Think Generation Y changed media? Wait until you meet Gen Z

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My son recently turned 18. As I reflected on this milestone, my thoughts turned to the many ways his world is different than the one I knew as a young adult. Not surprisingly, given my profession, this got me thinking about how he and his friends – the inhabitants of Generation Z – have such a different relationship with media than those of us from Generation X.

Let’s start with television. When I was my son’s age, television was the medium of choice, especially given the emergence of cable specifically designed to capture teens’ eyes and ears – MTV being just one example. Today, conventional television isn’t even a small factor in many teens’ lives, and “must-see TV” seems quaint. In a recent study by Piper Jaffray, for example, more than half of teens said they could go without cable and rely solely on online video content. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that this number has grown more than 20 percent in the last five years.

My son is indicative of this. I can’t recall the last time he turned on the television to watch real-time programming from a cable or broadcast network. To him, the TV is a large monitor he occasionally uses to watch Netflix or YouTube videos. Without question, though, his phone is his screen of choice.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Conventional TV played a role in his life when he was very young, with everything from Animal Planet to Zoboomafoo commanding his attention. The same can’t be said for conventional radio, however. Whereas radio was a staple of my teen years, it’s a complete mystery to my son. I can honestly say I’ve never seen him turn on the radio–reflective of a larger trend reported in Variety last year, with teens’ self-reported listening to AM/FM radio declining by almost 50 percentage points since 2005. The same study also validated something I’ve seen in my son: his “radio station” of choice isn’t Apple Music, Pandora or Spotify. It’s YouTube.

What about print? While newspapers have long been on the decline with teens, there was an age where magazines like Seventeen, Teen Beat and Tiger Beat were so important to the demographic that no representation of a young adult’s bedroom would have been complete without photos from their pages pinned to the wall. My son’s habits again reflect a larger trend, with print media being a virtual non-entity in his life. This is another case where I have no memory of him interacting with the medium – at least not since we subscribed to National Geographic Kids on his behalf.

There is one outlier: billboards and other out-of-home media. My son consumes those in much in the same way as I did as a young adult–often unknowingly and fleetingly, but unmistakably without the opportunity to turn them off.

Yes, it’s ironic to speak of these changes in a print publication; yes, I realize my son’s experience isn’t conclusive; and yes, I realize there are traditional media outlets thriving despite these changes. However, one of the worst things marketers and business owners can do is to dismiss these trends. It’s tempting to do so, given how disruptive these changes can be. But willful ignorance won’t help, either. So, how should your business respond so you’re ready when Gen Z gains more buying power and enters the workforce?

  • Study the trends and watch sources closely. One of the best and worst things about today’s communication environment is that there are countless studies on any given topic. When it comes to deciding what deserves your attention, then, pay close attention to sources and trust well-vetted numbers more than your biases. Keep in mind, however, that for every objective, scientifically significant media study, there’s likely a National Association of Broadcasters report just around the corner intended to refute those findings.
  • Speak with the emerging generation. My observations about my son reveal an advantage I have over other marketers: living with an 18-year-old makes it impossible to ignore these shifts. If you don’t have ready access to someone in Gen Z, make it a priority to speak with them and understand their perspective and habits.
  • Don’t overreact. While it’s unwise to stand pat in such a rapidly changing environment, it’s possible to overcorrect, too. If you do the research indicated above, you’ll be more likely to make informed choices about how to allocate resources. And while traditional media is unquestionably on the decline, it’s likely still relevant to many in your audience. It’s all about striking the right balance.

Like all the generations that came before them, my son and his peers won’t be content to sit back and embrace the status quo – including how it consumes and disseminates information. Your business shouldn’t, either. Start preparing now and you’ll not only be much better positioned to respond to Generation Z, but also to whatever we’ll call the next generation after that.

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