When you look at the specifics, you'll find remarkable differences between how Gen Z and Millennials understand and use social media.
Try picturing this for a Red Bull social media campaign circa 2006: A high-budget, nine-minute YouTube video where we see steelworkers hammering together pieces of an engine; motocross cyclers revving Red Bull-branded bikes; Red Bull-branded stunt aircraft performing a dizzying series of barrel rolls and hammerhead turns; and Red Bull-branded race cars vrooming out of dust clouds and careening towards the camera.
It’s hard to even remember, but branded content videos like that didn’t exist yet. The same goes for social media “influencers” getting paid one million dollars for a single post on a single platform. You probably wouldn't have anticipated it... but there you have it. The year is 2018 and for Gen Z, experiences like these are middle-of-the-road normal.
Gen Z chooses entertainment over communicating with friends
Unlike Millennials, who still use social media primarily to keep up with their friends, personal interests and business contacts, Gen Z increasingly sees social media in the same way previous generations see Superbowl commercials: as a means of brand-sponsored mass entertainment. Gen Zers are just as likely to follow influencers on Instagram as they are likely to follow their friends.
Today, young consumers are visiting social media expecting to be entertained by brands. For Gen Zers, social media is “infotainment” where brands are creators, lavishing their audiences with compelling content not directly related to the products they’re selling them (i.e. nowhere in the Red Bull video do we ever catch a glimpse of an actual can of Red Bull), but that’s entirely brand-related.
Gen Z prefers visual over text-based social media
A recent Pew study finds that in comparison to Millennials, Gen Zers tend to favor social media platforms that are more visually-oriented and contain less messaging. With only 51 percent of US teens now using a Facebook account (a 20-percent drop from just 2014), the days of long-form blogging and long Facebook posts are fast becoming outdated.
Even as Millennials still favor Facebook above all other platforms, Gen Z has its own take on the matter. Visually-oriented social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are growing more and more popular among younger audiences. Whereas 72 percent of Gen Zers report having an Instagram account, only 57 percent of Millennials (aged 25 to 29) report the same. Likewise, the study shows a huge drop-off in Snapchat use between Millennials and Gen Zers.
Gen Zers are more cognizant of digital privacy
Gen Z are both wary and reverent of the power of social media to make or break people. As for Millennials? Not (quite) as much.
Gen Z prefers anonymous-minded social media platforms when compared to Millennials. Apps like Sarahah, Anonyfish and Minds.com, which give their users the option of hiding their photos and videos from others who share the same social network, are soaring in popularity among this demographic.
What do these apps all have in common? They address Gen Z’s desire for online privacy. According to a recent study in the E.U., Gen Zers believe the actions they take on social media today will affect their future, including their job prospects, their dating lives and even their credit scores.
Contrast that mindset with Millennials, who seem less cyber-wary by a wide margin. In fact, a January 2018 YouGov survey revealed one out of every three Millennials would like to see themselves “go viral,” a strong indicator that the public nature of social media has more allure than any downside for this generation. While further studies also show Millennials view data privacy as important, it would still appear they are less conservative in terms of how it dictates their online behavior.
Social media today is trending towards #Z
Think back to your first Facebook or LinkedIn account. Think about the excitement you felt when getting those very first “invites” from friends and business contacts. Now, fast-forward to Red Bull’s YouTube social media content marketing channel, with its eight-plus million subscribers. It’s easy to see where the future of social media is headed… and where it isn’t.