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How to speak to Gen Z

Speaking to the grandchildren of the Baby Boomers — the nebulous group known as Gen Z  — can drive marketers and communications teams to tears. Associate Director Ruth Callaghan discusses what happens now as Gen Y finally gets a haircut and a real job, and the emerging demographic of Gen Z is picks up pace.

They are one of the biggest demographics in the world, born at a time of immense social change, and will be the most educated population in history.

Born after 1995, the group is estimated globally to have 2 billion members, with the oldest just 21 and the youngest still in their tweens. But by 2025, demographers McCrindle say Gen Z will represent almost a third of the workplace, with only the youngest (and fittest) Boomers still on the scene.

Multinational banker Goldman Sachs declares them more important a group economically than their older siblings in Gen Y, with $44 billion a year in purchasing power in the US alone, even before many are old enough to work at McDonalds. So where do communicators begin to understand this emerging powerhouse?

What we know
Gen Z predates Google, but only just. The first were born in the year Microsoft released Internet Explorer. By the time they hit primary school, they were Skyping their grandparents and using YouTube. They hit their teens at the dawn of Facebook, got their first mobiles as the iPhone was released and captured their high school years on Instagram. They are hugely tech-savvy, but unlike Gen Y are more interested in personal stories than sharing everything with everyone.

What that means
They have been world citizens from a young age and that is reflected in their attitudes towards life and work. Workplace consultant Alexandra Levit describes them as better than Gen Y at person-to-person contact, more mature, and schooled in emotional intelligence since they learned to work. Sprout Social, which watches demographic use of social platforms, says they are “selective rather than excessive” — using Snapchat, with its time limited sharing to small circles rather than Facebook as their platform of choice, for example. They have their own tribes, their own cultures, and their own language — of which emojis are just a part.

What works
If you are going to be hip, be sure you know what you are doing, Daddy-o.
If that sounds ridiculous to your Gen X or older ears, be assured that littering your speech with Gen Z-isms like ‘defs’ (definitely) ,‘totes’ (totally) and ‘awks’ (awkward) is … defs totes awks.

Emojis are similar — yes, it seems silly that a yellow kissy face might paint a thousand words, but it can help set the tone of your brand. Savvy events and brands are developing their own emojis, as with Eurovision 2016 and #Ausvotes, the Twitter hashtag for the 2016 Australian election. Coke developed the first paid brand emoji, Ikea has 100 for everything from meatballs to couches, while software brand New Relic claims the coveted title of ‘first brand to use the poop emoji on a billboard’.

When emoji use works, it works well: exhibit A would be Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s interview on diplomatic relations conducted entirely in emojis. A/B testing of advertising has also found that incorporating emojis can boost engagement by 25 per cent, which is a significant edge.

But when emoji use fails, it can be damaging to the brand. Goldman Sachs, in launching a report on Millennial Life Choices, went all emoji — and was generally perceived as trying too hard. It can’t beat Chevrolet, however, which did an entire press release pitched at late Gen Ys and Gen Zs in characters. It got media attention, but who has time to decode something that long?

What next?
Just as marketers and communicators have spent years wrestling with Gen Y, Gen Z is going to be a challenge — especially if you are relying on traditional platforms such as mainstream advertising, TV or print. The radar for inauthenticity of this group is finely tuned, and they are more interested in creating their own content than blindly consuming someone else’s. But as the next big economic movement, it might be time we all skill up on Snapchat.