Gen Z is swiftly moving into adulthood, with the eldest at 24 years old. We’ve all seen TikTok’s exceptional success, which has likely prompted Meta’s move to video. So what should news organisations be thinking about when it comes to products for this generation?
For answers I turned to Rachel Richardson, who spent six years as head of editorial at Snap, which followed 12 years at News UK. She spends her time between editorial, product, and tech, and is one of the most knowledgeable people I know about this mysterious — to me — generation and how we should be thinking about it from a news perspective.
Here’s the interview I did with her. I hope you learn as much as I did.
INMA: You’ve held senior roles at traditional news organisations and at Snap, a technology-led organisation. What is the biggest difference in the way the end product and editorial teams work together?
Rachel Richardson: In many ways they were very similar, as one part of the organisation tended to lead and dominate the management and ownership of the product roadmap, as well as the development process.
At Snapchat — where I was head of editorial — it was the product/design team. At media companies, it’s often the editorial team that tends to dominate. I don’t think either approach has advantages over true partnership and deep collaboration from the outset.
Product and editorial bring distinctly different skills and perspectives to the development process. The most common mistake I’ve seen made across both types of companies is when one part of the partnership undervalues the expertise of another team.
It happens both ways. Engineers and product designers who think they understand the nuances of editorial because they consume content, and journalists who think they understand UX because they use apps.
The best product managers and teams I’ve worked with understand that each person is bringing their own expertise and each person’s skills are leveraged. The end result of that collaboration is more often than not excellent products.
INMA: Snap and TikTok are exceptionally popular. Does this mean Gen Z will only swipe, not scroll?
Rachel Richardson: Gen Z grew up in a video-first social media world, but interestingly text is still their preferred way to consume news. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022 says that the majority of 18-24 year olds mostly read news online (55%) while 17% watch, and 19% do both equally.
This maps to my experience at Snapchat, where we would see high engagement on text-based content. I do expect however that “watching” news will increase in the next few years as the volume of short-form, fast-paced, highly visual, and well-soundtracked video increases across digital media and platforms adapt to meet the preferences of Gen Z.
TikTok is hugely popular, with 67% of 13-17s in the U.S. (Pew Research Center) and 40% of 18-24s across all markets (Reuters Institute) using it. The video-only platform is also acting as the product development department for established platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, who are rethinking their offering in an effort to incentivise content creation and increase engagement by serving more video.
The move towards visual storytelling and discovery algorithms that surface the most engaging content, as opposed to content from your social graph, will raise the stakes for news brands who have built followings as it creates a more competitive environment for views. But I do think this shift creates big opportunities to reach new audiences if news brands can tailor content to discovery algorithms.
User behaviour is also showing us that watching is increasingly preferable to reading. A recent Ofcom report showed that TikTok is the fastest growing news source among adults in the UK. The numbers are still small, but the velocity is significant, rising from 1% in 2020 to 7% in 2021. Additionally, amongst 18-24 year olds that use TikTok, 15% say they use it for news (Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022 — all regions).
Secondly, Google has revealed that internal research showed 40% of Americans aged 18-24 used TikTok or Instagram to search for information and recommendations. This represents a significant shift away from text-based search results to information communicated via video.
Overall I think it’s fair to say that Gen Z will read for now, but more and more will shift to video.
INMA: Gen Z has high brand affiliation and often prefers single platforms such as Snap or TikTok. Should news organisations focus on getting their brands onto other platforms or is there a path for this audience to be direct consumers?
Rachel Richardson: There is definitely a path, but it’s a tough one as news consumption is becoming more distributed year over year. This year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that just 23% of all ages start their news journey directly with a Web site or app, down nine points since 2020. By contrast, 28% prefer to find news via social media, rising steadily since 2018.
Looking at Gen Z specifically, news consumption is so much more distributed for that group than with Millennials. Just 28% of 18-24 year olds go direct, compared with 45% of 25-34 year olds.
Given Gen Z’s exaggerated preference to social media for news, I think all news brands need strategies for popular news platforms if they want to remain competitive and attract this audience. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022 ranks these as Facebook, YouTube, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok, and Snapchat.
For subscription brands — who not only want a direct relationship but a paid one — extracting cash from Gen Z consumers is and will continue to be tough. The average age of a digital news subscriber is 47 (Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022). The same research found that just 17% of news subscribers in the U.S. are under 30, and in the UK it’s just 8%. Not only does this group prefer to use social media for news, they also tend to believe that it should be free.
However, I do think that news brands can be hopeful about this generation becoming direct consumers or subscribers as they age up, as they do demonstrate a willingness to pay for media that they value. In the UK, 75% of 18-24 year olds pay for TV/movie streaming services, 37% pay for music, and 21% pay for audio books and podcasts (Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022).
I think news brands need to ask themselves what they offer or what they can offer that will provide a similar amount of value to a Gen Z audience, as only then can they really lock in a direct paying relationship with this group.
INMA: A lot of the platforms aimed at Gen Z are based on short-form video. Is there room for longer form and different formats?
Rachel Richardson: Yes! A recent Vevo and Publicis Media survey found that Gen Z spend 59% of their video viewing on medium- to long-form programming. And, the Piper Sandler Taking Stock With Teens research from earlier this year similarly found that teens spent 30% of their daily video consumption on Netflix and 30% on YouTube. The Vevo and Publicis Media survey found that Gen Z spend on average 7.2 hours a day watching video — almost half their waking hours. The appetite for long-form is there for sure.
INMA: Do you think content formats will change significantly in coming years? (Metaverse?)
Rachel Richardson: I think that formats will evolve and that the pace of change will increase rapidly. Creative execution will be turbo-charged in the next few years due to the fact that there are so many more creators who are able to not only make highly engaging content, but also access wide distribution via platforms like TikTok.
