Generation Z's behaviors differ from the cohorts that came before it, creating a new challenge for businesses marketing to consumers within it. Gen Z's presence is also growing in the marketing industry itself and, as such, learning how to work with and appeal to these young people is a critical step to take sooner rather than later.
Who is Generation Z?
Social media stars might be the first people who come to mind when you think of Gen Z (also affectionately called Zoomers), but this age group is more than just TikTokers and YouTubers. Although the purported birth years of this generation vary across different sources, Pew Research refers to them as individuals born from 1997 and onward. With that in mind, it may come as a surprise that these Americans now make up about 28.7% of the total population. For context, Baby Boomers now account for a smaller proportion of just 21.8%, and Millennials around 22%.
Even more shocking than these statistics may be the fact that the oldest members of Generation Z are now well into their twenties. While it’s easy to think of this group as teenagers and children, they’ve grown up quickly, and are now major players in the world’s economy. In fact, this group has an annual spending power of around $143 billion, and currently accounts for approximately 40% of global consumers.
It’s well known that members of this cohort are digital natives and have been raised alongside technology. In 2014, the UK’s Office of Communications tested the technological proficiency of children versus adults only to find that the average 6-year-old outperformed those in their 40s. It’s safe to assume most members of this new generation have a solid grasp of technology, and a skill set that rivals people much older. This may be even more prevalent now with the rising use of digital resources due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Pew Social Trends noted in a recent essay that much like Millennials, who faced the Great Recession during their coming-of-age years, Gen Z will be affected by the pandemic for a long time to come. With a job market that is more competitive than ever and digital skills in high demand, a career in search may become increasingly attractive. Although search engine optimization is ever-changing, its importance has been unwavering for nearly two decades, making it a stable option in an unpredictable world.
How do Zoomers interact with marketing as a whole?
When it comes to targeting this cohort, its members are creating new challenges for businesses. First and foremost, their relationships with brands are very different than those of the generations that came before them. Reports from IBM in association with the National Retail Federation found that, for Gen Z, brand loyalty must be earned. Zoomers are looking for a reflection of their personal values in brands and are prepared to hold them accountable. Beyond their resistance to conventional brand loyalty, research has also found that they are more difficult to engage.
Generally speaking, in this day and age, consumers are bombarded with thousands of ads a day and have become harder to reach. As such, it’s not shocking that a common statistic claims that members of Gen Z have the smallest attention spans of just eight seconds. However, Fast Company presents this information in a new light by explaining that they actually have “8-second filters”. These filters allow them to quickly process the tremendous amounts of information they encounter each day to hone in on what they actually care about, uniquely preparing them to glaze over advertising attempts (as they’ve been conditioned to do basically since birth).
To combat this trend, marketers have been pursuing a variety of novel strategies and methods. For example, experiential marketing has proven to be effective with Gen Z, and they're also especially excited by virtual reality.
While there are many new marketing opportunities available, social media continues to be a major channel for Gen Z engagement. This is especially true when it comes to video content on sites like YouTube and TikTok. All in all, as these consumers move away from traditional television viewership, the need for alternative marketing avenues grows.
How does Gen Z use search?
With all of this background information in mind, it’s easy to see that search is well-positioned to access this target demographic. Generation Z may not be as responsive to direct advertisements, but they’re accustomed to searching.
As a matter of fact, search engines have been around longer than Gen Z has, with the first search engine appearing in 1990, so it’s no surprise that their use is second nature to this age group. Zoomers fully understand how to use search tools, and they have the capacity to quickly evaluate SERPs prior to deciding on which link will get their click.
They’ve always had the answers to any question readily available, so they also use search for more intentional discovery. Despite their noted “8-second filter”, Fast Company additionally found that they could become deeply focused on topics they find to be worthwhile. Furthermore, their nonchalance towards brand loyalty means they may be less likely to opt for a big brand website over others.
Finally, their use and reliance on mobile devices can't be overlooked or overstated. The stereotype that people are now glued to their phones has some merit, and companies like Google have taken notice. They’ve already begun catering towards this shift, with things like mobile-first indexing and AMP pages now taking on greater importance. IBM and NRF discovered that, in a global survey of 15,600 Gen Z-ers, 60% would not use an app or site that loads too slowly. This puts the importance of mobile site speed into a greater perspective for SEOs hoping to capture this demographic through search.
