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Digiday Guide: Everything you need to know about Gen Z’s media consumption habits

Unfortunately for the media industry, the millennial audience strategy honed over the better part of a decade will not work on Gen Z. And many publishers and marketers already know this.

Despite being a significant portion and growing force on the internet for over a decade now Gen Z remains an enigma for many media companies and brands. The influence of this generation is strong but can also be misunderstood. Just earlier this year, Gen Z was able to orchestrate a significant coup d’état on the stock market, increasing Gamestop stock value by 8,000% over the course of a week by organizing on TikTok.

Whether or not Gen Z is currently a target demographic in your business strategy, creating a positive connection with this generation and beginning to build brand affinity now is important to ensure the longevity of your brand or publication in a decade or two down the road.

Here is a guide for a comprehensive look at Gen Zers’ media consumption habits based on interviews with new and legacy publishers, marketers, strategists and a Gen Z TikTok creator. Links to additional Digiday coverage on this generation will be interspersed throughout the guide, in addition to research and data about this audience.

01
Gen Z: The ‘hyper aware’ and ‘way more critical’ generation

Gen Z, defined as those between the ages of 9-24, have wildly varying interests. It’s left established media brands trying to find content and growth strategies that work for both older and younger audiences, whose media consumption habits are vastly different, from the mediums they use, the platforms they engage with and the types of content they prefer.

Consumer brands that have relied on more traditional ad spots (like print campaigns and Super Bowl commercials), as well as old school digital campaigns (like banner ads and pre-roll video), need to also figure out the best way to reach Gen Zers, who have been raised alongside ads and have a keen sense of what’s authentic.

In part, this is because this generation is outspoken online in what they believe, pressuring both brands and publishers to not just be on the right platforms, but to also be a part of the rapidly changing and trending internet culture. For legacy companies, this is not always an easy strategy to implement, particularly for those businesses still in the early stages of building their social media presences on emerging platforms like TikTok.

“The thing about Gen Z being digitally native is that, yes, they are hyper-aware, but they are also way more critical. They expect the most out of their content,” said Christian Kenoly, a junior cultural strategist at sparks & honey, Omnicom’s tech-led cultural consultancy. A brand with an entire TikTok strategy of doing dance trends will be called out and mocked by this audience, Kenoly added. “There are entire meme cultures behind not just brand fails, but how certain industries and certain institutions are completely disconnected,” they said. 

Digital publishers built for Gen Z audiences and brands targeted to younger consumers have put social media at the center of their content and distribution strategies. Publishers such as Group Nine, Yahoo’s In the Know and Overtime have all prioritized building a brand on social media either before or while simultaneously creating owned and operated platforms. Meanwhile, established newspapers, including The Washington Post, have wisely embraced emerging platforms to fill the funnel with future subscribers.

Marketers, on the other hand, see Gen Z championing authenticity and transparency above all when it comes to ads and influencer marketing. The glossy fashion spreads and airbrushed commercials don’t fit with the ethos that this generation holds dearly.

While Gen Z does not exclusively live online and does venture to other mediums, not being a part of the cultural conversation and voicing support for activism and ethical business, publishers, marketers and brands run the risk of losing out on building brand affinity with this demographic, or worse — being canceled.

“There are entire meme cultures behind not just brand fails, but how certain industries and certain institutions are completely disconnected.”

Christian Kenoly, jr. cultural strategist at sparks & honey
02
Who is Gen Z?

Age: 9 – 24, born between 1997 to 2012, according to Pew Research. 


Zillennials: The year delineating between millennial and Gen Z is pretty contended, so a third category called “zillennials” was created to describe the 20-somethings who were born between 1994 and 1996, but don’t quite identify with their older millennial counterparts from the early 1990s or the younger counterparts born later in the decade.

