If You Want To Connect With Teens, Go Niche

Your Millennial strategy won't work with this generation.

Welcome to HuffPost’s Keeping It 100. From infusing our culture with data to figuring out how to reach Gen Z and cultivate niche distributed communities, we’ll give you an inside look at the hits and misses of HuffPost’s biggest bets.

Gen Z is anything but one-note, and its members have tailored their social media behavior to express those multifaceted identities. There are so many platforms and ways of communicating that they’ve chosen a persona for each ― sometimes creating multiple accounts targeting different friend groups on a single platform.

Gen Zers are verticalizing themselves, and if brands want to reach them, they should adapt.

The Huffington Post and AOL’s Consumer Analytics Group collaborated on a five-day online discussion with 29 teens from across the U.S., ages 13 to 18. Through these digital dialogues, we found that, contrary to their millennial predecessors, Gen Z teens are much more likely to identify themselves based on what they like to do.

Likely because Gen Z consists of more multiracial people than any of its predecessors, teens’ racial or ethnic identities appear to take a backseat to the activities they’re interested in. For example, the digital dialogues suggested they are much more likely to find community as a soccer player or a member of the debate team than as a young Latina or a young biracial man.

And because each individual is involved in multiple activities, they’re using multiple social media platforms to tell those stories.

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In our survey, 11 percent of teens said they had fake or decoy Instagram accounts (called “finstas”). Teens’ “real” accounts are much more nuanced and geared toward specific friend groups ― they might have one for their camp friends, one for their middle school friends and one for their current high school friends. Communication within these activity-based communities tends to be more in-person or contained within private messaging features.

“I do enjoy the internet, but I don’t feel obligated to use it as the only way to communicate,” one Gen Z participant told us.

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Gen Zers are drawn to Snapchat’s Stories function because it gives them the ability to send stories to specific friends or friend groups rather than broadcast them to their entire follower list or to the public (something they perhaps learned from millennials’ mistakes).

Teens are slightly more likely to use Instagram’s direct message feature to communicate with friends (45 percent) than to tag friends publicly in comments (43 percent) ― a tactic that is often used by millennials. Teens are also flocking to apps like House Party, where users can chat with only up to eight people at a time.

For brands, appealing to this self-verticalizing demographic means doing the same thing they’re doing ― to an extent. To be a more active presence within the lives of Gen Zers, it’s about authentic one-on-one communication, which has led a lot of brands and publishers looking to connect with Gen Z to platforms like Facebook Messenger and even email.

Gen Z-focused email products like Lenny Letter, Clover and The Tea (HuffPost’s Gen Z offering) are examples of email newsletters that are based on a direct and closed communication line with a Gen Z audience rather than an open broadcast. HuffPost has also experimented with a 1:1 Netflix recommendation bot geared toward members of Gen Z.

Gen Zers know what they want, and they aren’t willing to waste time to get it. Brands have about eight seconds to hook them with content or a product they can connect with before they leave. Because of that limited attention span, they prefer one-dimensional offerings that have a very clear and explicit purpose, and an immediately understandable voice and mission.

This doesn’t mean that generalist brands need to pack up shop. Gen Z is still heading to larger generalist brands or Google Search to fact-check things they hear from their friends or through other community filters. Their general skepticism and sensitivity to bias also prompts them to do a little further digging for a secondary source for news or facts they come across in their platform messaging or real-life conversations.

Four things that will make your brand Gen Z friendly:

  • Direct and consistent tone and voice

  • Clear utility

  • Segmented or one-dimensional distributed channels

  • 1:1 experiences

To uncover how Generation Z uniquely consumes and shares content and why, HuffPost and AOL’s Consumer Analytics group embarked on a three-phase research initiative. For the first phase, we conducted four focus groups in New York and Dulles, Virginia, with teens 13 to 18 years old to develop foundational insights into their relationship with news and information platforms.

Equipped with this baseline understanding, we moved on to the second phase: qualitative digital dialogues. These dialogues took the form of a five-day online discussion with 29 teens from across the U.S. ages 13 to 18 to dive further into a rich and informed conversation on news, entertainment, technology, brands and overall life outlook.

We are now analyzing the results from the third and final phase of the initiative, our quantitative survey to put data behind the theories we generated in the qualitative phases. In this phase, we aim to show how and why teens discover content, trust it and share it, what topics they follow, and the tone or voice that resonates with them. Stay tuned for those results!

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