MBPT Spotlight: It’s Been All About Millennials, But Marketers Are Starting to Show Interest in Gen Zs

Tired of millennials? This 18-34-year-old generation, first to come of age in the 21st millennium, has rattled markets with their legendary tech-obsession, shift from traditional brands and media sources, sense of entitlement and sheer size – roughly a quarter of the population.

Googling millennials (or Gen/Generation Y) yields almost 200 million hits, proving that a group that famously got trophies for showing up still gets more than its fair share of attention.

At Open Mind Strategy, we've researched millennials for companies like Scripps, iHeart Media, Viacom, NBCUniversal and others, surveying thousands and speaking in person with hundreds, digging deep into their heads, hearts, homes, habits and hashtags. But, lately, we're getting more requests for insights into a different group.

Welcome to the conversation, Gen Z.

I admit, Generation Z is a terrible name – leaving us out of letters for all future humans. Other options, including "Plurals" (it's the most diverse generation yet – but the next may be more so), "Generation Net" (digital natives — but the same issue applies), and "The Homeland Generation" (the first generation after the world-changing events of 9/11), aren't much more satisfying. So let's stick with GenZ until something else sticks.

As for defining by age, to avoid millennial overlap, we’re focused on the 0-17 set, and particularly the 12-17 year olds who now forming independent media habits.

So, what do you need to know about them – and how are they different than millennials?

The key force shaping their choices is obvious: theirs was a digital nativity. The Internet has a huge impact on Gen Z and millennial media habits, and it’s not going away. If you’re providing content, you want to be where audiences look first for it (if only to direct them elsewhere), and among youth, that’s online.

Gone are the days when typical young folks came home after school or work, collapsed into a chair and flicked on the TV to “see what’s on.”  After all, they’ve got a screen in hand as they walk in the door.  When they turn to TV now, it’s increasingly to game, and if seeking specific TV content, they’re apt to try first to find it, or find out about it, online.

For video content exploration, young people, especially Gen Z, look to YouTube more than to television. This is also true of video content to teach and inspire (food, makeup, etc.) and comedy (especially among males). No wonder a recent poll found that the five most influential celebrities among 13-18 year olds in 2014 were all YouTube stars.

This doesn’t mean TV is dead to young viewers. Millennials, especially, express tremendous passion about “their” shows, eclipsing both Gen Z and older Gen X in this regard. Millennials have made binge-watching the norm, with 70% regularly bingeing vs. 48% of Gen X, and they give TV the edge among media options for being relaxing, good to watch with others, escapist and immersive.

That last “benefit” is particularly important to millennials, who love total immersion in content they care about, whether through engaging with multiple screens simultaneously (TV and social media, for instance), watching The Talking Dead after The Walking Dead or devoting weekends to binge watching.

TV immersion can provide relief when they grow weary of digital life – which they do. As tech-oriented as they are, they’re almost twice as likely as older Gen X to agree that “lately, I’m trying to take more time to disconnect and focus on one thing rather than multitasking.”

Gen Z doesn’t seem to have the same yen – at least not yet. While they demonstrate “old school yearnings” for authentic experiences, thus helping fuel the Maker Movement and the vitality of activities such as cooking and crafts, they’re more socially dependent on their devices than millennials.

Online judgment from peers is their leading cause of anxiety (and anxiety is their “generational disorder”), but to disconnect is risky. So Gen Zs are more extreme in their devotion to tech than millennials, and considerably more mobile. They’re likely to watch and share video content on mobile devices, but TV is less “social” for them – only 8% watch it with friends (per Mintel). By contrast, 48% watch TV with family, indicating that the place to connect to with Gen Z at this stage in their lives may be in the family room.

How to connect with these younger generations?  Give millennials immersion-worthy content they can sink their teeth into, and keep it coming on multiple platforms. Build bridges to Gen Z while they still live under their parents’ roof. And prepare for an increasing number of “cord-nevers” entering the marketplace.

Hafitz is cofounder of Open Mind Strategy, a research and brand strategy consultancy specializing in qualitative and quantitative research for a wide range of consumer brands and entertainment content companies. The OMS client list includes A&E Networks, AMC, Amazon, iHeartMedia, Conde Naste, Gannett, MTV, NBCU, Scripps Networks, Unilever and Yahoo.