Commentary

For Gen Z Social Media Shopping Is the New UGC

If you were to take an objective look at a cross-section of branded social content from a few years ago, you’d witness the awkward growing pains of brands trying to find their presence on social platforms. From eager, all-caps “LIKE” and “SHARE” posts, to boorish attempts to hijack culture via real-time marketing, it’s a cringe-inducing exercise. Of course, it’s not all marketers’ fault. There was a time when these tactics actually worked.

Less Baggage, More Conversion.

Lucky for us, this was also a time when an increasingly influential cohort of consumers probably wasn’t paying much attention to such ham-handed social efforts. Without having to witness the training-wheel phase of brands on social media, Gen Z (i.e., those born in 1994 or later) carries fewer pre-existing expectations around exactly what role brands should be playing in social. Therefore, there’s no mental reconciliation to be done when a brand that once asked its audience to “Tell us your (insert brand-adjacent adjective) story” now just wants them to click within an Instagram post and go straight to a product page.

Without this baggage, Gen Z is engaging with brands on social media in a way that’s far more encouraging to CMOs and marketers alike than vanity metrics: They’re buying stuff. 

According to a recent study by ORIGIN, Hill Holliday’s independent business and consumer research group, 43% of Gen Z social media users have made a purchase directly through social. In fact, they’re four times more likely to convert on social media than Millennials (you remember them, right? Once the vanguard of digital behavior?). Encouragingly, the study notes that 65% of Gen Z follow brands on social media. And lest you think they’re only purchasing from the brands they organically see in their feeds, 55% of the study’s respondents noted that an ad in their feed drove their purchase.

So Now What?

It’s tempting to say that for the Gen Z audience, social conversion and purchase is replacing UGC as the leading indicator of lean-in, active social content consumption. But before we go all in on conversion-based interruptive ads and cease brand-building on social media, I’d offer the following: 

The Funnel Still Exists: Let’s not mistake these findings for permission to transform social media into a direct-to-consumer firehose. Instead, a more nuanced look at Gen Z’s path to conversion on social would likely reveal an existing sense of brand affinity in many instances (see the aforementioned data point of 65% of Gen Z respondents actively following brands on social). And while the study also revealed that 75% of these respondents follow brands at least in part to find special deals and promotions, it’s not within a vacuum of ongoing, regular touchpoints of upper-funnel and supplemental messaging. Together, this mosaic of entertaining, informational, and conversion-based posts presents a holistic picture of a brand, all of which equips our Gen Z audience with added confidence at the point of conversion. 

Context Rules.  Keep in mind that audiences are seeing conversion-based content within the (much) broader flow of their feeds. Within this environment, content that triggers a sense of recognition or identity (vs. a one-size-fits-all message) is far more likely to resonate. There’s the now-overwrought adage that Millennials value experiences over assets. Well, perhaps Gen Z wants to see their assets within the context of identifiable or aspirational experiences. This notion is supported by the finding that 57% of Gen Z respondents said they had purchased a product because of a social media influencer or celebrity. Put another way, the rules haven’t changed. Know who you’re selling to and what sparks their attention. 

Surprise & Delight 2.0: Just as the pace of social rewarded brands that could turn around relevant content at the speed of culture, a new opportunity exists for brands that are able to create exclusive offers and product drops via their social channels. Indeed, the story of last month’s NBA All-Star Weekend wasn’t so much Team LeBron scraping by Team Steph, but instead the unexpected and massively successful Air Jordan sneaker drop that Nike orchestrated via Snapchat. You don’t have to be a Nike-sized brand to orchestrate a social-first product drop or exclusive offer. In fact, it’s probably easier if you’re a smaller brand with fewer hoops to jump through. All you need is a targeted audience and something relevant to offer. 

Ultimately, we should view the emergence of Gen Z as a powerful and influential consumer base, as a fresh start from which to erase the social marketing sins of the past. Let’s not talk at them in all caps and kid ourselves that they want to share personal stories with us. Instead, let’s continue to provide value to them wherever we can within the already-overwhelming flow of their social lives. 

Forget the golden age of television. There’s never been a better captive audience.

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