When Bente Zerrahn was 22 years old and had been working at the German publisher Axel Springer for less than two years, she marched into the CEO’s office and told him she was worried about the future of the business.
She had a reason to be worried. Because Zerrahn, and millions of her fellow Gen Zers, do not consume media in the same way as previous generations. And if media outlets don’t start adapting to the habits of Gen Z, they risk a future of shrinking audience numbers.
In many companies, Zerrahn’s confrontation with her CEO would have earned her a termination notice. But at Axel Springer, it resulted in her being given the new job title of innovation catalyst.
Zerrahn spoke before a crowd of media leaders at INMA’s Media Innovation Week in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week. She gave a crash course on Gen Z media habits and offered tips on what to do — and what not to do — to attract this critical audience segment.
So, what makes Gen Z different?
Every generation thinks they are unique, and to some extent, that is true. Each generation reflects the history, trends, and cultural movements that are unique to their time.
But no other generation has grown up with the technology Gen Z has, nor been subject to the opportunities, challenges, and interconnectivity that technology brings with it.
The exact age range of Gen Zers is a subject of some dispute. Many say it is people born between 1995 and 2015. Others say it is anyone born in the digital age. But Zerrahn prefers to think of Gen Z as people born into the social age.
By social age, she means: “People born in networks: You were born with the Internet and grew up with social networks. It’s a paradigm shift in how you approach the world. It’s about the network and interconnectedness of things as opposed to one single source.”
Gen Z consumes media differently
One of the trademarks of Generation Z is that, well, trademarks aren’t so important to them. They don’t display the same brand loyalty earlier generations have, especially when it comes to media consumption.
Gen Zers don’t get news from one source. They pull from a variety of outlets, with a heavy slant towards digital.
A 2022 Statista survey on Gen Z’s media habits in the United States found 50% of respondents used social networks as their news source on a daily basis. Only 5% said they read newspapers every day.
One myth about Gen Z that Zerrahn wants to dispel is that her generation isn’t willing to pay for media.
“We may not have reached our full income potential, but people in Gen Z are willing to and do pay for a wide range of content. It’s just more on us, the publishers, who are not providing them with the content they deem worthy of payment.”
Media aversion is real
Extreme interconnectivity and access to a world of information at your fingertips can be daunting. Generation Z has high rates of depression, and one attributing factor, according to Zerrahn, is news overload.
Stories of war, famine, global climate disasters, financial crises, and political strife are pushed out into social feeds that deliver a constant stream of notifications to Gen Zers’ mobile phones.
As a result, many of the generation have developed an aversion for news and instead seek less stressful distractions.
Nevertheless, as Zerrahn puts it: “It’s our job as publishers to inform and to find ways to make the world understandable again.”
Five ways to appeal to Gen Z
Zerrahn offered five insider tips to engage Gen Zers and transform them from swipers to subscribers:
1. Choose a compelling format
First and foremost, make sure your social media presence is optimised and your content can easily be consumed and shared from a small screen.
Remember that Gen Z tends to not consume news at any specific time. They don’t feast on news at one sitting but instead graze throughout the day. So offer small news snacks.
However, to get casual consumers to take the next step and leave social media for your site, it is vital that your Web site is clean and easy to use. Curated content is a good hook, as Gen Zers will go deep down a rabbit hole if the content is well researched, compelling, and relevant.
2. Get your facts straight
One of the biggest fears of many Gen Zers, according to Zerrahn, is spreading fake news.
Her generation is very in tune with the way information can be manipulated online, which means they have high expectations of the content provided by publishers and will quickly drop them if they smell foul.
On the other hand, it also means that Gen Z will pay for a service they can trust.
3. Be authentic
Gen Z has no patience for superficial slogans and bland platitudes about corporate values. Zerrahn suggests that if you want to promote how good you are as a company, you need to back it up with actions.
And whatever you do, avoid cringe-worthy content. A serious, tradition-rich media organisation does not need to post dance videos on TikTok to appeal to Gen Z.
Zerrahn urges you to be true to who you are and reflect that online.
4. Build networks and multi-generational teams
Familiarity builds understanding, so Zerrahn suggests creating networks that bring together younger and older professionals.
Try to include multiple generations on working teams so they can learn from one another and offer a variety of perspectives.
Zerrahn’s final tip, and what she believes is the most important, is to simply listen to the younger members of your team.
She suggests straying a bit from the traditional hierarchies in the media industry that are often based on seniority and experience.
“Put young people in a position where they have a voice and create an environment where they feel safe speaking up,” she said. “Because these are the users of the future. They should, in some way, be involved in the product of the future.”
And who knows? If you are willing to listen, you might find a new innovation catalyst.
You can find more coverage from Media Inovation Week is sponsored by ArcXP, FT Strategies, Google News Initiative, Meta, and Piano — here. Others sponsors include Aptitude, Chartbeat, flowplayer, smartocto, Stibo DX, United Robots, and Zephr.