Gen Z: The Intersectional Generation and the Future of Digital Media

As Gen Z matriculates in age and begins to gain more spending power, businesses must consider them as a legitimate consumer base and massive asset. 

Businesses must understand which platforms best reach Gen Z, and what makes them a unique audience. But most importantly, they must learn how to build a system of trust with that audience. 

Research shows that publishers are already considering this. In 2018, Nielsen released research examining how Canadian publishers were doing at understanding and reaching Gen Z as an audience. Long story short, the industry was struggling. The audience insight company studied Gen Z Canadians aged 13-17, and the results showed that accounting for all cumulative ad campaigns, about 90% of impressions missed the target audience. 

While the industry’s tactics need some work, there are those working for improvement. For example, Gen Z-owned consulting firm JUV Consulting, founded by Ziad Ahmed, assists publishers and advertisers in connecting with Gen Z audiences. 

“I started the company because I realized everyone was making decisions about Gen Z, but none of us were at the table making these decisions,” said Ahmed. 

JUV Consulting: The Decision Makers

Ziad Ahmed founded JUV Consulting when he was a junior in high school. He received opportunities from his non-profit Redefy, an organization committed to equality, that allowed Ahmed to enter the rooms of decision-makers, politicians, and industry leaders. He realized that many were talking about the younger generation, but they weren’t talking to them directly or considering their point of view. 

“My junior year of high school, I got into consulting with this idea that I believe the world is better with equality at the table,” said Ahmed. “And we’ve been fighting to make that a welcome provision for the last seven years, and that’s what we do at JUV consulting.” 

What started as three high school students launching a business has transformed into a consulting company of 100 strategic consultants and creative freelancers, all between the ages of 14-23. All-encompassing the demographic they advocate for — Gen Z. With many services such as brand positioning, campaign strategy, and social media audits, they are better positioned to understand Gen Z’s perspectives and needs as an audience. JUV has worked with brands such as BET, Unilever, and VF Group, who all assert that the digital marketing agency helped their campaigns connect better with Gen Z. 

“VF and our top global brands (Vans, Jansport, North Face, etc.) have gained valuable perspective from JUV consulting,” said Kent Bassett, VP of Global Consumer and Shopper Insights, VF Group. “JUV’s deep understanding of the Gen Z consumer has informed brand strategy, campaign development, and HR strategy at VF.” 

Who is Gen Z?

Generation Z encompasses people born between 1997 and 2012, but how are they unique as an audience? 

Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, which informs their ideology as an audience. Also, their era is unique since this is the first audience age demographic to be truly immersed in digital. As a generation, Gen Z doesn’t remember a time before social media, smartphones, or the internet. 

“Gen Z is distinct because of these life moments. And so subsequently, Gen Z has pushed on this idea of pluralism and intersectionality,” said Ahmed. “There’s a sense that who we are is much larger than ourselves as individuals, but who we are as a collective. It is central to how Gen Z navigates the world because we are exposed to many stories and realities, and humans have so much contact. The exposure to the information and the diversity of that information has made our generation much more intersectional in our thinking.” 

Brand market research backs this claim. Most Gen Z consumers say they trust brands that have similar values, sustain ethical standards, and do good for the world. They expect brands to contribute to the betterment of society, and 61% of Gen Z consumers said they would pay more for products if brands produced them in sustainable and ethical ways. 

Gen Z is also in tune with privacy concerns. While most Gen Z says they are fine with brands collecting their personal data, they urge brands to be transparent about how they use it. This is a sentiment the ad tech community is keenly aware of. 

How are Publishers Attempting to Reach Gen Z? 

In 2018, the results were grim for publishers hoping to connect with Gen Z audiences, but what does the data say now? 

According to Digiday’s State of Publishers Audiences survey, the results fluctuate, and to this day, publishers are invested in engaging with this audience. About 47% of publishers in the survey said that Gen Z makes up more than 41% of their audience. On the other hand, the results say publishers are missing opportunities to build long-term relationships with them. 

On the other hand, some publishers are getting it right. For example, Blavity launched Blavity U in 2021 to reach Gen Z audiences. While their media company initially targeted Black millennials, they wanted to create content that resonated with the younger generation. With the launch of Blavity U, Blavity reaches about 250 million Black and multicultural millennials and Gen Z each month. 

Blavity also engages with Gen Z via the social channels that resonate with them most. “Our brands are regularly creating content on TikTok and YouTube for this audience,” said Gina Perino, VP Ad Operations and Strategy, