Just @ Me Next Time: How to Talk to Gen Z on Social Media

If you’re sick of hearing about Millennials (what they want, how they buy, whether they’re the greatest or laziest or most confusing generation on earth) – you’re in luck. Today’s most progressive brands are already on to the next thing, err, generation. They’re called Gen Z, and not a single one of them can remember a time without the internet. Heck, most of them can’t remember a time without a smartphone.

Made up of youngsters born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z is also known as the iGeneration. They’re native on as many as 5 screens at a time (phone, watch, tablet, laptop and yes, they still watch TVs) and are the largest and most diverse generation to date.

While most Gen Zers don’t have a pile of cash in their own bank accounts quite yet, they’re big influencers of how their parents’ (a combination of GenXers, and older Millennials) money is spent, and account for as much as $143 billion in direct spending. Not too shabby for a cohort with a median age of 15. But, getting a piece of Gen Z’s spending power isn’t as easy as running an ad during Saturday morning cartoons – or creating a page on Facebook.

Gen Z communicates and consumes advertising differently than any other generation, from their own unique language (yeet!) to the platforms they use to communicate and the type of engagement they expect in return. So, what do brands need to know in order to connect with Gen Z on social media?

Let’s start with the basics:

Where to Find Gen Z on Social Media

If you’ve been hearing rumors that “nobody is using Facebook anymore,” they’re false. Facebook still boasts the most total monthly users of any social network in the world (2.41 billion). BUT…if you’re looking to reach Gen Z specifically, there might actually be a bit of truth to the whispers.

Facebook usage has declined over the past year to the tune of about 15 million users, and the vast majority of those lost users are between the ages of 12 and 34 (Gen Z and younger Millennials). While Facebook usage overall remains largely stable (the platform saw a slight decline in users in 2019), the demographic makeup is shifting. Younger people are signing off, while Americans 55+ (the only demographic to show an increase in Facebook usage in 2019) are logging on.

So where are the Gen Zers going? The answer is – not far. The only social media platform that’s growing in popularity among young Americans is Instagram (conveniently owned by Facebook). Snapchat and WhatsApp are also popular, although Gen Z says they use these apps primarily for peer-to-peer conversations (basically, the next generation of texting), versus Instagram (and to some extent YouTube), which is where they go to hear from and communicate with brands.

So, if you’re a brand looking to reach Gen Z, Instagram (and Instagram Stories) is an excellent place to start.

What to Say to Gen Z on Social Media

The most fundamental truth about Gen Z is that they were born into an era of economic instability and social change. This generation does not remember the “good old days.” If Millennials were the generation asking for a seat at the table, Gen Z is the generation ready to flip it. They want nothing to do with “the ways things have always been” and instead seek out brands that are progressive, innovative, and authentic in their advertising and communications.

So, what does that look like on Instagram?

While Millennials favored a curated feed full of rainbow walls and impeccably dressed fashion influencers, Gen Z prefers a more raw, ephemeral aesthetic. They want the truth – and not just the polished-for-Instagram truth – but actual real life. Gen Z influencers capture real (often not-so-aesthetically pleasing) moments and trade curated feeds for pithy jokes and witty social commentary – told primarily through emojis, face filters and GIFs.

But brands should be careful not to overdo it. If you’re trying to sell a product, you’ve still got to make it look nice (or stylish or expensive or delicious). In comparison to Millennials, Gen Z is much more focused on appearing successful. They’re looking for brands and products that will help them convey the right image. A combination of high-end photography in the Instagram feed, with real-time, behind-the-scenes content on stories is often the ticket to Instagram success.

How to Win Over Gen Z on Social Media

Winning over Gen Z on social media is fairly simple, albeit labor intensive. What the cohort wants most from brands isn’t promo codes or insider deals (although, those are popular, too). Instead, Gen Z is looking for engagement. Their primary measure of trust and authenticity is how deftly a brand engages with them online. A lack of engagement is seen as overly corporate or “cagey,” whereas ongoing sharing, banter, and positive reinforcement is seen as authentic and real. [Learn how to develop a social media engagement process here.]

Essentially, Gen Z is looking to talk to the people behind the brand, not just some corporate robot. They don’t want overly edited or canned responses; they want a real person clapping back in the comments or sharing their tagged images.

Not surprisingly, brands with massive social media teams (think Nike, Oreo, JetBlue) tend to resonate well with Gen Z (Oreo is the #1 most trusted brand amongst Gen Z, Nike is #2). They are brands that not only appeal to this tech-forward, progressive audience, but also have the manpower to respond to hundreds of comments a day, share photos, and truly engage with their fans.

While smaller brands often don’t have this luxury, they can make the most of their existing social power by focusing on the following three engagement opportunities:

1. Share User-Generated Content

When a user tags you in their content, it’s a big deal! They’re reaching out and saying, Hey, I bought your product and I love it so much I’m sharing it with my friends – notice me! The Gen Z phrase “@ me next time” is actually derived from tagging someone on Instagram. It means calling someone out specifically (instead of giving a vague directive or feedback).

When someone tags you in their content, they’re reaching out to you directly, so be sure to acknowledge them. This can take the form of something as basic as a like or a heart emoji – or as engaging as re-sharing the tagged content on your own feed. More than discounts or deals or special promo codes, Gen Z wants to be noticed and acknowledged. Fortunately, it only takes a couple clicks to give it to them.

2. Utilize (and monitor) Branded Hashtags

Social listening tools (i.e. software programs that help you “listen” for people talking about your brand or related terms on social media) can be expensive, and searching through hundreds of social hashtags is labor-intensive. That’s where branded hashtags come in. Branded hashtags are Instagram (or Twitter) hashtags that you can own (i.e., almost nobody else is using them). A branded hashtag can be as simple as your brand name (for example, #airbnb) or more focused, like #airbnbadventures.

The benefit of a branded hashtag is that virtually all of the content shared with the tag will be relevant to your brand (unlike general hashtags where hundreds of thousands of users post content to it every day – for example, #love). Branded hashtags are a great way to encourage users to include you in their conversations as well as to be able to quickly and easily find the people who are talking about you online and engage with them. Make sure you let people know which branded hashtags you’re using, and encourage them to use them

3. Listen and Act

The key here is to listen on social media, and then act in the real world. If you’re hearing a lot of negative feedback online, perhaps instead of deleting comments, it’s time to make a change to your product line or customer service. Instead of thinking about social feedback as a liability (what if somebody bashes us?!), think about it as a valuable “ear on the ground” that can provide insights into how you can efficiently grow and evolve your brand and your business.

Keeping up with Gen Z can seem like a daunting task, especially for brands that feel like they’ve just finally figured out Millennials. But catering to this up-and-coming generation doesn’t require a wholesale strategy shift. Subtle changes in language, targeting, imagery, and platforms are often enough to keep Gen Z interested and engaged as they navigate their way into adulthood and begin to form brand allegiances.

About Ethos

Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that develops and executes integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels for companies inside and outside of Maine.

At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its ethos. We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives.

With Ethos, you get more than a marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals.

Learn more about the Ethos approach and the work we’ve done for our clients. Want to have a conversation about your brand’s core truth? Contact us!

Written By

The ETHOS Team