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The rise of affinity networks: why marketers need to engage Gen Zers with non-disruptive ads

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There's a widening gap between how marketers and younger audiences perceive advertising - and it could cost brands a fortune, unless they’re able to find new ways of engaging Gen Z audiences both online and in-app. When an entire generation prefers movie theater ads and outdoor signage over digital campaigns, you'd best pay attention.

According to one recent study, brands that disrupt Gen Zers online or in-app with advertising seem to be getting the same warm reception that telemarketers once did: the digital cold shoulder.

One of the most promising ways that brands can engage Gen Zers is through intent-based advertising - the sort already offered by emerging Affinity Network marketing platforms. These always-on networks are able to cut through the noise and omni-clutter of disruptive advertising, offering younger audiences what they want, when they want it.


Disruption might feel like an “au current” buzzword, but the truth is that most advertising is disruptive. A brief history of advertising shows disruptiveness has been its nature since time (and technology) immemorial. In order to listen, watch or read the content they love, generation after generation has had to endure commercial break after commercial break. And they’re getting a bit weary of it.

In 1935, when Parisians first turned on their radio sets to Publicis-owned Radio Cité, they weren’t looking to hear catchy jingles for Levitan Furniture or André Shoes; they were hoping to hear the latest hits from Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker. Likewise, when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the 73 million Americans who watched them on TV that night weren’t there to watch commercials for Aero Shave and Griffin Shoe Polish.

Why Disruptive Ads Belong in 1935

Advertisers need to stop looking for ways to disrupt young people’s lives. (Hint: Young people don’t like it, and they’re not buying it.)

The challenge is one of perception. Marketers see modern advertising as coming from a long and hallowed line of “disruptiveness,” going all the way back to French radio. For them, it’s the same-old strategy, executed with a brand-new delivery platform.

The only problem is that Gen Zers don't see it that way. They view the “disruptions” of advertising as invasions of privacy - not to mention a waste of of their time. Which leads to the widespread adoption of technologies like ad-blockers among Gen Z.

The digital natives of Gen Z aren’t waiting around for display or in-stream video ads to load so brands can make their pitch to them. Studies like Millward Brown’s AdReaction survey have found that 51 percent of Gen Zers use ad-blocking to stop advertisements dead in their tracks, while another 40 percent “ just stare at the ad until it goes away.”

Ad-blocking isn’t the only thing that’s creating a barrier between Gen Zers and advertising. With the advent of online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, the need to wade through video ads in order to access quality video content doesn’t feel as much of a necessary inconvenience anymore.

As if there wasn't enough standing between advertisers and Gen Zers, the cost of digital advertising is also rising steadily. Advertisers spent a record-breaking $83 billion on digital ads in 2017 - a number easily eclipsing television ad-spend. Too bad they also found themselves paying 12 percent more than what they paid just two years ago, according to Adobe Digital Insights.

The fact is that disruptive advertising is lagging behind the wants, needs and attention spans of an entire generation of young consumers.

But for marketers and agencies, there’s always a way to keep ahead. You just need to know where to look.

Affinity Networks Are Here to Stay

For brands who find themselves over-reliant on disruptive advertising for their marketing strategy, partnering with an affinity marketing network can help.

Affinity marketing networks are platforms that enhance the lives of a particular audience and demographic in a number of ways. They connect their members with brands, products and services that cater to their everyday wants, interests and needs. Rather than pepper-spraying their target audience with real-time programmatic advertising, they strive to bring additional value to the table. They provide their members with discounts and special offers that are exclusive to that audience - and to that audience alone. The best affinity marketing networks also seek to bring long-term value to their members’ futures.

The audience demographics served by affinity networks can vary widely. What do the AARP and the NFL both have in common? Not all that much on the face of it, beyond the fact they both happen to be extremely effective affinity networks.

Founded in 1958, the AARP is famous for securing health insurance for older Americans. To this day, it provides seniors with exclusive offers and discounts - medical and otherwise - that stand to improve their lives.

Now, take the NFL. They connect brands with audiences in a way that’s inimitable, especially among younger audiences. In fact, after Super Bowl Sunday in 2016, a slight majority of millennials and Gen Zers (26 percent vs. 24 percent) reported they enjoyed the advertising more than the game itself. On the one hand, Super Bowl advertising is, of course, technically “disruptive”. But on the other hand, it’s hard to call an ad “disruptive” if an audience prefers it to the largest annual sports event in the United States.

But affinity marketing platforms aren’t limited to healthcare and sports. In fact, if you’re a brand looking to improve its ability to engage members of Generation Z online, you’ve actually arrived at the perfect website.

That is to say, your surest bet for engaging members of Generation Z is partnering with, well, er… us. UNiDAYS, that is.

As the world’s largest Student Affinity Network, we have the ability to connect brands to a worldwide student body of over 142 million...and counting. Our platform is currently capable of verifying the authenticity of roughly 70 percent of the world’s university students. (In other words, we don’t accept fake IDs. You have to be an actual student to access our student incentive programs.)

Our platform captures redemptions (i.e. how many people click to get an individual offer code) from both the UNiDAYS app as well as our website. Using this data, we can gain swift insight into how best we can tweak brand programs to the audiences they’re looking to engage.

We believe the future lies in intent-based marketing rather than disruptive marketing. People can come to our platform and wait for brands in real-time. In a sense, we take our cues from Radio Cité and the Ed Sullivan Show. People “tune into” our platform or app in the same way people once tuned in to watch The Beatles playing live.

And we do it all without any commercial breaks.

To say that disruptive advertising is done would be a huge overstatement. It doubtlessly will continue on despite all the inconvenience and invasiveness it causes - and will likewise remain hugely profitable. After all, imagine a Super Bowl without commercials. You just can’t. It isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

But there’s something to be said for intent-based, non-disruptive advertising. It’s what Gen Z seems to prefer. And after all, who doesn’t want to do right by an influential group that offers the highest lifetime value of any consumer today.

John Wheeler
John Wheeler
Managing Editor, Gen Z Insights

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