  • 41%: percentage of U.S. adults aged 18-29 (young millennials and Gen Zers born in 2002 and later) who said they primarily get their political news from social media, according to a survey of more than 12,000 individuals conducted by Pew Research on a rolling basis between November 2019 and December 2020. 
  • 30%: percentage of U.S. adults aged 18-29 who get their political/election news from a news website or app, according to the Pew Research study.
  • 57%: percentage of Gen Zers who report their first interaction with news in the morning is on social media platforms, including messaging apps, according to the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2019 study covering Gen Z’s news consumption.
  • 2X: Gen Zers are twice as dependent on their smartphone as people over 45, but the majority of their time is spent only on a small number of apps, Reuters Institute found.
  • Top 5: Of the few apps Gen Zers frequent, Instagram is the top used with WhatsApp, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok. No news apps were in the top 25 collectively across respondents, according to Reuters Institute’s study.
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What publishers need to know about Gen Z

Publishers pursuing Gen Z either as their primary audience or in conjunction with an older readership are realizing that video is critical to initially introduce their brands to the generation.

“The unique thing about Gen Z is that while millennials have grown up with social media, Gen Z has grown up with video-first social media,” said said Nick Cicero, vp of strategy at streaming and social intelligence company Conviva. However, Gen Z’s perception of a media publication and the way they form connections to their properties has “shifted from the logo of the brand to the people that make up the brand itself,” he said.

About one-quarter of The Washington Post’s digital audience is between the ages of 19-35, which is a segment that the D.C.-based national news publisher is looking to build up, said managing editor Kat Downs Mulder. 

The Post gained some steam with this audience early in the pandemic by taking a personality-led approach on TikTok. Video producer Dave Jorgenson, who had been creating content for the platform in 2019, was able to turn his “uncool guy” persona into a relatable pseudo-influencer for news and political content while posting from his home during the pandemic. The minute-long videos are created specifically for TikTok and focus on being both informational and comedic. The TikTok page is now nearing 1 million followers and 40 million likes across all of its videos. 

While the Post has done some promotion for its subscription product on the platform, with Jorgenson plugging discounted trial offers in videos, Mulder said that the goal is not to necessarily convert all Gen Zers that come across the Post’s social content. 

“With our focus on reader revenue at the bottom of the funnel, loyalty is incredibly important to us. But in order to get to a place of loyalty, it starts with a relationship at the top of the funnel,” said Mulder. “A lot of what we’re doing is exposing people to The Washington Post [and] getting them to start to develop that affinity to trust in our brand.” She did not share the number of subscriptions that have come in through TikTok.

Group Nine has five brands that it’s built and acquired over a decade-long period — including Thrillist, The Dodo, NowThis, Seeker and PopSugar — and a central strategy for growth is prioritizing social media. So while Gen Z is not the only audience the digital publisher caters to, its strategy of recognizing that each platform has its own purpose in the minds’ of young internet users has helped it hone its Gen Z audience, according to the company’s evp of growth Noah Keil.

TikTok and Snapchat are two platforms that Group Nine is bullish on to reach Gen Z and has worked with both platforms to create original content and programming that fits in the “bite sized” video format for quick consumption — something the publisher has found appeals to this generation, Keil said. 

More than 400 million people watched shows on Snapchat in 2020, including over 90% of the Gen Z population in the U.S., Variety reported. This led to an increase of original content deals signed with celebrities, content creators and publishers.

“To some extent our success drafts off of Snapchat’s growth or Google’s success. But at the same time, we’ve been able to create our own opportunity on TikTok.”

Rich Calacci, CRO of Overtime

While it is “too simplistic to say, ‘Let’s do it all in video and that will attract young people,’” video is an incredibly important entertainment medium for Gen Zers, said Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. For breaking news and important information, however, text is preferred for speed and control, therefore platforms like Twitter come into play for quick, curated information on a subject, he added.

In The Know, which was created to produce evergreen video content for younger audiences that was distributed across Yahoo’s suite of sites and channels, has grown a large Gen Z following of its own since it launched in 2017. It ended up launching its own standalone site, InTheKnow.com, in February 2020, which led to 25 million monthly unique visitors in March, per Comscore. Of that, more than three-fourths of its audience comes from mobile platforms, which saw a 900% growth rate year over year, according to Andrea Wasserman, head of global commerce at Verizon Media. She did not give exact figures.

