The turn of the century marked a historic shift in society. While the 1900s saw war, economic booms and busts, free love, glam rock, and fashion eras everyone wishes they could forget, the new millennium has seen an entirely unique cultural zeitgeist. The reason for this? The internet and social media. 

With this new era, personal branding became something not only considered by public figures, but by the girl next door. Teenagers postured themselves across screens in ways that aligned with how they wished to be perceived by their peers, not unlike companies have always strived to do for their customers. Plus, innermost thoughts were no longer reserved for the private expression of journals, but existed on blogs. All at once, social media brought forth posts that traded vanity in favour of gripping captions that focused on baring beliefs and inspiring social change. 

And who grew up in the midst of this monumental cultural shift? Gen Z! 

The cohort, born between 1995-2009 are a desirable group for marketers. Their access to information expands far past what their parents and teachers have to offer. As the first generation to be raised on the internet, Gen Z provides a unique case for brands to demystify. They have their own spin on things and are seeking to be seen and valued by the companies they interact with.

While parents might not understand or value the same things that their Gen Z children do, the onus is upon marketers to unpack, understand and adapt to their desires in order to get with the program and appeal to the generation that clocks purchasing power of up to $143 billion.

Read ahead to learn everything you need to know about how to market to this generation by understanding their demographic makeup, beliefs, viewpoints, and the best marketing strategies that have proven to resonate. 

This is a must-read for senior marketers wanting to reach them, as they are unlike any generation before. Gen Z have some strong differences compared to Millennials and the same marketing strategies that worked for the latter group won’t always work for the former. Let’s dive in.

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Gen Z characteristics

A key factor in understanding Gen Z comes from the realization that there is no blending this group into one; instead, Gen Z should be considered a mosaic made up of different colours and textures that come together to create a bold picture of individuality.

Through research with Wattpad’s youth panel, Generation Wattpad, made up of hundreds of Gen Zs, we were able to determine the demographic makeup and characteristics of Gen Z. (For a deep dive, check out the Gen Z Census: U.S. report or the Gen Z Census: Canada report). Change is the only consistent thing in our rapidly evolving world, and each new generation brings its own set of expectations of how they want their stories told. 

While it’s refreshing to see the kinds of stories being told begin to expand and shift, Gen Z doesn’t believe that brands are keeping up. 

For instance, when it comes to representation in marketing, 47% of Gen Z in the U.S. reported that they do not feel well-represented. Yearning for deep and well executed coverage of important topics like sexual orientation, racial/ethnic identity, and gender expression, their identity is dynamic, forever changing and unable to remain static. Therefore, truly representing them begins with understanding who they are. 

Summing up Gen Z is a difficult task. While you cannot paint Gen Z with the single stroke of a brush, there are some traits that this generation seem to have in common.

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Sexuality

Gen Z is one of the first generations to collectively challenge sexuality and gender labels and they’re also more fluid in their identities.

Openly members of the LGBTQ+ community like no other generation before them, nearly half of Gen Zers part of Generation Wattpad in the U.S. identifies with a sexuality other than straight. Their sexual makeup is as follows:

  • Bisexual: 19%
  • Questioning: 9%
  • Straight/Heterosexual: 52%
  • Pansexual: 8%
  • Asexual: 6%
  • Lesbian: 4%
  • Gay: 1%
  • Other/Prefer not to say: 1% 

Even if they don’t identify as LGBTQ+ this generation told us they know individuals who identify across a spectrum of identities. For example, 47% of Gen Z know someone who identifies as transgender, 35% know someone who identifies as non-binary, and 32% know someone who identifies as gender fluid.

Pronouns are a topic that must be taken into consideration as well, with 43% of Gen Z knowing someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as “they”, “them”, or “ze” and 5% choosing to use gender-neutral pronouns themselves. With this, it’s unsurprising that they don’t feel well-represented in the media. After all, respectfully showcasing trans-people and gender non-conforming individuals has become a rather recent concept.

To learn how Ben & Jerry’s engaged the LGBTQ+ community on Wattpad, tune into Pressboard’s The Science of Storytelling podcast.

Political stance

While it was once a social convention to avoid talking politics at dinner, Gen Z is willing to get politically engaged over both the table and the timeline. Gen Z tends to lean liberal, with 44% of Generation Wattpad identifying as “very liberal to moderately liberal”, 42% identifying as “centrists or no strong opinion” and 14% identifying as “very conservative to moderately conservative.” 

