Traditional media companies have struggled to stay connected with audiences since the rise of social media. Now as news and entertainment firms compete for the attention of Generation Z, which makes up a quarter of the global population, they face a new challenge – the influencers who cultivate content and steer the conversation for these young consumers.
As the first generation to grow up in a fully saturated social media landscape, Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) have a natural affinity for influencers. Sixty-three percent of them know or follow influencers on social media compared with 27% of non-Gen Zers, and 45% want to see even more content on social media from influencers compared to 31% of other generations) In order to reshape their own strategies, traditional media firms need to understand why Gen Zers are drawn to influencers. We see three key lessons that stand out for traditional media:
Provide the social connection and engagement that Gen Zers seek
This young generation turns to social media — especially platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch — to find a sense of community and belonging. They spend almost twice as much time on social media each day than older generations and engage with content much differently through things like digital watch parties, #trends on TikTok, and interactive livestreams (See our Gen Z report for a deep dive). Influencers play a big role in this process, engaging directly with their fans and sparking conversations with Gen Z audiences that satisfy their desire for socialization and community.
This presents a challenge for traditional entertainment media, which typically regard content as one-way traffic and provide fewer opportunities for viewers to engage. To connect with Gen Zers, media companies should create content environments that are conducive to discussion and interaction. Sparking online conversations around content and running active, Gen Z-fluent social media accounts might be a logical first step. For example, a viral TikTok soundbite from an interview between Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, two stars of the hit show House of the Dragon, helped to generate significant buzz and drive social media engagement around the show in the middle of its first season.
Understand the audience and be authentic—nothing’s off the table
Compared with other generations, Gen Zers are more in touch with their emotions, open to self-expression, and willing to discuss their vulnerabilities. Almost a quarter attend therapy and 40% are willing to discuss topics like sexism in the workplace compared to 11% and 23%, respectively, of other generations. This openness and vulnerability make Gen Zers a complicated, sensitive audience. Nearly a third of them feel misunderstood on at least one of their values, so they place a premium on relatability and authenticity, and connect most with influencers who seem to be genuine and honest. This likely explains why Gen Zers place so much trust in their favorite influencers. Thirty-seven percent of them trust influencers more than TV or radio news presenters.
For media companies, appearing to be authentic can be tricky. Many companies simply try to check the box by dropping buzzwords or one-off references to issues that resonate with Generation Z, but Gen Zers are particularly adept at sniffing out inauthentic efforts. The HBO show Velma, a spinoff of sorts of the long-running animated mystery series Scooby-Doo, attempted to appeal to socially conscious Gen Zers with discussions of race and police tensions, as well as a diverse cast featuring a South Asian bisexual woman as the lead character. However, the show was perceived by Gen Zers as almost mocking progressives; it appeared lazy, cheap and cringeworthy. The show received only a 7% audience score on review site Rotten Tomatoes and has received considerable backlash from fans amid the production of the show’s second season.
To reach Gen Z audiences, media firms should prioritize content with depth and raw, informal tonality. It also helps to let Gen Zers drive the agenda—for these audiences, no content or conversation is off the table. Showtime’s late-night variety show, Ziwe—which received 31% perfect 10/10 audience ratings on IMDb and a 73% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes—starred an influencer whose sharp interviews, unedited style, and open discussion of complicated social topics were a hit with Gen Z audiences. Ziwe resonated because of its willingness to challenge established norms or expectations, and to spark nuanced and difficult conversations about race, politics, and other social topics—the kind of dialogue that Generation Z is more willing to have than other generations. News of the show’s recent cancellation sent the internet into a frenzy, with one Twitter user saying: “What kind of insane world do we live in where Ziwe gets cancelled? Someone pick up the show please.”
Meet Gen Zers where they are in terms of platforms and formats
Fifty-seven percent of Gen Zers say it’s more convenient to consume news on social media than to look it up on news media websites or apps. It also is the only generation to put social media as its top-ranked information source. Gen Zers prefer their information in concise formats, such as short videos or brief articles, more than older generations. Trouble is, traditional media’s long-format content and formal style does not always translate well to these platforms.
Influencer-driven media provides the quick, digestible content Gen Zers crave, and places relevant news and information into a Gen Z context, making it more relatable and engaging. Traditional media should consider taking a page from this playbook. Consider the success of the Washington Post’s TikTok account. The newspaper let a young video producer, Dave Jorgenson, launch the account in 2019. Through sketch-based news recaps and discussion of Gen Z-focused pop culture news, Jorgenson has sparked engagement with the Post’s content, garnering over a million followers on TikTok and hundreds of thousands of comments.
Gen Zers have different attitudes and behaviors than older generations, and media companies need to acknowledge that if they want to engage Gen Z audiences. By embracing strategies that prioritize socialization, authenticity, and short-form content, traditional media companies have the opportunity to engage and build loyalty with this rising generation.
Leona Chao and Gregory Block contributed to this article.