Part of the reason why In The Know was created was to test what successful commerce content looked like for a Gen Z, according to Wasserman. In 2019, the brand began integrating affiliate shopping links and pushing this forward, In The Know started producing shoppable video that includes demonstrations, try-ons and product reviews from the editorial staff that viewers can buy while watching. In the past year, gross merchandise value has increased by 125%, she said. 

As for social media growth, Wasserman said that platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and even Facebook pull in a large viewership as social video is a key component of the brand’s content distribution strategy. One video on Snapchat is able to drive over 1 million unique views from users ages 13 to 24, she said. 

When it comes to audience growth, Overtime’s “bread and butter” from its launch in 2016 is its distributed content strategy across social media platforms, according to the company’s CRO Rich Calacci. “Quite frankly, we don’t see that changing. That’s going to be a very critical part of our growth and development, especially as it relates to Gen Z and millennials,” he said. 

The digital video sports publisher has 16.6 million followers on its main TikTok account and over 1 billion likes across the 2,000-plus videos it’s posted since joining the platform in March of 2019. On Instagram, it has 5 million followers. On Snapchat, its show Overtime Now, which has 12 seasons, has nearly 3 million subscribers. 

“To some extent, our success drafts off Snapchat’s growth or Google’s success. But at the same time, we’ve been able to create our own opportunity on TikTok,” where Calacci said they’ve been able to organically grow one of the largest followings for sports brands on the platform.

Still, to diversify revenue with advertisers, last year Overtime created its first content-focused O&O property, its app, that Calacci said is focused on the diehard fans. He did not disclose the number of users on the app.

Gen Z’s “consumption behavior is driving them towards these platforms and it’s creating digital daily habits, and those digital daily habits are where we want to be,” said Calacci. An app is a prime location for those intense fans who already follow Overtime on a number of social platforms to connect with the brand in an even more direct way, with the hope that the app will become a regular destination on the viewer’s phone. 

Calacci said he does not think the app would have been as successful if it launched three or four years ago. Those relationships that lead to daily habits take longer to form when first introduced on a platform with many profiles and brands present. Four year later, however, the sports publisher has been able to find that audience on social media that it can then translate into a following on its app.

Read more: 

04
What marketers need to know about Gen Z

By now it may not come as a surprise that Gen Z spends a lot of time on social media — particularly TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. So it stands to reason that social campaigns and influencer marketing are two of the most powerful ways to sell this generation on a product, brand or service.

One notable trait about Gen Z’s reception of ads, according to Kenoly, is their inherent blinders for display advertising. They are being “inundated with more advertisements, and more PR than [people] really ever have before. They’re not even registering” ads when they’re scrolling on a webpage, they said.

“[The] Gen Z audience has grown up on these platforms [so] they’re used to being marketed to. They’re used to understanding that there could be product placement, they’re used to buying through Instagram and buying things through watching unboxing videos or live videos. They’re more naturally attuned to this world,” said Group Nine’s Keil. 

The natural progression for advertisers and marketers then is to make ad spots as seamlessly engrained in everyday life as possible, Kenoly added, pointing to influencers as being a predominant way to do just that. And while a few years ago marketing budgets were being sunk into programmatic, they said it is likely influencer marketing will become the new programmatic advertising.

The key to influencer marketing, however, is authenticity because just as quickly as a Gen Zer can identify an ad on a website, they will be able to spot product placements in an Instagram story or see that a sponsored post on YouTube or TikTok is scripted. Influencers and content creators themselves have been able to build massive followings based on their personalities, likes, and passions, so a brand deal that does not fit into their typical content will seem disingenuous.

Kenoly said that the best way to avoid inauthenticity when working with influencers to create ads is to give them the wheel to talk about the product or brand as they see fit. “Brands have to start approaching influencers as brands, not as mouthpieces. They are themselves a brand. And this is a partnership,” they said.

