Gen Z and Social Media: What PR and Marketing are Overlooking

PR pros and marketers know plenty about Gen Z, the group of Americans born after 1996. In addition to their racial and ethnic diversity and the potential to be the most-educated generation, they’re probably known best for an affinity with social media. Indeed, they average 2 hours and 55 minutes per day on social.

Yet PR pros and marketers have saddled Gen Z with several stereotypes. They reflect Gen Z behavior, but miss the underlying psychology. A better understanding of Gen Z's social media motivation may bolster your targeted campaign.

Peer pressure is an important factor driving Gen Z's heavy engagement. Humans are inherently social and desire a sense of belonging. Gen Z seeks this connection online, having created a rich, quickly evolving culture through social media.

Members of this generation feel pressure to be in the know with the latest humor, nostalgia, lingo and pop-culture references. Remaining current requires consistent engagement, as social media enables rapid virality and changes in trends.

In addition, Gen Z feels pressure to engage with peers on social, which has become an extension of day-to-day interactions. Unspoken rules, which vary by platform, guide online etiquette. For example, in many friend groups, there is an expectation to like and comment. Gen Z is receiving marketing and advertising content while adhering to these online social norms.

Offline factors and online behavior

While Gen Z’s high level of online engagement seems tantalizing for PR and marketers, it’s rarely a direct line. For instance, engagement often occurs in distracting settings. There’s a lot of automatic processing and users often expend little cognitive effort on content.

When creating content, marketers should be aware of how environments unique to Gen Z affect consumption. For example, much of Gen Z is in school, and students frequently check social media while walking between classes (or even in class).

Furthermore, 66 percent of Gen Z frequently use multiple devices simultaneously. A typical Gen Z is streaming Netflix while checking Instagram. Many descriptions of Gen Z fail to address these environmental factors. Offline behaviors provide important insights to online behaviors.

Moreover, environments Gen Z engages with social media vary by platform. Instagram and Snapchat feature primarily visual content and allow engagement in distracting, public settings.

In contrast, TikTok depends on audio, and users are more likely to use the platform privately. Platform-specific content can be optimized for these settings and their resulting psychological impact.

Who needs influencers? 

Social platforms serve as catalysts for word-of-mouth communication amongst Gen Z. As a result, peer content is critical.

While influencers can reach Gen Z, non-influencers also are extremely important. Their low-key content is perceived as raw and authentic, characteristics Gen Z values.

Comments are entertainment

Gen Z greatly enjoys reading and engaging with the comments section on social. Members spend as much or more time on it than viewing original content. Gen Z is quick to post and comment, contributing immediate, blunt reactions. As Gen Z users compete for likes, comments are humorous, dramatic or even antagonistic.

As such, marketers should pay close attention to comments, as they shape and reframe how viewers interpret content. Furthermore, marketers can directly observe Gen Z’s communication, gaining insight about lingo, memes and trends.

Content and algorithms

When creating Gen Z content, consider algorithms. Just as SEO determines web search results, algorithms underlying social media platforms determine which content achieves popularity, and thus, cannot be ignored.

Many algorithms are heavily dependent on engagement. Development of provocative, intriguing, comment-worthy content that stimulates engagement can leverage algorithms to achieve greater reach.

Elise Karinshak is a Foundation Fellow at University of Georgia, class of 2023