When it comes to the technical side of formats, I think we are all waiting for the next iPhone or iPad product development moment. I think what’s happening in AR, VR, and the metaverse is very exciting, but I struggle to see that future clearly because of the lack of tangible executions that work on my iPhone.
Thankfully, this isn’t me being an out-of-touch grandma. Gen Z feels the same. The Piper Sandler Taking Stock With Teens report found that 26% of teens owned a VR device, but just 5% used it daily. Nearly half — 48% — said they were either unsure or not interested in the metaverse.
I may be biased because of my work at Snapchat, but I think their approach to AR has the most promise. They view AR — adding a lens overlay to video, visual recognition of your surroundings — as something that adds to your real-world life, not something that replaces it. I find their scan features — find a product, identify a dog’s breed, solve a math problem — really fun to use and highly useful. It’s the sort of thing that could in the future displace Google’s online dominance for search, as increasingly people will use their AR-enabled camera as opposed to typing text into a box.
INMA: Are there any emerging platforms that news organisations should have on their horizons?
Rachel Richardson: I think the most important thing to pay attention to is that use of traditional social media platforms is softening amongst Gen Z. In the U.S. 84% of 18-29 year olds say they use at least one social media site. That’s down from 90% in 2021 (Pew Research Center).
The current numbers are still incredibly high, but it does indicate that there is some fatigue amongst the generation who have never known a world without social media.
At the same time, platforms that create community, promote authenticity, and help users capture the moment are rising in popularity. Eschewing likes, filters, and amplification algorithms, this new breed of platforms has made efforts to actively avoid some of the negatives of legacy social media.
I think it’s reasonable to suggest this strategy is why they are succeeding.
BeReal is a great example of this phenomenon. It’s a picture-only app that once a day prompts users to capture an image from both the front and back cameras of their smartphones as a two-minute countdown clock ticks down. The end result is organic and very fun. Equally the enduring success of Reddit (which continues to grow audience) and the rise of group chat apps like Discord, Telegram, and Geneva are providing spaces for people with common interests to come together and create communities around topics.
I think a lot of media companies and individual journalists, especially those that specialise, are well positioned to take advantage of this growing desire for community conversation — either on their own platform or by being an early adopter on one of the many new ones.
Lastly, it’s not really new anymore, but if you’re working for a media company and you don’t have a newsletter strategy, my advice would be to get one quick. I am finding that I am spending more and more time, and getting more and more value, from newsletter subscriptions.
INMA: What makes a media brand successful on a social platform?
Rachel Richardson: I think the brands that do it best — whether that’s converting to paid or promoting brand awareness — are the ones that truly understand the idiosyncrasies of the platform they are creating for.
Living and breathing the culture of the platform is key before any brand launches. This is especially important if the brand is trying to attract Gen Z audiences as they are extremely wise to anything that doesn’t feel authentic. Staying true to the character of the brand is essential.
It’s also vital to know which trends to lean in on and when to do that. Being ahead of the curve is really important on platforms where memes can surge in popularity and then die in less than 24 hours. The life cycle of Internet trends is much shorter than they have ever been and continues to decrease.
INMA: What are the key characteristics of Gen Z and how do they consume media?
Rachel Richardson: The one thing that I always keep top of mind when creating or curating for Gen Z is that their personality and passions define them more than any socio-economic categorisation. This is a group that rejects stereotypes and values their own and others’ authentic individual selves.
When it comes to gender and sexuality, Gen Z embraces fluidity. According to a McKinsey and Company study, 20% of Gen Z don’t “consider themselves exclusively heterosexual,” in contrast to just 10% for other generations. The same study found 48% value brands that don’t define products along gender lines. Just 38% of other generations feel the same.
Gen Z tends to be very inclusive, they reject hierarchy, crave transparency, and want to talk openly about issues that impact them and others. The McKinsey and Company study said that “a search for the truth is at the root of all of Gen Z’s behaviour.”
Gen Z are digital natives and have all the world’s information easily accessible to them at any moment of the day. They are hyper-connected to the Internet and don’t tend to distinguish between online and offline worlds. A recent Pew Research Center survey dug into the “almost constant” use of the Internet by teens. Nearly half (46%) of 13-17s in the U.S. said they were “almost constantly” using the Internet. Black teens (56%) and urban teens (53%) reported even higher numbers for being online “almost constantly.” Boys reported less “almost constant” use than girls — 43% versus 48%.
When it comes to content, the biggest difference between Gen Z and older generations is their inclination to create as well as to consume. They highly value and expect personalisation. They love streaming and subtitles.
Amongst teens in the U.S., the most-used platforms according to the Pew Research Center are YouTube (95%), TikTok (67%), Instagram (62%), Snapchat (59%), Facebook (32%), and Twitter (23%).
Nearly a third of Gen Z in the U.S. live at home, while 32% who live outside their family home are spending more than half their salary on rent or mortgage payments. In addition, 39% of teens in America are earning money via a part-time job, according to the Piper Sandler Taking Stock With Teens report. The same research shows that food, clothing, and footwear are top categories for spending. Amazon is cited as the No. 1 online store by 53% of teens, and Nike is the No. 1 brand for clothing and shoes.
In research, Gen Z often say that they care about the ethics of the companies they purchase from, but their preferences for controversy-prone Amazon and Chick-fil-A (American teens’ No. 1 restaurant, according to Piper Sandler) tell a slightly different story. I think that Gen Z are hyper-aware and will judge companies who do not behave ethically, but not all of them will boycott those brands if they are still getting value from them.
You can find out more about Rachel and her work at Beginning, Middle and End.
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