sold it in 2013 to Yahoo! for $30m.
  • 19-year-old Malala Yousafazi’s human rights advocacy for girls’ education made her the youngest ever Nobel prize laureate and has sparked an international movement.


Bypassing the hedonism, ladette culture and endless access to credit of its predecessors, Gen Z has never really known a time when you just assumed ‘everything’s going to be ok’. This is a risk-averse generation carrying the weight of a post-9/11, post-recession world on its shoulders and wants to remain firmly in control of its future.

Upwards ageing of social platforms

Gen Z has never known a world that’s not connected; a fact that demonstrably makes it the best user experience barometer. Its interpretation of digital platforms is upwardly informing the way older peers, social platforms and brands have to adapt to remain of value. There’s no loyalty. As one blogger puts it, “We are happy to try out new platforms but we don’t want to waste a second of our time. If we need to figure out how to use it, we won’t use it.”

It’s a Darwinian process that wipes out anyone not acting intelligently on their data, and fast. As over 80% of new household purchases are influenced by Gen Zers who themselves are now entering the workplace, their spending power is massive.

Content that’s social-by-design

Gen Zs live their lives through social channels in increasingly creative ways. As such, they come with an in-built digital BS-ometer and no time for content that’s not genuine or authentic, according to JWT’s 2015 trend report. The desire now to tell one’s story online presents a huge surface area for brands to partner up with young advocates and tell their own stories in a much more personal way.

It goes without saying that you’re more likely to trust a recommendation from a friend than from an ad and this is evident in where ad money is being driven. ‘YouTuber’ is now a viable career option and brands know that channelling marketing spend into social media influencers is the real ROI generator where the role of focus group, sales assistant and model can be carried out by the same 16-year-old. As supermodel Gigi Hadid puts it: “Followers get you jobs and jobs get you followers. That’s how it works.

Gleam Futures, a talent agency for social media stars, works with brands like ASDA to place products into YouTubers’ regular features; on topics from making pizza to pedicures. Given the 41% increase in the use of ad blocking software in the last 12 months and the growing trend of earned media outweighing paid media, the traditional online advertising model may have morphed into something entirely different by 2018.

The rise and rise of Snapchat

Snapchat’s been around since 2011 and is valued at $16 billion. It has over 100 million daily active users and 60% of these are generating regular content. 71% of users are also under 34. Media outlets such as Vice and Mashable are delivering 30-second bulletins through Snapchat Stories in a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fashion and more importantly, Snapchat influencers are now working with brands to incorporate messaging into their Snaps, much like Vine and YouTube. It’s no small matter that Instagram is now well in on the Stories action too, something that will again be disrupting the landscape in the coming few months.

An interesting challenge our clients face is embracing the snippet: traditionally, there’s been pressure to cram a quota of messages into comms dictated from the top of the food chain. Today’s challenge dictates that if a person can tell a story in six seconds then a brand should be able to too.

So who’s getting it right?

17-year-old Connor Blakely, entrepreneur and youth marketing strategist, cites T-Mobile as a visibly forward-thinking brand. Two emerging trends he saw were that 1) nobody stores music on their phones anymore and 2) they’ll often run out of data halfway through the month. T-Mobile saw this and immediately released a package that includes free music streaming without data and the appreciation for this was huge. To elaborate, he says it’s the ‘give-it-a-go’ attitude that works wonders when engaging with this audience. “While a brand may not hit the nail on the head straightaway, the fact that it wants to listen to you and build a relationship is a value addition in its own right.”

Nationwide Building Society’s YouTube channel Money Stuff was created to start a conversation with its Gen Z audience. Young customers and influencers describing their experiences of managing money in a language their peers can relate to makes them feel authoritative and the brand feel approachable. It talks of a FUBU effect – For Us By Us – where people feel like they’re part of a movement in partnership with the brand. As Ashley Paige, a young writer for Popsugar, puts it: “[Generation Z] understand the importance of building their brands as adolescents as they prepare themselves for the workforce”. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement when brands provide a platform for people to craft their present and future identities.

What about second-screen?

This April, Twitter won exclusive rights to stream NFL games on its platform. What does this mean for the second-screen advertising model? Whereas adaptive ad formats to fit dual resolutions was recently the norm, we’re now faced with the challenge of holding someone’s attention on one device before they flick to the next, having been enticed away by another compelling piece of content. Ads now have to be device-optimised and we need to get thinking about how to approach the new hierarchy of viewing platforms.

For those of us who work in Digital, Generation Z presents an exciting challenge. We’re now working with an audience that shows us how it’s done and it’s forcing us to re-think traditional practices. Trust the kids; they’re onto a good thing!