Gen Z is Not into Your Digital Ads: Here’s What to Do About It

May 19, 2017

Article ImageHere’s a worrisome thought for marketers that can keep you up at night: Gen Z—a key demographic born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s—comprises 27% of the global population, commands $44 billion in purchasing power, and represents the first true generation of digital natives. But your efforts to reach them via digital ads could fail miserably, new research suggests.

A study by Kantar Millward Brown titled AdReaction: Engaging Gen X, Y and Z reveals that only 25% of 16- to 19-year-old respondents to the study’s survey expressed a preference for online search ads; merely 23% indicated a preference for video on laptops or PCs, 22% for mobile display ads, and 21% for mobile video ads.

By contrast, the ad formats this demographic favored more were cinema (62%), outdoor and magazine (both 43%), TV (40%), product placement (39%), newspaper (38%), direct mail and laptop/PC online display (both 29%), and radio (27%).

Parsing the Data

Joline McGoldrick, vice president of Insights and Strategic Marketing for Kantar Millward Brown’s Media and Digital Practice, found these and other findings from the report surprising. “There are two qualities that turn off younger audiences—lack of control and lack of reciprocity,” she says. “Gen Z, like their Gen X parents, are turned off when advertisers take their time and attention for granted.”

Jerry Rackley, chief analyst with Demand Metric, believes the study's findings make perfect sense. "Just as my generation grew up on print and broadcast media, Gen Z has grown up on digital media. In the same way I don't find print and broadcast advertising remarkable because of my exposure to it, they don't find digital ads remarkable. It's the advertising ecosystem they've been immersed in since birth," says Rackley.

When it comes to advertising receptivity, Gen Z puts heavy importance on creative quality, through elements such as humor, music, and narrative, per the report. “This holds true for all audiences, for that matter, but is felt most strongly by Gen Z,” McGoldrick says. “More obvious elements like celebrity and special effects or virtual reality are much less important in shifting their receptivity. Seventy-two percent and 58% of Gen Z said humor or music, respectively, make them more positive toward an ad.”

In addition, the unobtrusive, clear visual quality of billboards and magazine ads appeals to Gen Z. “These ads have simple visuals, clear messaging and are a backdrop in the lives of the consumer, rather than demanding their attention,” McGoldrick says.

Stacy Smollin Schwartz, marketing department instructor at Rutgers Business School, says it’s easy to understand why preteens and teenagers today are more accepting of billboards, cinema ads, and other traditional forms of media. “They are in a more passive mindset when they come across them,” says Schwartz. “Although they may remain cynical about the marketing message itself, they are not as upset about the initial diversion.”

Making a Connection

To engage this demographic, brands have to better recognize what they're really after: an emotional connection with their customers, Rackley notes.

"Loyalty to a brand may start with awareness, but it doesn't become loyalty until emotions develop," says Rackley. "Can you get that kind of emotional attachment through just any kind of advertising? I don't think so. It comes through an experience, and that's what brands like Red Bull have done such a good job of figuring out. Red Bull has many Gen Z loyalists, and those followers do a great job of promoting the brand, which has inserted itself into the experiences Gen Z is having. The association is firmly imprinted in their minds."

Additionally, marketers and digital publishers should explore different options, beyond digital ads, to reach and influence younger audiences today. One is sponsored and branded content, “which can work very well – particularly when it’s in video form and is giving them great content like a tutorial or a review,” says McGoldrick.

Schwartz agrees. “Native advertising is more subtle, attempting to naturally bring a brand into an audience's mind in an entertaining, informative or useful way,” says Schwartz.

Another option is co-creation, which provides publishers an opportunity to engage audiences around content without it feeling imposed on them, notes McGoldrick.

Rackley also recommends relentlessly pursuing ways to deliver content to Gen Z that they can discover organically within the experiences they seek out.

"The old adage hasn't changed: as an advertiser, you must be where your target market is.  But the thinking has been pretty narrow, limited to being in the media that your audience consumes," Rackley says. "Now, I think publishers have to figure out how to get media into the experiences Gen Z has, and not in a way that is an interruption, but in a way that becomes a valuable part of the experience itself."

Don’t Abandon Ads

Ads aimed at teens and young adults should also continue to be an important part of any marketer’s or content provider’s strategy. But careful planning is crucial, say the experts.

“Marketers have the insights and information to design better, more effective ads on the right platforms, but it comes down to how well they can integrate these insights into creative development and planning,” McGoldrick says.

If this can be accomplished, marketers “can design advertising that is additive to the digital experience. But if they lack the data or the ability to integrate it upfront in the marketing cycle, reach and engagement will remain difficult,” she adds.

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