How Will Gen Z Disrupt TV & Video

By Robin Hafitz, CEO/Founder of Open Mind Strategy // Originally published on Radio+Television Business Report on April 14th, 2017

Just as marketers have finally mastered millennials (they tend to be more idealistic, need more feedback, and likely to see their “side hustle” as core to their identity), along comes Gen Z.  This cohort, with its highly unsatisfying name (what will we call the next wave now that we’re out of letters?), ranges from tweens to those up to the age of 20. In that stage of life, marketers dream of connecting early to drive brand loyalty before habits harden. 

As researchers, we’re constantly in the field, speaking to and surveying consumers — especially young consumers — for clients in categories ranging from business to baubles.  In some ways, we find Gen Z to be “amplified Millennials” – even more diverse and committed to diversity, for example.

In other ways, we find them to be “anti-Millennials” – less idealistic and more cynical.  One particularly interesting thing is learning just how different Gen Z is regarding video content compared to Millennials. Marketers and programmers shouldn’t expect that the tricks that work with Millennials will continue to work with younger consumers. When it comes to TV and video, it’s now well known that Millennials led the charge as “Cord Cutters” and “Cord Nevers.”

This cohort also developed a love of television that helped propel offerings of the “new golden age of TV,” such as AMC Networks’ “The Walking Dead,” and the hit NBC drama “This Is Us,” to new heights.  Millennials gave us the paradox of passion for TV content without a passion for television sets, as seen in the rise of streaming services and bold cable channels like FX and AMC that specialize in appointment viewing.  This year’s most digitally shared Super Bowl spot was for the Netflix show “Stranger Things” – an example that encapsulates the Millennial mindset. They love high production values, are open to advertising if it’s entertaining, are on the lookout for their “next show,” and are likely to continue turning to television-style content as a favorite way to spend time – especially from programmers such as Netflix, which they trust for excellent storytelling and for letting them watch on their own time.

Gen Z: A Passion For YouTube

Gen Z, though not much younger than Millennials, did not develop the same interest in TV-style programming as kids. They don’t seem to be picking it up as they start to enter adulthood.  If Netflix became the power brand for Millennials through original content, the entertainment brand that most mirrors Gen Z is, without question, YouTube.

YouTube embodies a shift in preference from longer-form to shorter-form content, and also shows us how Gen Z likes to “binge,” a habit that will likely continue as they move out of their teen years “Pringles-style,” consuming lots of bite-sized pieces. Being habituated to watching for long stretches – but only if the entertainment continues to offer a high level of engagement – has implications for marketers and programmers.

Gen Z demands involvement at every moment of their viewing experience.  Whereas Millennials often love the masterful storytelling involved in a long lead up to a fabulous and surprising pay-off, the Gen Zers we talk to have no tolerance for waiting for the end to get the value of what they’re watching.  They want to be engaged all along, by amusing talk, or surprising visuals in the background, or constant humor.  Growing up on short-form content has trained them to dole out their attention in short-form units.

You Tube Democratizes Celebrity

“The YouTube Effect” is not just about shorter-form content.  YouTube has also been the showplace for the democratization of “celebrity,” along with the professionalization of amateur video.  Gen Z likes, trusts, and watches more content that comes from “regular people,” versus big Hollywood stars.  They love the authenticity, accessibility, and feeling of connection they have with stars like [the infamous] PewdiePie, elrubiusOMG, Ray William Johnson, and Michelle Phan more than the polished “perfection” of big names known to their elders.  They might prefer to watch young folks very much like themselves unboxing new gaming equipment to watching live sports.  Marketers who try to take wildly popular YouTube phenoms and “transfer” them to TV or movie-like environments may miss the point.  They may think they’re offering a bigger platform to popular stars, without recognizing that the medium can change the message. Gen Zers – very entrepreneurial, and hoping to “make it” – truly like seeing others “make it” … literally.

The tools that are available to make amateur videos less “amateur hour” are not just in the hands of YouTube stars, but in the hands of their audience members as well.  For Gen Zers, watching something they could have made themselves gives a feeling of involvement that a slick production can’t provide.  Imperfect people — kind of like them, often being unpredictable, sharing their own ADD, and giving them a feeling of personal participation — is what Gen Z is looking for, rather than high production values and the storytelling sophistication Millennials love.

