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If You're Targeting Gen Z, Chances Are You're Doing It Wrong

(note: This article first appeared in Adweek, August 15, 2023. ©2023 Adweek-All Rights Reserved.)

By Ian Baer

Summer is synonymous with beach parties, cool breezes and lots of fun in the sun. For industries ranging from travel to automotive and fashion, the season is also prime for shopping, with Generation Z coming into focus as the most important and differentiated consumer cohort we’ve seen in decades.

Our latest research shows Gen Z shopping behavior is based less on who’s buying—or what they’re buying—and more on why they’re shopping in the first place. Nowhere is this truer than in social commerce.  

As most know, Gen Z begins their shopping experience on social media. But it may be a surprise to learn that only 8% of adults18 to 25 favor shopping as a social activity. In fact, the percentage of Gen Z who love shopping on social is lower than millennials, Gen X and even baby boomers. With Gen Z being the thumb generation, how is this possible?

The reason is that young adults are not engaging with their favorite social media influencers and platforms with the intent to shop. Often, engagement begins with no intent other than to pass the time, keep up or find snackable bits of entertaining content with which they identify. 

Where traditional commerce generally begins with a consumer deciding they want to buy a product and then researching the best brands in that category, Gen Z is the least likely of all generations to seek out online reviews or opinions before making a purchase. The notion of a sales funnel journey that begins with awareness and then travels to interest, intention, and purchase does not apply.  

These consumers take the express lane directly from inspiration to purchase, often in seconds. Brands (as traditionally defined) are much less relevant to Gen Z’s decision-making. In fact, around 6 in 10 Gen Z consumers say they’re not loyal to brands at all. That said, if you’re envisioning a24-year-old searching Instagram for the perfect shoes, that amounts to putting new behaviors through an old lens.

Gen Z shopping is creator-inspired and maker-sourced. Where traditional marketing strategy uses content in a supporting role behind more typical branding elements like advertising, Gen Z engagement begins with relevant content, followed by the looks and lifestyles they see from their most influential social icons. Rather than using shopping sites or search engines, they prefer buying directly from the manufacturer because it makes them feel as if they’re on the inside of a trend. In fact, our data shows that a Gen Z shopper is eight times more likely than the average American consumer to buy a product driven by an online cultural trend.  

This is not to say Gen Z is resistant to traditional ecommerce behavior. In the same way older generations use Amazon, Google and mass retail, younger shoppers do the same when replenishing a familiar product. However, we’ve found that only 1 in 3 Gen Z purchases start on a search engine or shopping site because—in those moments—“shopping” is expressly not what they have setout to do. 

Nearly all Gen Z consumers (97%) use social media for purchasing inspiration. They are thinking about that amazing summer jacket, but it takes seeing what they could be doing in that jacket to make them want to buy it in the first place. They want to borrow and curate life experiences. In other words, feelings drive how they shop. In fact, 75% of Gen Z makes online purchases based on creator recommendations, and that effect carries into retail shopping as well, where the impact of online influencers is around 80%.  

This also means that any journey maps or shopper personas currently being applied to the Gen Z market should be permanently set aside. They’re not on your path to purchase—rather, you’re a guidepost along their inspirational walk, vying for a space in the intentional life these individuals seek for themselves.

All things considered, if a brand is looking to connect with Gen Z, it will require meeting them at the point of inspiration, fully aware of who they are and what matters to them. Simply giving them what they need when they are ready to buy a product will not work. This is one more way in which understanding has become the currency of modern commerce, and the most successful brands will shift their focus from where, when and how people buy their product to the most important question of all: Why?