How to connect with Generation Z

IN March 2010, social researcher Mark McCrindle finished up a survey of 500 Australians under the age of 18.

He asked participants to keep a media diary mapping all their entertainment activities for a week and discovered that they were spending an average of seven hours and six minutes using entertainment media everyday – that means time spent plugged into the internet, iPods and mobile phones, yes seven hours and six minutes everyday.

The fascinating thing is, the under-18s packed this entertainment into five hours because they would often be using their iPods and the internet simultaneously.

Meet Generation Z, otherwise known as The Naturals. Give them any label you like, but you better make sure your business understands this powerful new generation of consumers that has never known life without the internet.

Here are 10 tips to help you connect.

Tip #1: One medium at a time? That is so last millennium.

The first commercial web browser became available in 1994, a line in the sand that some demographers and social researchers are using as the start of a very new generation.

Futurist and anthropologist Mike Walsh likes to call this tribe The Naturals (McCrindle refers to them as Generation Z).

"The things we have had to learn - communications, downloading content, online transactions, research, networking - is entirely natural to them," says Walsh.

"They were born into it."

However, Walsh insists The Naturals are not a demographic, but rather the first wave of an "entirely new way of thinking about communications, content and commerce".

Dave King, founder of digital agency The Royals also sees The Naturals as a psychographic state rather than a particular age, that people born in the 1970s and 1980s can be just as "natural" about the way they use technology.

Tip #2: As long as the electricity towers are up, the cables are running and the electricity is pumping, The Naturals will be okay.

Remember, connectivity is as natural as breathing to The Naturals. The internet is not a channel. It's part of the fabric of everyday life. For The Naturals, the internet is how people meet, feel and understand each other.

"It's how they express themselves and it's how they define themselves," says King. Whereas for Generation X, Y and Baby Boomers, technology has, for the most part, been about improving productivity, working smarter, Naturals see technology as the way they collaborate and connect. It's not just about a productivity solution.

Tip #3: Meet the most sophisticated consumer yet.

Economically speaking, The Naturals are likely to be far more sophisticated than their predecessors. Their financial education starts early thanks to the internet, in kids sites such as Club Penguin, where as a penguin avatar they play games and earn virtual coins and Farmville where life on a virtual farm includes farm coins (current users: 82 million).

By the time The Naturals have real money to spend and real transactions to make, they have a more entrepreneurial mindset, they are used to using the internet to hunt for good prices and they are savvy about how they spend and where they spend it.

Tip #4: Consumer and content decisions are made almost exclusively through social networks.

When businesses are trying to attract The Naturals' attention, the message has to be relevant and entertaining enough for them "to risk their own social standing by forwarding it on to their own networks," says Walsh.

Evian has the title of most-watched online advertisement with almost 21 million viewers lapping up the babies on roller-skates scenario (it is a total hoot) mixed in with some Evian slogans.

Because of the plethora of information on the internet, Naturals base a lot of their consumer decisions on peer group opinions.

"Rather than taking an analytical approach to information they push it to the side and go through friends," says McCrindle.

Tip #5: You can keep your official website, I'll make my own content thanks very much.

McCrindle has observed a major shift in how companies are doing market research with Generation Z. Rather than creating a product or service for them and then asking for feedback, the products and services are being developed in collaboration with Generation Z.

"It's about co-creation," he says.

Naturals like to create their own online worlds, not be force-fed one by a third party.

"They are certainly not going to official sites," says McCrindle.

Tip #6: There are no ad breaks.

You can't manage advertising, communication or branding in the digital realm as you do in a paid-media scenario. According to King, an important consideration is why your audience is there (at the site) and what they are doing. "Hint: they're not watching your ads in between the station's programming," he says.

The TAC had an unusual way of getting around the fact that The Naturals are hard to capture through advertising in traditional broadcast channels that include free-to-air TV, newspapers and radio. The TAC is still using its powerful ads, but through a new medium, a network of television screens at selected petrol stations called PumpTV in partnership with Channel 7 and Yahoo 7.

This Easter it used PumpTV get the message out about safe driving over the break. PumpTV estimates that in a month, its screens reach 12 million consumers.

GrabAds is another channel to grab Naturals' attention through 'on-cup advertising' exposure on items like takeaway coffees, beer at the cricket and other portable items. Australia Post, VISA, GIO, Cricket Australia and Fone Zone have been using GrabAds.

Tip #7: Expect only partial attention.

The Naturals pose a real dilemma for marketers because they assume the right to be heard, to blog, to tweet, to tell the world what they are thinking (or even just tweet that they are feeling bored) but they are not prepared to really pay full attention.

"The rest of us should assume they live in a state of constant partial attention," says King whose approach to marketing to Naturals centres around looking for the value that the product/service can provide to The Naturals' connected lives.

"Rather than trying to work out ways to force a message into their daily regime, as a marketer, you should ask 'what do I have to offer my intended audience?' It could be new types of functionality, utility, entertainment or socialisation - but it's probably not a tagline," he says.

Tip #8: Don't even think about censorship.

The real joy of a site like Trip Advisor is just how frank the community is. It now has a storehouse of more than 30 million traveller reviews and opinions. The authenticity of the information shines through. So empowered do its users feel that they will post photos of dirty sinks and rusty taps and scrutinise every aspect of their travel experience. Hoteliers and other travel operators do have right of reply these days on the site which all adds to the value of the site.

Smart travel operators are accepting the fact that feedback is never going to be 100% and that this is a reality of social networking sites. Vogue magazine in Australia has recently received bad press after its editor Kirstie Clements revealed that it removes negative information about its advertisers when it surfaces in the thriving Vogue forums.

"If you start pruning the negative, they will start pulling out of the site," says McCrindle.

"You have to relinquish control, it is about user-generated content."

King recommends playing anthropologist, look around and dive into these digital worlds for ideas on how to connect to these consumers. His firm The Royals has a blog on interesting new trends (see here).

Forget about Facebook as the number-one place to watch The Naturals.

"It's so 35-plus," says McCrindle. "When a brand gets big it is perceived as being too big and uncool and they go back to subterranean brands," he says. The average user of most of social networking sites is positively middle-aged.

The average Twitter user is 39 years old, which perfectly corresponds to news this week in the Herald Sun of 40-year-old cricketer Shane Warne's new love of Twitter. Warne, it seems, has switched from texts to tweets. Perhaps his new nickname should be the Sheik of Tweet?

Bebo is the current favorite social networking site with younger generations, with 50% of its users aged under 24, compared with Facebook's less than 25% under 24.

Tip #9: Remember, The Naturals just can't stop being connected.

The hit reality program 'I'm with Rolling Stone' charts the journey of a pool of young interns fighting to get a job at Rolling Stone magazine. There is not a single frame of the show where an intern is not touching at least one piece of technology, a phone, an iPod or a laptop: gaming, texting, tweeting. It looks like they are physically addicted to technology.

Walsh has observed this too and is carefully watching the emergence of internet addiction clinics. They have sprung up in Chinese cities where broadband is freely available and citizens' passion for online gaming is out of control.

In the US, one internet rehab clinic reStart in Washington has a 45-day, $17,500, 12-step program. In South Korea, the government is going to distribute free software to help people limit their online time. The software makes the system shutdown after an agreed timeframe.

With The Naturals spending an average of more than seven hours of screen time per day, it will be interesting to see how Australia handles this very real way of life. Says Walsh: "This is only the very beginning of the story."

This article first appeared on, Australia’s premier site for business advice, news, forums and blogs.

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