After more than a decade in search of fresh ways to attract Millennials, news organizations are now facing Generation Z, the new kids on the block who must be engaged to ensure the future of quality journalism. Gen Zers have been stereotyped as overly sensitive “snowflakes” with the attention spans of goldfish, but a frank look at their media habits reveals exciting opportunities to create more inspiring content.
Who are Gen Zers?
As with the preceding cohorts—the Millennials or Gen Y, Gen X, and the Baby Boom—no one can seem to agree on when Gen Z exactly starts and ends. Broadly speaking, Gen Zers were born between the late 1990s and the late 2000s. They make up almost one-third of the world population. In the United States, they already account for a quarter of the population, with 67 million to 86 million people, and they will soon outnumber both the Millennials and the Boomers. However, their most noteworthy trait may not be their generation’s size or their age: They’re digital natives, and they do not remember a time before the widespread use of the Internet.
Gen Zers consume an immense amount of online content, and they use their smartphones more than any device. In a survey last year on American teens, social media, and technology by the Pew Research Center, nine of ten respondents said they went online multiple times a day, with nearly half of respondents saying they’re online “almost constantly.” Yet other studies find Gen Zers are not just consumers of online content: Eighty percent value expressing themselves creatively, and compared to Millennials, more Gen Zers say they want to change the world.
That attitude reflects new realities as much as youthful optimism. Gen Z is the most diverse generation in U.S. history, with a more varied ethnic makeup than its predecessors and a more open attitude toward sexuality and gender. Its members were deeply affected by the 2008 recession, which occurred when most were pre-teens or children. It has made them more savvy and careful about money, with an added desire to succeed. Perhaps this, more than their purported lack of attention span, explains their impatience. Time, like money, is precious.
When I reached out to prominent media outlets, some responded that they hadn’t developed any specific strategies to attract Gen Z. That’s understandable. Gen Zers are still young, and don’t yet have the direct purchasing power of their parents.
But these newsrooms are in danger of getting caught flat-footed. The demographic’s power will only increase in the future. People born in the year 2000 are now young adults, and just about to enter the workforce.
The New York Times saw that engaging Gen Z now made good business sense, so in 2015 it began to use the popular mobile app Snapchat. It attracted notice for its visual explainers on the platform, and in 2017 it launched a Snapchat Discover channel. The move was widely heralded, as the Times had noted about 37 percent of its monthly cross-platform readers—or 46 million people—were in Snapchat’s key demographic between the ages of 18 to 34. In the words of Fernanda Braune Brackenrich, then a producer and editor for the channel, Gen Zers “are the future subscribers of the Times, and we want them to interact with us from a young age.”
The emphasis was on highly visual news briefs and stories, videos and puzzles, though all of the content on the app expired after 24 hours. Last December—months after Snapchat stopped paying licensing fees to some publishers and an unpopular redesign led to a sudden drop in active users—the Times suspended its channel. While the publication has been “actively working” with Snapchat on a relaunch, said Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha, it has “nothing new to announce.” The decision to suspend may highlight that social media efforts have too often proved unremunerative for legacy titles, which are now turning more of their attention to subscriptions. Other news outlets have backed off from Snapchat, but some—like New York Magazine’s entertainment-news vertical Vulture—have decided to step up their Snapchat games. The platform recently entered talks with major record labels to allow users to include more music in their posts.
Gen Zers not only consume more online content than their predecessors—they consume media in different ways. Their habits may change as they grow older, but here are the most important things you need to know to engage them now:
- Print won’t work. Teen magazine readership is declining, even as some publications find success with online political content. Teen Vogue, for example, scored millions of more hits with a greater emphasis on the coverage of politics and current events, though Condé Nast killed its print edition.
- YouTube is popular. Multiple studies named YouTube as Gen Z’s favorite place, by far, with one survey finding 95 percent of respondents regularly use YouTube and half say they “couldn’t live without it.” A different survey had 70 percent of Gen Zers watching YouTube for a whopping two hours a day. The respondents said their attachment was due, in part, to the platform’s diversity and user-created content. Many of the top YouTubers are Gen Z do-it-yourselfers, making entertaining “vlogs” with a camera in their bedrooms. “The stuff on TV is so outdated,” one GenZer explained to Business Insider. “The content on YouTube is so much more diverse and funny and relatable.”