Race

The importance of understanding experiences of racism, microaggressions, and the intersectionality of how those topics weave into others has been an important conversation in recent years. Half of Gen Z identifies as a minority and they identify with the following race breakdown:

  • Black: 16% 
  • East Asian: 6% 
  • Latinx/Hispanic: 18% 
  • Middle Eastern: 1% 
  • White/Caucasian: 50% 
  • Native American/Indigenous: 5% 
  • South Asian: 3%

School and work

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If you’ve worked alongside Gen Z in the workforce, you may have noticed how they are already changing the face of work. The oldest group in this cohort only recently entered the workforce, but are still bound to modify it over the long term.

Gen Z have faced immense pressure from society, teachers, parents, peers and even themselves to succeed, while still achieving a career that is stable. However, despite the pressure for stability, 26% of Gen Z aspire to work for themselves as freelancers, controlling their schedule and work-life balance without the looming figure of a boss. 

Teens are growing up and earning money in a different way than the generations before them. In fact, many teenagers have chosen to make money independently and become their own boss. While traditional data will tell you that the number of teens working part time is on the decline, what that research doesn’t capture is the increase in those exploring entrepreneurial pursuits through working for themselves.  

We’ve all heard that the future of work may be dominated by the gig economy, however, many members of Gen Z view the notion of pursuing freelance work full time to be a career risk in terms of its stability and longevity. This, coupled with the pressure from society to have traditional careers may encourage them to opt to gain stable full-time jobs and pursue their passions as an enriching side hustle

Nearly half (47%) of Generation Wattpad said they aspire to have careers in Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations. Only 12% professed uncertainty in what they wanted to do, showing that a majority are confidently thinking about their future. Somewhat surprisingly, however, 12% said they want to be influencers, a career that has only recently gained traction. According to Morning Consult, over ½ (54%) of young Americans would become influencers if given the opportunity. 

The most important motivator for Gen Z’s career is social impact; 29% said that making a difference by working for a company that truly cares is their greatest motivator. The least important? Power and influence, cited by only 3%. It appears that even amongst those who dream of being influencers, more benevolent motivators are at play. 

Diversity

Knowing how diverse Gen Z is, marketers should aim to display the diverse makeup of Gen Z in their brand campaigns. Diversity should go beyond the color of one's skin to include traits like abilities. Nearly 1/5 of the population have some form of a disability. Despite this, instances where we see people with disabilities featured in advertisements are few and far between. This lack of representation only further supports ableism, the prejudices and actions placed against someone because of their disability.

Marketing to the diversity of Gen Z must go beyond a one-time campaign. Gen Z can sniff out tokenism from a mile away. For example, if your brand has hopped on the Pride-month bandwagon to reach the LGBTQ+ community, great, but it’s imperative to consider how you can show your support for the community year round. This could mean implementing specific LGBTQ+ friendly policies, making the community part of your social outreach, or focusing on equal representation. 

Lifting up marginalized voices and supporting the underrepresented can make a difference. For a near perfect illustration of this, look no further than the impact Nike created when they celebrated Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th anniversary campaign.  

Curious to learn more about the demographic makeup of Gen Z including their viewpoints, family makeup, and what marketers can do to better represent this generation in marketing and advertising? Download The Gen Z Census: U.S. or The Gen Z Census: Canada, and watch the video below to learn the highlights. 

The Preview — Gen Z Census

 

Download The Gen Z Census: U.S.

Cause marketing

It’s no secret that Gen Z is a socially conscious generation. In fact, 56% of them identify as such, and are taking action to create the world they want. As climate change and political upheaval continue to make headlines and threaten Gen Z's future, social impact becomes increasingly important to this generation and they expect the brands they trust to feel the same—meaning your brand can no longer watch from the sidelines, but must take a stand.  

To get a closer look into what exactly Generation Wattpad is seeking from the brands it purchases from, we asked them to name a company that they believe is making a positive impact in the world. 93% were able to name a specific company, and they were most likely to name a for-profit brand than say, a non-profit or charitable organization. 

Touting your values in novel ad campaigns isn’t enough for Gen Z; they want evidence of your commitment to them. With their strongly developed eye for truth, they have no time for brands that are trying to sell them a value that the company itself doesn’t embody. This goes double for sustainability—if you’re not committed to ensuring they’ve got a future, they’re not buying.

In recent years, several brands have come to Wattpad looking for avenues to engage Gen Z with social causes. For example, National Geographic launched a global writing contest to inspire the community to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics, resulting in over 6,000 stories and 75,000 pledges of commitment to reduce plastic!

Branded writing contests are Wattpad’s bread and butter, offering brands an opportunity to reach consumers through engaging branded entertainment that draws upon Gen Z's creative spirit. Marketers can also engage with customers in a unique way through user-generated content (UGC), and contests paired up with UGC have the added benefit of driving better sales and increasing brand awareness.

