Marketing Content to Gen Z? You Better Play by Their Rules

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As Generation Z emerges from their older millennial siblings’ shadows, they expect brands to play by their rules.

Appealing to this digitally savvy and empowered audience requires reevaluating your marketing strategy to better connect your company’s content with them.

Gen Z isn’t willing to play by brands’ marketing games; they expect brands to follow their rules, says @joderama via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

To get inside the post-millennial mind, Streamly (owned by CMI parent company Informa) interviewed several youth marketing experts at Content Marketing World. Here’s what they say about what makes Gen Z consumers tick and click and what brands must do to win their attention, trust, and loyalty.

Support of Gen Z’s goals and identities

Even though the tail end of the generation hasn’t yet reached adulthood, they already have tremendous influence in the marketplace. A 2021 report from Bloomberg (subscription required) put their estimated disposable income at $360 million. But, growing up in an era of financial instability, Gen Z tends to be savers, not spenders.

To get them to pay attention to (let alone spend with) your brand, you must prove your worth. That starts by meeting Gen Z’s need to be understood and for their values to be upheld.

Likely the most diverse U.S. population in history, 48% of Gen Z is non-white, according to 2018 data from Pew Research Center, followed by millennials (39%) and Gen X (30%). Furthermore, according to a Gallup poll, 20.8% of Gen Z identifies as LGBT.

Those characteristics may factor into their attitudes around equality and social justice – and why they often spend with brands that share their views. Almost three-fourths (72%) say they’re likelier to purchase from brands that contribute to social causes, according to a WP Engine report on generational influence.

Yet, Women in Revenue’s Deanna Ransom says that isn’t a simple equation: “With young folks that are marginalized, there is an extreme passion and need to be heard accurately,” she says. “They’re more mission-driven [and willing] to put themselves out there across multiple platforms to say, ‘We will not stand for this.’”

Deanna characterizes this attitude as “radical intolerance” for the systemic barriers that impede Gen Z’s goals. To attract this generation, marketers should communicate their alignment with that intolerance and back up those words with action.

To attract Gen Z, brands need to align their message of intolerance and back up those words with action, says @DeeRansom3 via @joderama @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

“They consciously look for companies who do good in the world, stand for more diversity, and want that inclusion. And they will vote with their dollars to support brands helping shift the narrative,” Deanna says.

A lovely example of an inclusive story comes from the whiskey brand J+B. It delivered a heartwarming holiday video on transgender acceptance to its audience in Spain – with a surprising, multi-generational twist.

The non-spoken spot features an older man as the central character. He borrows, shops for, and tries on cosmetics, clocking the judgmental stares of shopkeepers.

He remains undeterred in his purposeful mission. Ultimately, viewers realize he did it to empower his young grandchild to come out to their family as transgender. (Note: YouTube has an age restriction for the video.)

Though a single video is one small gesture, the effort speaks volumes about the whiskey brand’s vision of acceptance and understanding of Gen Z’s drive to live authentically.


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How to update your content strategy to reflect Gen Z better

Generation Z wields plenty of marketplace power. But to compel them to use it to benefit your brand, you need to tailor your outreach to their engagement preferences and communication style.

Understand and incorporate their perspectives

Before attempting to engage the Gen Z audience with your content, Deanna says to ask, “What do we want to say to them, and what’s important to them?”

Revisit and update your marketing personas to reflect this audience’s interests and preferences accurately. Deanna also recommends bringing in external expertise to expand your content team’s perspectives. “You must be mindful of what you’re putting out and what it looks like to others,” she says.

Communicate empathetically and act intentionally

Gen Z never lived without social media’s existence. Seeing a prevalence of fake news and false claims online trained them to look for conflicts between what brands say and what they do.

“If marketers are signaling a virtuous purpose that doesn’t ring true, young people can pick up on that,” Deanna says. “It shows a lack of empathy. We all know when someone is talking at us versus when someone is talking with us, and those nuances are so important.”

If you don’t want to set off Gen Z’s BS meter, forgo lip-service messages. “They’re not just looking for statements and soundbites. They’re looking for action, and they’re going to keep pushing back until they get it,” Deanna says.

Feed their love of video storytelling

Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z cut their teeth on social media and viral videos. They’re used to connecting to their friends via smartphones, and they’re more likely to view their news than read it.

Those visual preferences also apply to their product research and brand engagement activities. For example, a 2020 study found 70% of Gen Z say product videos and photos are particularly helpful when making purchasing decisions (78% of millennials say the same.)

Semrush content director Lenox Powell advises marketers to focus heavily on visual content for young audiences. But, she says, your videos won’t get much traction if you create them for Facebook and Instagram. Gen Z is all about TikTok.

Your videos won’t get much traction if you create them for #Facebook and #Instagram. Gen Z is all about #TikTok, says @LenoxPowell via @joderama @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Working with this new social platform has been a challenge for even experienced content marketers: “There’s still this big question mark – ‘What the heck do we do on TikTok?’” says Lenox.

