Gen Z is coming! Gen Z is coming!
Recently the growing influence of young digital-natives has sparked a rash of bold predictions from experts about the impending transformation of everything from marketplaces to workplaces.
This excitement and anxiety is understandable given the sheer size of the generation. According to Pew Research data, there are more than 69 million members of Gen Z (defined as people born after 1997) in the United States. This makes Gen Z the second-largest US generation, ahead of Millennials (66 million) and behind only Baby Boomers (76 million).
But, aside from being large in number, does the coming of age of this group warrant all the hype? is Generation Z actually different?
In a word: Yes.
Research has found that Generation Z behaves much differently not only from older generations but also from the Millennials just ahead of them in age.
This is particularly true when it comes to digital: Gen Z’s ways of engaging with online content and experiences differ significantly from other generations, and Gen Z also has significantly different platform and device preferences.
While understanding the nuances of these differences could take years — or longer, given that the generation is aging and technology is rapidly changing — there are two core themes that emerge from recent studies on Gen Z’s digital behavior: form and function.
These are the key ideas at the heart of what distinguishes Gen Z online, and understanding them is essential for any brand looking to connect with these consumers.
So what do they mean? How do different approaches to form and function drive Gen Z’s digital behavior?
Here is a quick overview:
Form: New Ways of Expression & Interaction
The fundamental difference between Gen Z and other generations is that high-speed Internet access and smartphones have been ubiquitous for much of their lives.
The impact of this can be seen in a myriad of ways, especially in how Gen Z engages digitally.
For previous generations, digital experiences needed to be anchored in the non-digital world. This could be seen in areas such as design (such as the use of skeuomorphism to have things mimic real-world objects) and communication methods (such as the reliance text-based email and messaging).
Generation Z does not have these same pre-digital attachments and so gravitates to the content and experiences — the forms — which are most inherently suited for the Internet and mobile.
This can be seen most clearly in the social media preferences of Gen Z. A recent survey of high school and college students found the two most popular networks are Instagram and Snapchat (88 percent of respondents use both).
It is no coincidence that these are the two platforms best suited for smartphones: they both rely on almost exclusively on visuals (photos and video) and seamlessly incorporate mobile capabilities (such as GPS for geofilters).
An important thing to keep in mind is that digital interactions aren’t just seen as important to Gen Z: they’re seen as essential. Some 78 percent of the students surveyed said they use Snapchat daily and 89 percent say they value the social network as a way to connect with friends.
In other words, sending a snap to a friend friend isn’t just silly fun for Gen Z — it’s a foundational form of interacting
For Gen Z, digital is often primary rather than supplementary. This means that brands looking to connect with these individuals — whether to communicate with, to entertain, to inform, or to encourage purchasing from — must prioritize the forms (design elements, content types, etc.) most suited to a constantly-connected smartphone experience.
Function: The Open Source, DIY Generation
While Generation Z’s form preferences are important, what’s also essential for brands to understand is that this generation approaches the function of digital differently.
Specifically, Generation Z has a distinct approach to the foundation of digital content and experiences: they don’t just want to passively consume them, they want to be part of the creation process.
After spending months studying the behavior of Generation Z, consultancy Ziba came to this conclusion on how to think of the group:
“[This is] the Builder Generation. The Builder Gen grew up with YouTube, Soundcloud, Minecraft and open source everything. With a host of powerful, accessible tools and a culture whose heroes are innovators and entrepreneurs … they’re ready to reshape the world now, with joy, curiosity, and a level of technical fluency that previous generations could only dream of.”
Being the Builder Generation means Gen Z tends to favor particular digital approaches. Specifically, they gravitate to sites and tools which embrace openness and collaboration, such as open source platforms such as WordPress for website creation and community-centric sites such as Reddit for content consumption/distribution.
Beyond liking certain DIY tools, Generation Z is also focused on acquiring and improving digital skills such as coding and design. Why? Because they’re essential to what Gen Zers want to accomplish: 72 percent say they want to run their own business one day and 60 percent want to have an impact on the world.
Ultimately, to succeed in connecting with Gen Z digitally, it’s important to keep both form and function in mind. It’s essential to use the right formats — usually mobile, visual-first approaches — to reach and engage. It’s also necessary to think about the right functions — open source, collaborative, DIY foundations — to enable the collaborative building of new experiences.