Gen Z has garnered a reputation for vanity that may not be accurate. Although it’s not always obvious, not every member of Gen Z finds themselves tethered to social media. In fact, 20-60% of Wattpad’s audience are not on some of the “key” social media platforms at all including YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify. 

So why is it that Gen Z is painted as selfie-obsessed digital natives focused on growing their social following if they’re not all actively participating in image curation and influence on social platforms? According to WGSN, Gen Z can be broken up into two groups. The first is the “internet obsessed” group often called “Generation Me.”  The second is a cohort that hasn’t been given much media attention at all, Gen We.

Gen We hasn’t made it into the conversation, but they don’t feel left out, possibly due to their unconventional relationship with the online world. They trade FOMO for JOMO and choose to forge a new path instead of copying the unattainable highlight reels of their peers. You can find Gen We’s social media posts brimming with things that invoke social change like #BlackLivesMatter and #WomensMarch. Gen We’s goal is to bring forth awareness, reform, and a real social purpose by showcasing their beliefs on social media.

The social causes Gen Z cares about

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What causes do they care about most, you may be wondering? While Gen Z is passionate about many social causes, they are also particularly concerned with the environment and are turning to stories to voice their activism. For example, we found that reading time on stories on Wattpad tagged #GlobalWarming grew 376% between 2018 and 2019. A notable jump!

They are also passionate about female empowerment and body positivity. The #FreeYourBody campaign started on Wattpad by writer Tahlie Purvis to help promote the acceptance of all body types, skin conditions, disorders and illnesses that are not typically depicted in books. It has since transformed into a hub where like-minded people can find stories that contain characters with diverse body types, and has extended to a movement off Wattpad and into mainstream media and pop culture. 

Unsurprisingly, mental health is also top of mind, with more than ⅓ of Generation Wattpad saying they believe mental health challenges are the greatest issue facing youth today. 

Align your brand with a social cause

Look no further than the beauty industry for proof that doing good pays off. Ask the average Gen Z consumer whether they prefer cruelty-free beauty and they’ll probably give you a resounding yes! This generation has been educating each other on matters like clean beauty and animal cruelty for years now, and it’s not a topic that they’re willing to budge on.

Covergirl became an unexpected hero in the cruelty-free world when they became the largest brand ever to achieve Leaping Bunny status, effectively certifying them as cruelty-free. But hidden in the celebration of what Covergirl wins via this announcement is what they lose: access to the Chinese market. China is a multi-billion dollar beauty market where animal testing is embedded into the process of getting beauty products onto shelves, and where even cruelty-free brands are forced to comply. By truly embodying the cruelty-free ethos, any brand is forced to choose: their values, or a billion-person market. 

Aligning with Gen Z's values isn’t a walk in the park, but they want brands to make bold moves for progress, using the leverage of their purchasing power to steer the world in the direction they’d wish to see. It’s time to show them you’re not merely listening, but are ready and excited to take action.

Gen Z traits

The Joy of Missing Out

Sun glassesMental health is top of mind for Gen Z, and one reason for this comes from the constant need of comparison they face by always being connected, causing FOMO for many, always wondering what they might be missing out on. 

Beyond the stressors that arise from growing up online, Gen Z is stressed out in other ways as well. Their top stressors? School, homework, family, friends, money and health. In fact, their fixation on achieving good grades causes them more stress than the thought of drinking or experiencing unplanned pregnancies.

With 74% of Gen Z feeling that they are stressed ‘often’ or ‘very often’, being constantly connected can either heighten their anxieties about these issues or subdue them. In the face of this, our discovery that 43% of Gen Z are embracing JOMO, or The Joy of Missing Out, and purposely choosing to spend a couple hours away from social media each day, shows that they know how to prioritize their wellness.

However, stepping away from social media doesn’t necessarily mean that Gen Z is logging off. When we asked Generation Wattpad how they destress, nearly half stated that they specifically go online to unwind. For those who chose online activity as a way to destress, they seemed to be seeking escapism and self-expression. Among the top answers of online de-stressors were listening to music, playing games, watching funny videos on YouTube, and reading, writing, and exploring Wattpad. 

Keenly aware that social media can have a negative impact on their mental and physical health, Gen Z is striving to find a healthy balance. Logging off isn’t always possible, but that doesn’t mean they are okay swimming in pools of toxicity. Gen Z acknowledges how difficult their online world can be and makes adjustments to their habits to ensure that social media isn’t getting the best of them.