To find the answers, Semrush analyzed hundreds of TikTok videos for the most popular hooks. Lenox reveals some of the resulting tips:

  • Keep it snappy. The TikTok audience is conditioned to scroll past videos that don’t immediately grab their attention. Ensure the spoken words hit in the first three seconds and adopt a friendly, informal tone.
  • Bring the party. Use music to foster a fun, engaging vibe within the first three seconds.
  • Invite viewers to the experience. Avoid slick promotional approaches. Instead, create one-on-one conversations where the audience is a welcomed guest. Gen Z isn’t interested in being pitched. They want to go behind the scenes, learn who you are as a company, and feel like they’re part of the creator’s community.
  • Aim for raw and real over polished perfection. “This generation is far more willing to embrace imperfect selfies, and they want to see the raw elements of your brand,” Lenox says. “They want photo captions far more than posed pictures or filters.”

Snappy is the hook for #TikTok videos. @Semrush analysis found using words, music, or both in the first three seconds works, says @LenoxPowell via @joderama @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Lenox says marketers may struggle most with the last tip. “Brands want to put their best foot forward. They don’t always want to show a ‘warts-and-all’ view,” she says. Still, marketers must push themselves out of that comfort zone to appeal to Gen Z’s demand for authenticity.

Consider visual formats other than video

Marketers also can incorporate other visual content formats into their mix, including motion graphics. “Visuals is an umbrella term. Create visuals, images, and graphics that simplify the complex. The more we can tell and show the story in an impactful way, the more effective it’ll be overall,” Lenox says.

A great example of non-video visual content comes from the apparel brand Mossy Oak. The company regularly publishes nature-centric imagery in blog posts, Gamekeepers Magazine, and associated video podcasts.

Though NFTs are de rigueur for Gen Z audiences, Mossy Oak hit differently by producing a limited-edition tangible stamp collectible depicting wild turkeys in their natural habitat to support turkey conservation.

Image source

This visual content effort also aligns with Gen Z’s interest in engaging with brands that give back: According to Fast Company, the $15 stamp raised $25,000 in its first 24 hours for Mossy Oak’s Gamekeepers’ Grant program to support wild turkey habitats and population research.

Redefine influencer marketing

Millennials may have launched the career category of online influencers. Still, Generation Z doesn’t always vibe with its legacy of pay-for-play product endorsements from celebrities and internet-famous pitch people.

Research shows that 37% of consumers trust influencers over brands, with Gen Z and Millennials being twice as likely to do this compared with their Boomer counterparts. Further, 32% of Gen Z rely on social media influencers to help them discover brands and products.

Yet, Gen Z is even more likely to identify with (and be influenced by) people they can personally relate to. That includes fellow content creators and everyday consumers who speak about brands from an organic, authentic perspective and actively build communities around their interests.

“The days of sponsored content as the execution of influencer marketing are dead, says Jason Falls, executive vice president of marketing at CIPIO.ai. “More sophisticated influencers and content creators realized that real brand value comes from longer term relationships.”

The days of sponsored #content as the execution of #InfluencerMarketing are dead, says @JasonFalls via @joderama @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

To build those relationships, marketers need to reframe their vision of influencer marketing. “We need to put content through [influencers] who can persuade the audience to take action,” Jason explains in his presentation at Content Marketing World.

To do that, Jason recommends working with savvy, forward-thinking creators who keep the audience’s best interests top of mind and recognize the need to consider the brand’s goals.

He points to three red flags for creators considering your potential engagements:

  • Prioritize the financial over the value exchange: If the first thing an influencer asks is, “What’s your budget,” look elsewhere. It shows they’re not mature or experienced enough to understand the process and how to deliver value for your business.
  • Show disinterest in your offerings: Candidates should ask for access to your services or samples of your products. If they don’t, it could be a sign they’re more concerned with growing their own audience than creating an authentic and believable endorsement.
  • Fail to ask about your goals: To create content that meets your brand’s expectations, they need to be fully informed on what you want to achieve through the partnership.

To get the best response from the Gen Z audience, Jason says, influencers should be willing to custom-build the content and adeptly present their messages in informative, engaging, and entertaining ways.

For example, Nissan USA frequently casts celebrities and other youth-friendly spokespeople for its pre-scripted ads on TikTok. But for this custom-created video, the brand partnered with comedy and culture influencer DreaKnowsBest who showcased her personality when demonstrating how she packs multiple suitcases for a weekend trip in her Nissan Rogue. The effort received over 24,000 “likes” on the platform and Drea engaged with many of the comments posted.

@dreaknowsbest Who’s guilty of this? 🙋🏾‍♀️😅 Cause y’all know how IMPORTANT options are on a trip! And it fits my Rogue trunk with room to spare so…. 🤷🏾‍♀️ #NissanPartner @Nissan USA ♬ original sound – Drea Knowsbest

Be real, do better, and get to work

Generation Z isn’t afraid to show who they are or advocate for the changes they want to see. But to get their attention, you’ll have to earn it on their terms. Follow these rules of engagement to deliver the authentic, resonant, and valuable brand experiences they’re looking for.

To hear more insights from Deanna, Lenox, and Jason on creating an authentic connection with Gen Z consumers, check out this highlights reel from CMI’s colleagues at Streamly:

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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