We in the marketing world commonly refer to teens as “digital natives,” the generation that has never known life without the internet. And I’m not talking access like we had in the early dot-com days, which, like running water, required you seek it out and perform some sort of action to turn it on. For Gen Z, it’s more akin to the very air they breathe, available everywhere and essential to their functioning.
At the Mobile Marketing Association’s Location Leadership Forum last month, the organization wanted to give the audience a first-hand account of life through this always-on generation’s eyes. It invited a diverse group of teens, ranging in age from 12 to 17, to share with the attendees how mobile influences their interactions with brands, each other and the world in general. Led by Irene Pedruelo from TMI Strategy, a consulting firm that works with the social change platform DoSomething.org, the conversation left us with valuable insights on how they think and what brands can – or shouldn’t – do to capture the attention and loyalty of Gen Z.
Mobile devices are still for communication
One of the first interesting reveals from the teen panel was that they prioritize the more communicative functions of their mobile devices and apps. When asked what they considered most important, the group unanimously indicated apps supporting messaging and calling were most critical. These were not, however, confined to apps that do one or the other. The teens cited FaceTime, but also Facebook, which should unsound some of the “teens are abandoning the platform” alarm bells for marketers.
Instagram and Snapchat also got props as essential communication channels, which led to a question of what they consider “social media.” The response brought Snapchat into the conversation alongside the aforementioned Instagram, with the panelists noting you can text, call and send photos all from a single app. Where this struck me as a categorical blurring, it seems the key takeaway in dealing with mobile natives requires we think less about classification and more about functionality.
The kids are all right (with brands)
The next big topic covered by the teen panelists involved their relationships with brands on social media. The Gen Z sample seemed to have no issue with ad fatigue or skepticism, saying they frequently follow favorite brands on social media. The specific companies most frequently mentioned were beauty and fashion brands such as TopShop, Brandy Melville, J. Crew and American Eagle. Sponsored posts seemed not to fool or bother the panelists. In fact, they seemed to consider them like any other post — if something is cool, they’ll click on it. Whether it’s paid for doesn’t matter.
Similarly, the mobile natives had only positive things to say about push notifications, especially those based on location. They indicated that, if they’re nearby and the message involves either something they’re interested in or their other friends, then they’re highly receptive to these message-based campaigns.
In both these cases, relevance is the main point. They understand the point of advertising, and as long as you bring something of value, they’re totally fine with it.
The “don’t” list
After all this brand-friendly sentiment, the conversation turned to a query about the opposite: what should marketers not do if they want to appeal to the demographic. First and foremost, the teens were adamant that they do not want to be spoken down to. And really, every participant on the panel showed him or herself to have a worldliness that we who didn’t grow up with the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips probably didn’t have. In fact, one of the things they noted about their digital experience was how it teaches them more about the real world. One even noted how the internet teaches them to handle conflict more than does school, snarkily adding, “You can’t just yell E=mc2!”
Ultimately, the Gen Z panel showed us that quality and relevance are far more effective than quantity could ever be. “Don’t be boring,” we were warned. In the end, the panelists proved that this generation is very media savvy. They recognize marketing and are willing participants in the value exchange. As long as you hold up your end, you can have a long and happy relationship.