“Brands have to start approaching influencers as brands, not as mouthpieces.”

Christian Kenoly, jr. cultural strategist at sparks & honey

Know your role on social media

Gen Z uses each social media platform for different reasons and so should marketers:

  • TikTok is an impermanent platform with fleeting content. While posts remain on creators’ pages, the For You Page is refilled with new content on a regular basis and therefore people rarely build highly curated portfolios of content on the app, said Cicero.
  • Snapchat is also an impermanent communications app that Gen Z spends a lot of time on, not only sending snapchat messages, but viewing written and video content on the Discover page. “Instead of flipping over to YouTube to watch a cool video or jumping to TikTok, there’s all this really awesome content that is from premium publishers that are for the Snapchat viewers,” Cicero said.
  • Instagram is still relevant, according to Cicero, but the content posted there is very intentional and tends to be polished. Therefore, it is not a fleeting platform.
  • Twitter has its finger on the pulse of the world, Cicero said. It is where Gen Z goes for breaking news and learn more about major cultural moments. This platform stands out from the others as it is not a visual platform, so creators without video editing skills can still share their thoughts and build a following on Twitter.
  • Facebook is not generally used by Gen Z. The only area that might gain some traction, according to Cicero, is Facebook Groups.

For brands that are still on the fence about joining the newest platform, TikTok, Kenoly said, “if you’re not already on TikTok, you’re already behind.” At the same time, however, only posting content with trendy dances or popular songs is limiting and can even potentially be seen as “cheugy” (out of date or trying too hard) as well. 

To make an impact on the platform, they said they advise brands to try and make content for the different “sides” of TikTok, which are communities of interests and lifestyles that form within the platform’s audience — like sustainability, fashion, or cooking. 

“It has to be targeted all the way down. A lot of brands wonder, ‘why aren’t we going viral? Why aren’t we getting as many views or likes?’ And I think what we try to really hit home most is it’s not about those vanity metrics,” said Kenoly.

Read more: 

05
Inside the mind of a Gen Zer

Brie D’Elia, 20, is a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and a social media marketing intern at men’s athletic wear company Wolaco. Outside of work and school, D’Elia has spent the past eight months building a personal brand on TikTok, where she has accumulated a following of over 120,000 that has enabled her to start signing brand deals and make a bit of money on the side. 

In this conversation, D’Elia talks about the roles that publications play in her daily life, including the forms in which she prefers to read them, and how the various social media platforms serve different purposes for conveying one’s presence online. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What are your go-to platforms for news?

Probably Twitter. I really don’t go on Twitter a lot, but when I want a specific trending piece of information, I always go there because you can see the hashtags and what’s going viral. I just want that [information] fast, like with the TikToker versus YouTuber boxing match, I went straight to Twitter because I knew I’d get that information right away. There are some celebrity gossip videos that pop up on my For You Page on TikTok that are interesting. I don’t follow any of them, but I’ve seen them lately.

How do you use the other social media platforms?

I’ll do Instagram for more fashion inspiration. So, I’ll follow people for outfit ideas or more specific aesthetic things. Instagram is definitely more curated. I would almost put Instagram and Pinterest hand in hand. Definitely not for real, vulnerable things but the pretty side of social media. I don’t think Instagram is as authentic as TikTok is. I think it used to be like that, but TikTok is definitely taking over that domain. Everyone is so vulnerable on that app. You don’t see that realness on Instagram anymore. And I’m literally never on Facebook unless I have to for work if I’m running ads and things like that for business purposes.

Are there any media sites that you’re particularly a fan of?

I get the Business of Fashion emails in my inbox every day and that kind of gives me a recap of what’s going on in the fashion space, just because I like to be well versed since it’s the industry that I’m currently working in and going into. But I also think that all the other magazines and media platforms are just so saturated with the same thing, that I like Business of Fashion because it’s super straightforward and a lot more professional. If I’m looking for unprofessional things, I’ll go to a social media site before I go to Vogue or Refinery29. 