Gaming is Shaping Viewing Preferences

YouTube is not the only force shaping Gen Z preferences. The other key example is in some ways YouTube’s polar opposite.  Beyond YouTube, the major entertainment category shaping Gen Z preferences is gaming.  Game experiences often deploy cutting-edge video technologies, and Gen Z has grown accustomed to the “total immersion” such tech creates.  For video content to be as immersive as gaming, it needs to fully engage the senses beyond the visual, which may mean a change in what is meant by “high production values.”

“The gaming effect” shares something with “the YouTube effect” – content that allows for a greater sense of participation. Consumers used to be content to sit back and watch pretty pictures, but Gen Z increasingly demands to feel as if they are in on the action, either through avatars or by watching someone like themselves doing something they, too, can do, or through new methods.  In thinking about which emerging methods will “hit,” no-one can say with certainty what the future will bring, but we can count on new technologies, from VR to new social media, to continue to allow video content to be more immersive, more woven into everyday life.  As “entertainment” escapes its traditional boundaries, expect changes not just in how TV and video are viewed, but in what they are.

Amplified Millennial Trends

So far, we’ve been focusing on how Gen Z’s “anti-Millennial” leanings will affect video and TV.  But there are also “amplified Millennial” trends effecting the future of TV and video content.

For example, anyone with a young child has probably witnessed something we call the “Control Freak Out.”  Consumers have been increasingly in control of entertainment content; Millennials drove the rush to on-demand and streaming content, which increased viewer control. Gen Zers are even more intense.  Kids as young as toddlers are known to absolutely lose it if the screen they face can’t be controlled by their touch.  Expect young consumers to demand more control than ever, from touch screens everywhere to alternative storylines. These demands will call for new ways of telling and programming stories to keep emerging audiences engaged.

We’ve seen Millennials enjoy a certain tension between being in control and being out-of-control when it comes to video content.  They want content on their own schedule (we call that “IWWIWWIWI” , or, “I want what I want when I want it”), but love content that takes them for a ride, with immersive and dark story lines, or live events/content that produces a feeling of being connected to a group or moment that is larger than themselves.  We suspect Gen Z will also want to experience that same tension, but their demands on both sides of the equation – feeling in control, and being taken for a ride – will be more extreme.  Think participatory, twisted and twisting storylines – so often seen in the world(s) of gaming.

Shift from Words to Visual Communication Continues

Another way that Gen Z appears to be “amplified Millenials” is their visual orientation.  We see the shift from words as a primary way to communicate to visuals in the proliferation of emoji.  Grinder’s recent release of “Gaymoji” is a nod to how important visuals are in people’s interpersonal communications– as well as a smart move to increase user engagement with their platform.

Finally, one way in which we see Gen Z behaves similarly to Millennials is in their reliance on brands.  Though the long and painstaking process brands used to have to take to become known can now be accelerated by those lucky enough to “hit” in a socially connected media environment, we’re finding that brands are no less important to young consumers than to older cohorts.  The hyperchoice offered in today’s entertainment landscape actually means that Gen Z-ers, like Millennials, rely on “brands” – such as Netflix, but also on “branded personalities” and YouTube channels – to navigate their way to the stuff they want, and to reassure them that they’re making the right choice. The work put into “brand-building,” though shifting, is still well worth the trouble.

As Gen Z defines their behaviors around TV and video content (including video advertising), expect more changes.  As this happens, keep in mind these guiding concepts – “The YouTube Effect” (short form attention spans – even during long-form viewing, the democratization of celebrity, implied participation), “The Gaming Effect” (participation, immersion, control + out-of-control), “Control Freak Outs,” (amplified need for control), “Picture People” (the value of visuals), and the continued importance of “Brand Building.”

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Robin Hafitz is the founder and CEO of Open Mind Strategy, a marketing research company that delivers strategic and tactical recommendations, customized methodology and reporting, and reporting to companies across the U.S. She launched Open Mind Strategy in fall 2010, and recent assignments have included work for The Food Network, Travel Channel, several non-profits, and a number of advertising agencies. Hafitz is based in Midtown Manhattan, New York.