Covid-19 Is a ‘Generation-Defining Moment’ for Internet-Obsessed Gen Z

Younger people have different expectations of brands

Gen Z is not just comprised of digital natives, according to a new report. They simply never sign off. - Credit by Unsplash
Headshot of Kathryn Lundstrom

As the first digitally native generation, marketers have known for years that connecting with this cohort of young people would be different than millennials or Gen X. But that still hasn’t stopped many brands from marketing to Gen Z as more online versions of their predecessors—like they’re “millennials 2.0,” said Jason Dorsey, lead researcher at the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK).

That kind of marketing exposes a fundamental misunderstanding about the way that Gen Z, which now represents more than 40% of global consumers, interacts with the world, said Dorsey.

While older generations see the internet first as a source of information and second as an opportunity for connection, Gen Z tends to live larger portions of its social life online. A majority of Gen Z uses the internet primarily for entertainment and community, according to a new report that CGK recently published in collaboration with WP Engine. In a telling statistic, 56% of Gen Z surveyed said they have friends online that they’ve never met in real life, and 58% said they’re uncomfortable going more than four hours without the internet.

Online is also where much of Gen Z engages with larger issues, as indicated by the 72% of survey respondents that said they believe they can be part of a social movement by engaging exclusively online. But they want brands to take a stance on the things they care about, too. The same percentage of respondents said they’re more likely to buy from a brand that contributes to social causes.

In part, it’s the events that defined a generation that can give clues to where their priorities and anxieties lie. While millennials were shaped by 9/11 and the Great Recession, Gen Z wasn’t old enough to be aware of the world in 2001 and wasn’t in the workforce yet in 2008.

Covid-19, however, is a different story. “Right now they’re in a generation-defining moment,” Dorsey said.

Wary of the debt that so many millennials accrued in college, the younger generation was already proving to be thriftier with their money. Now, they’re watching their parents lose their jobs and the economy tank just as the first of their generation are graduating from college. And all of a sudden, everything is online—but Gen Z was already comfortable there.

It’s a generation that’s also more comfortable with sharing information with brands in exchange for a more personalized experience. In fact, they expect it—72% of Gen Z surveyed said they want a website to know what they’re looking for before they get there, and 66% said they expect websites to talk to each other.

This indicates that Gen Z is more likely to continue to give brands the personal information necessary to get the predictive experience they’re looking for, even after privacy regulations change how that works, according to WP Engine CMO Mary Ellen Dugan.

But in exchange for their attention and their data, Gen Z also demands a high level of authenticity and purpose or they’ll find a brand that does it better. One way to ensure authenticity is to go to Gen Z consumers themselves to find brand ambassadors.

According to the survey, 82% of Gen Z will trust a brand more if it uses real customers in their advertising. “It’s not a high profile person,” said Dugan. “You should be looking at your entire Gen Z population as your influencer network.”

They want to be entertained and they want to create, continued Dugan. By giving them those opportunities, brands can achieve the authentic relatability that actually resonates.


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@klundster kathryn.lundstrom@adweek.com Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.
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