Due to the fact that Gen Z is more discerning and selective with their online engagement, marketers and brands should be mindful about the type of content they create. Capitalizing on trends, impressions, and popularity may provide short term engagement, but it fails to be effective in creating long term relationships with this generation. When done right, brands are able to insert themselves on the positive side of the online world versus the stressful side.

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Loneliness

It’s quite the paradox that even as today’s youth spend hours “connecting” on social media every day, they are more lonely than ever before. The loneliness epidemic is real—and Gen Z feels it the most. If you’re looking for a quick explanation, it might be tempting to blame technology—keeping us isolated on our phones instead of out in the ‘real world’—but researchers say that’s not the case. Rather, other factors like the erosion of neighbourhoods, decreased church attendance, and splitting of families are more likely the causes of decreasing socialization.

Every brand wants to create a meaningful connection with its audience. But most miss the opportunity to be the access point to help audience members build meaningful connections in their own lives. Finding a cure for the loneliness epidemic might be a lofty goal, but efforts to create real social connections are noticed, appreciated, and embed your brand into people’s memories. Is your brand up for the challenge?

Does Gen Z read?

Wattpad is home to over 90 million readers and writers, the majority of whom are Gen Z and young Millennials. One question we get asked often is “does Gen Z even read”? After all, it’s been hailed that the average attention span of a Gen Z is a measly 8 seconds. However, the real truth is that they simply don’t have the patience for underwhelming content. And on Wattpad, our community spends an average of 52 minutes reading stories on the platform every day!

With a tremendous amount of other stimuli tugging at them constantly, Gen Z has evolved to be more protective of their mental space. If other avenues are more interesting or engaging, why would they pay attention to boring, drawn out, or mediocre content?

You might be surprised to learn that Gen Z is not only committed to reading, but they’re still out-spending everyone else on books—and heading to physical stores to do it. In a survey of Wattpad community members, Gen Z respondents bought more books than their older counterparts. In the last six months alone, 22% of Gen Z told us they spent between $51-$150 on books (60% with their own money), compared to 17% of Millennials and Gen X. 

You only need to look at the rise in popularity of hardcover books, record players, and polaroid cameras to see why Gen Z has been nicknamed the “throwback generation.” When they find content they're interested in, they'll stick around. 

If the content quality is high, it has the power to grab a person's attention, hooking them in for hours, sometimes days at a time. So no, Gen Z does not have an attention span problem. They just gravitate towards top tier content. Therefore, if a brand isn’t cutting through the clutter, they’ll pass.

What type of content does Gen Z read?

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So now that we’ve established that yes, Gen Z knows what books are, you may be wondering what type of content they read? By analyzing the billions of minutes they spend every month reading stories on Wattpad, we were able to gain insight into what resonates. For example, we’ve seen YouTubers and Netflix content inserted into Wattpad stories. Our community loves entertainment content, and time spent reading content tagged with YouTuber Colby Brock increased 85% over 3 months in 2019. In the same period, there was a 124% increase in reads on Netflix-tagged content, including stories about The Umbrella Academy, On My Block & Riverdale. In addition, they’re also reading about everything from health and wellness to global warming. Gen Z's interests cover a broad scope of topics. By finding which ones align with your brand, you can better focus your marketing efforts towards building a connection with them through the power of the written word! 

Check out Wattpad’s 2019 Year in Review to learn the latest story trends capturing Gen Z’s attention.

Marketing to Gen Z

As many brands have learned the hard way, Gen Z has developed the most refined BS detectors in the world. Having grown up through the recession of ‘08, incredibly nuanced digital advertising, and endless sensational stories, scandals, and stunts in the press—they’ve seen it all. 

Gen Z knows that life isn’t perfect, and they don’t expect it to be. Brands hawking their wares through the rose-tinted Instagram filter of lavish influencer lifestyles don’t always mesh with their reality. Gen Z wants to see a different type of advertising message — one that doesn’t involve keeping up with reality TV royalty.

This pragmatism also means that Gen Z remains loyal not to a brand’s image, but to brands who are most useful and real to them. While Gen Z can be brutally honest in calling out brands who aren’t authentic, they also appreciate a well-placed, useful promotion that suits their needs.

Marketing entertainment

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When it comes to marketing entertainment releases to Gen Z, there’s no doubt that the age of digital has disrupted the entertainment world, changing the nature of it dramatically. The biggest impact the age of digital has had on entertainment? The overwhelming amount of choice available to audiences. 