[I read] The Wall Street Journal every day. And same with Adweek. The Zoe Report, I look at, and Women’s Wear Daily. When I’m on my laptop in the morning, I’m checking my calendar, my Gmail, and then those news sites.

What about ads? What types of advertisements or marketing strategies do you find work best on you? 

I would say that a greater impact for me is seeing influencers use specific products or wear a certain thing, rather than just seeing a dress pop up as a paid ad. I’m less likely to click on that. I’d rather click on somebody that I’m following, who I trust, and she’s talking about it — then I’ll make a purchase. It goes back to the whole more authentic [and] real. It’s a person and she’s saying, “I like this, this is what size I am, you should get it,” and then typically, they have a discount code that’s an even bigger incentive for me to shop. Those are the types of ads that I will make a purchase off of, not really something that’s in my Instagram stories that’s like “swipe-up to shop.”

Which platforms are these influencers the most impactful on?

YouTube for sure. I think that YouTubers, you almost know exactly who they are and I think a longer-form content helps. When I talk about an influencer on YouTube that I follow, I feel like I know them. So I definitely make purchases based on specific YouTubers, because this is authentic to them.

What about your role as an influencer and someone who is building a brand on social media? What have you learned since you’ve started posting on TikTok yourself? 

I remember starting to post in October and taking it, quote-unquote, a little bit more seriously — trying to build a brand off of it. I have over 120,000 [followers]. I used to post every single day in the very beginning, and that’s definitely how I grew fast because I think consistency is totally key. And now I’m on this every other day posting schedule just because I have my internship.

I started on YouTube filming myself when I was super young — just random videos — and I just love having an audience and talking about things, definitely fashion-related or just fun stuff. But, as I’ve gotten older, and realized that I really have somewhat of a following, it’s turned into more of, I want to start my own business and have a brand. I want people to buy my things or subscribe to this and so building a following will help me with that, because I need customers.

Are you part of the TikTok Creator Fund, or are you monetizing your channel in any way?

I opted out of the Creator Fund [after three weeks] because once you’re in the Creator Fund, they put you in this box and you aren’t really pushed by TikTok to get more views and comments. But there’s definitely other outlets I used to make money off of on TikTok. I have a website where I have certain links that if people click, I get a percentage of [the sale]. I work with Amazon, so if someone’s shopping on my Amazon page, I get a percentage of [the transaction]. And I’ll do different brand deals where companies will pay me “x” amount of money to post a video talking about it, or will send me free products.

At this point, I’ve done probably about a dozen [brand deals], but I like to be selective. I do get offers on a daily basis in my inbox but you have to pick and choose. I don’t want to share with my followers something that I don’t love and that doesn’t make sense or isn’t on brand, and it’s just for the money.

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Further reading

Digiday Magazine Issue 17: Youth

In this issue, the subject of youth and how the media, marketing, retail, beauty and fashion industries address this young cohort of readers and consumers is examined by the entire Digiday Media editorial staff.

This Gen Z agency ‘eliminates the learning curve’ to connect brands with its generation

Since launching four years ago, CarsonDoyle has grown to become an agency that toes the line between creative and advertising, snapping up work with clients like direct-to-consumer brand Backcountry Access, active water bottle company Modl Outdoors and even the dating app Tinder.

How a content creation company set out to become ‘the BuzzFeed of TikTok’

Jacob Pace, CEO of Flighthouse, a digital content studio and marketing agency, has tapped into creating content for the digital age — a maneuver that has helped popularize the videos on his company’s TikTok page.

No major plays yet: Why Clubhouse has yet to become part of the brand social playbook

Brands are still using Clubhouse to experiment, but don’t see it as a must-buy channel or something to build a permanent strategy around.

‘The situation is the same as it was last year’: Black creators say TikTok’s problems with race and diversity persist

Months after TikTok apologized to Black creators, its attempts to bring more onto the platform remain a work in progress.

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