- Websites should be personalized. Another key to YouTube’s success is that it curates videos around user interests. In yet another survey, 50 percent of all Gen Z respondents said they would stop visiting a website if it didn’t anticipate what they liked, needed, or desired. A personalized experience can keep Gen Z coming back.
- Gen Z loves visual content. Instagram—the second most popular platform—allows users to share photos and videos defining their public image, but Gen Zers are also more likely to have a “finsta,” or secondary “fake Instagram” account with more candid content for close friends. They’ve also started commenting on and posting from “flop accounts,” managed by multiple users, to debate and express views on different topics, from politics to pop culture. A lot of Gen Zers are clearly concerned with current affairs, so they value a space to discuss relevant issues.
- Gen Z wants to to easily communicate with one another. Snapchat has been the most used mobile app for keeping in touch with friends, and it heavily incentivizes frequent contact through the awarding of “streaks” for people who send “snaps” to each other on a daily basis. Snapchat’s AR lenses and geofilter stickers are also popular, allowing Gen Zers to easily show where they are and who they’re with. Snapchat Discover offers a platform for publishers that has become a well-liked source of news; however, the feature is available to only a limited number of designated publishers.
- Facebook isn’t cool. Last year the Pew Research Center discovered 51 percent of U.S. teens used Facebook, but their usage of the platform had declined from 71 percent four years before. According to another survey by the financial services firm Piper Jaffray, only 9 percent of Gen Zers called Facebook their preferred social media platform. Facebook can still be useful for group chats and keeping up with the news, but its influence is now far smaller than its sister site Instagram.
- Twitter is for breaking news and sharing opinions. Gen Z’s use of Twitter as a source for news and an outlet for opinions resembles that of previous generations. However, Twitter is not as popular as Facebook—just 32 percent of Gen Zers are on the platform.
Dos and Don’ts
- Do meet Gen Z on the platforms it’s already using. You might make the most engaging content, but you’ll more easily reach this audience if you distribute it on platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.
- Do address topics Gen Z is already interested in. Far from the cliché of the apathetic teen, the typical Gen Zer is concerned with the issues of the day. Consider the student-led March for Our Lives protest and the new gun-control movement sparked by last year’s mass shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Some of the movement’s Gen Z leaders became household names.
- Do create “thumbstoppers.” Gen Zers have an overwhelming amount of content at their fingertips, so make something that gets them to stop clicking and scrolling. Think of a more dramatic inverted pyramid and put the most riveting information at the start, letting Gen Zers immediately know why they should stop doing anything else.
- Don’t be afraid to drop the voice of God. Gen Z values authenticity, so replace the traditional third-person, authoritative narrative with a first-person voice that turns the narrative into a learning experience. (A bit like I’m doing now.)
- Don’t be afraid to make content native to platforms. Look at the content created on platforms by Gen Zers themselves, with very little equipment. Take Instagram Stories, for example. You don’t need a team of graphic designers to make an engaging story; all you need is knowledge of the various features that the platform already offers.
Here are some examples of publications that have done great work for this demographic:
- The New York Times on Snapchat Discover. The Times embraced Snapchat with the goal of engaging future subscribers on their mobile devices. Though it recently suspended its Snapchat Discover channel—and the content created for it has expired—the Times revealed some interesting strategies for reaching Gen Z. A sense of immediacy was important, and a casual informality worked well. For example, on Election Day 2016, the Times explained the Electoral College on Snapchat by using M&Ms. Later, on Thanksgiving, it took users into the home of the Times’ food editor, Sam Sifton, as he prepared a feast. In March 2018, it sent a producer to the March for Our Lives and captured the voices of Gen Zers.
- The Guardian, Fake or Real?, on Instagram Stories. The Guardian does a lot on Instagram. Every Friday, it posts an interactive Instagram story asking users to separate fact from fiction in news coverage through the use of the Instagram poll sticker. As well as promoting news literacy, these relatively simple productions consistently attract high engagement.
- NowThis video content. Across all social platforms, NowThis has mastered mobile video production. They often place the most engaging content at the start of the video, acting as a kind of trailer for the remainder, drawing in viewers from the get-go. Their videos employ graphics and captions so content can be watched without sound.
"Everything in our generation is immediate. Since we have been raised in an age where texts and messages can be sent in the blink of an eye, we are less patient than other generations because we are used to having instant gratification. But our generation is also very determined to show that we are capable of real thoughts and using the technology and communication methods we have been given for making change, despite what older generations expect from us."