It's Time to Stop Observing Gen Z and Start Talking to Them

Building the trust to have real conversations

[checks watch] Ah, must be that time of year again. Time for another piece about a generation of young people that marketers are struggling to understand. And it seems like just yesterday we were all sharing articles about millennials and avocado toast and soul-crushing student loan debt. Well, I wish I had some magical answer about unlocking the mysteries of Gen Z, but connecting with people, as always, takes rolling up our sleeves and getting to know them as individuals (adding context to the behavior trends we can observe from a distance). 

Uncovering deeper, more personal insights is challenging with Gen Z because they've honed their instincts to toggle between public and private personas. They've learned from the social oversharing regrets of their older siblings and Gen X parents, and thus muted the effectiveness of the social listening tools that were so useful for picking up what millennials said so loudly and publicly.

As Gen Z turned to closed private networks to express what they really think and feel, their lack of public sharing makes engaging in honest conversations with them even more important. And Gen Z's practice of keeping up a public persona has made them both more self-aware and guarded. Which has made it harder to get them to open up about how they really feel beyond the performative responses they think we want to hear.

Big Spaceship created Reveal out of necessity. The need to engage in real conversations with this generation on an ongoing basis. What started as talking to family and friends has grown into a community of Gen Zers from across the country giving us insight into their daily lives. 

Our Reveal approach intentionally combines aspects of traditional qualitative panel-based research with everything we've learned about modern community building. Giving our members a sense of belonging has allowed us to dig into topics that are as deeply personal as how their use of photo editing apps have impacted their self-image.

Reveal has helped us understand this generation with more nuance. From the way they recognize the need to balance ideals with pragmatism ("I know fast-fashion is bad for the environment, but I'm on a limited budget so I try to make up for it in other ways"). To the way their relationships with music are influenced by access to a limitless streaming catalog (less interested in genre representing their identity, more interested in parasocial relationships with artists and finding belonging with fan communities). To the tensions that can arise between appreciation of art, artist and also fandoms (e.g., 20-year olds unironically observing things like: "I really like Rick and Morty, but I'm a little grossed out by what its fandom represents").

I'm still proud of the "First Day Feels" campaign we did for Converse a few years back. But if we had to do it today, there's no way we would have executed it in the same way. GIFs are simply no longer the natural way people that age share in group chats and DMs. Ask a recent grad if they send GIFs to friends the way they do on Slack at work. Assuming they trust you enough, they'll patiently explain that Giphy is something they use to fit in with the olds at work. It's fun, but definitely not a thing they do with their friends. But you would have never known if you hadn't asked, and that's the point. You need open lines of communication in order to have these conversations and get honest feedback. 

That's why it's time to stop observing Gen Z and start talking to them. The answers you get back from them will inevitably change over time, just like they do. But understanding what's shaping the way they see the world can't happen without building the trust to have real conversations, in real time, as fellow human beings. 

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Dan Bort
Dan Bort is SVP strategy and analytics at Big Spaceship.

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