Additionally, there’s been an explosion of Gen Z creators utilizing platforms like Wattpad, YouTube, and TikTok to challenge the old guard and attract eyeballs away from existing content. All of this combined circles back to the importance of creating content that connects. How can you make sure your entertainment marketing cuts through the noise?

Engage Gen Z with a nod to the past

One of the top ways to engage Gen Z is with a nod to the past. The “throwback generation” will appreciate your efforts. In fact, 81% of the U.S. members of Generation Wattpad, reported that they feel nostalgic about the past or “old school” things from previous generations. They’re also turning to stories to read about nostalgia. Wattpad stories tagged #nostalgic grew a whopping 20,460% in 2019 alone! Wattpadders additionally triggered a 223% increase in stories tagged #vintage, and a 164% jump in ones tagged #oldschool. Therefore, infusing sentimentality into your marketing campaigns is a surefire way to their hearts!

One of the ways brands can use this insight to their advantage is by drawing on their past to illustrate their present. For Gen Z, it’s never too late for a comeback. Gen Z audiences aren’t tethered to a brand’s historical baggage—they just want to know a product or service not only meets their needs, but surpasses expectations. 

For example, when Fila capitalized on the recent resurgence of 90s fashion by staying true to their roots with the release of a clunky, bulky shoe, shoppers went wild. So much so that this one shoe, the Disruptor II (a legacy of the original Disruptor -- the brand’s claim to fame in the 90s) is now leading FILA’s revival after it virtually disappeared from the fashion scene in the early years of the new millennium. The release was a seamless demonstration of a brand using current trends to its advantage by being authentic.

Engage Gen Z through storytelling

If your brand hasn’t yet harnessed the magical power of storytelling, what are you waiting for? Stories are a vessel through which we connect with each other, learn important lessons, remember information, and they’re a great way to connect with Gen Z.  Additionally, stories provide opportunities for your brand to make a lasting impact. Remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone, stories spark emotion within us, thus making them simpler to recall than information alone.

Learn how Wattpad is using its unique position to engage audiences and how it presents an excellent opportunity for brands to reach Gen Z.

Influencers

If you’ve been marketing to Gen Z for a while, chances are you’ve worked with influencers. Influencers have major power over the purchasing habits of their followers, so we recently asked Generation Wattpad who their favorite ones were. The top responses we received were by far YouTubers over traditional celebrities, including David Dobrik, Shane Dawson, Jenna Marbles, and Jeffree Star. Popular reasons for why they love them include that they are not afraid to be honest, and are kind, authentic individuals who they can relate to and who also offer videos that spark laughter and brighten their day. 

However, it’s important that you don’t dive into the world of influencer marketing without doing your research. (Here’s a word of caution of what can go wrong with influencers). 

You can check out our quick guide for brands looking to approach influencer marketing and gather some lessons from what happened in the beauty industry before taking the plunge.

Representing Gen Z in marketing

Mainstream media fails to represent a lot of people, leaving a great opportunity for savvy marketers and brands. Brands can strive towards more universal accessibility by considering different cultural beliefs, gender and sexual identities, abilities, and more by exploring the many avenues of these differences. According to a study of 1,500 U.S, U.K, and Australian marketers conducted by Shutterstock, a brand’s reputation is positively impacted when marketers choose images that are relatable to a diverse audience. People like to see themselves represented and included in marketing narratives, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

Effectively representing this generation goes beyond crafting marketing messages that will resonate with them. To truly ensure Gen Z feels represented, brands must put their money where their mouth is and design products and services that ensure that they are recognized.

A prime example of this in action? Look no further than Uniqlo. After launching a modest-wear collection intended to provide a solution for people interested in more modest clothing, the brand was enthusiastically welcomed in Southeast Asia where it was first released. By putting themselves in the shoes of those underrepresented in modern marketing, brands can ascertain what needs are unfilled and adapt to represent all of Gen Z in their products, messaging, and services.

Congratulations! You’re now an expert in all things to do with marketing to Gen Z.

Let’s take stock of what we’ve learned. With increased access to information and a finger on the pulse of hot button issues surrounding social justice and sustainability, Gen Z is deeply unsatisfied accepting the status quo set by previous generations. They strive to support brands that support not only them, but their peers, and the world at large. 

By rising to meet Gen Z at their level, offering a listening ear for their desires, and walking the walk (as opposed to merely talking the talk), brands can begin to forge collaborative and lasting relationships with one of the most influential generations affecting the market today. 

Looking for even more insights about Generation Z? Download one of our detailed reports below:

Download The Gen Z Census: U.S. The Gen Z Census U.S.
Download The Gen Z Census: U.S. The Gen Z Census Canada
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