The findings of a recent Fractl survey clearly align with each of these trends. They found that out of all the generations, Gen Z has the highest preference for long-tail queries. They know that a short-tail query will produce broad results, and they may not find what they’re looking for. In addition, their mobile usage has created an uptick in voice assistant search functions, which utilize these multi-word phrases as well.
Zoomers working as SEOs
Although this age group is well equipped to use search engines, it’s likely that the concept of SEO still remains somewhat foreign to them. A quick Coursera search shows that there are almost no SEO-specific college courses currently available to students. While some general digital marketing classes may have a chapter or section on SEO, that information can oftentimes be outdated due to the ever-changing nature of search. There are also a few certificate programs and online workshops, but the aforementioned issue is still present. In summary, the most accessible way for students to learn is through their own research, an internship, or some other similar experience that they happen upon.
That said, this industry can provide a fantastic career path for members of Gen Z, should they discover and choose to pursue it. Working in search allows you to develop a variety of skills from critical thinking to problem-solving and data analysis. Those in the SEO community are always up to date on the latest tech and trends, which is valuable in many facets of business. Furthermore, working within an agency provides the opportunity to learn about a vast range of industries and niches. Many SEOs even pick up web development, data science, and programming experience along the way, and these are three competencies that are in very high demand. All things considered, the many hard and soft skills that can be developed through SEO work are the foundations for being successful throughout a career.
Zoomers already have an aptitude for work in technology-based spaces, and those with the determination can pick up expertise quickly in this field. Prime examples of this include the use of SEO tools and content management systems. For instance, once a CMS such as WordPress is learned, that knowledge can be easily transferred to others like Drupal, HubSpot, and so on. The same can be said for tools like Google Analytics and Search Console, because understanding how to evaluate data within those platforms can be translated to a variety of others. In essence, SEO and Gen Z could truly be a match made in digital marketing heaven.
Understanding client-side Gen Z-ers
While SEO may not yet be a mainstream career path for most young people, those in the digital marketing field will likely encounter it at some point. As such, it’s important to keep in mind that members of this generation will also be working on the client side of search.
As previously mentioned, some Zoomers are already part of the workforce, and the presence of this cohort will only continue to grow. In the year 2020 alone, Gen Z made up approximately 24% of the worldwide workforce.
With an influx of new workers on the horizon, working with them may be a unique experience given their strong grasp of technology. On top of that, they're also more familiar with concepts like analytics and data science as those careers are seeing a boom in the higher education sector. Members of this age group shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to absorbing the ins-and-outs of SEO from the client’s point of view.
As Gen Z continues entering the workforce, likely in entry-level positions, it’s important to remember that they'll be decision-makers in a few short years. They'll have an increasing ability to influence budgeting decisions, so it's absolutely critical to think about ways to connect with them now and communicate the value of SEO to save time, energy, and money in the long run. A few steps to work through are as follows:
- Understand that they’re eager to learn and can do so quickly.
- Walk them through the reasoning behind each recommendation to build their knowledge over time. As with clients of any age, this improves trust and helps them to see how SEO really works.
- Take them seriously and listen to their insights.
- They may have concerns, as any client might when it comes to SEO strategies and how they play into the overall marketing plan. Listen to what they have to say, as they may be new, but they could still provide impactful insights.
- Embrace novel ideas and creative thinking.
- Fresh ideas are never a bad thing, but it can be easy to feel resistant towards those that seem to come out of left field. Fight the impulse to immediately shut these down and instead seriously consider how they could be incorporated into the project.
- Don’t shy away from using new tools and technologies.
- As mentioned above, Gen Z isn't intimidated by new forms of technology. Share interesting findings from tools like HotJar, Tableau, or Google Tag Manager to make SEO more exciting for them.
- Be candid and transparent about performance analytics.
- Be up front about the state of the site’s performance to build their confidence and appreciation for search. In the age of instant gratification, there are few things more satisfying than a positive trend line. On the other side of that, be sure to research and determine the causes for any downturns.
While Gen Z may be a mystery in many ways, two things are certain: they are well on their way to dominating many industries, and they shouldn't be overlooked. Likewise, if you’re not preparing for their arrival, you might already be falling behind.
Give these findings and tips some thought, and if there are already Gen Z-ers in your organization, try to take time to pick their brains. Go ahead and learn to embrace the change – as we so often do in SEO – because these TikTokers and YouTubers will only be growing in influence.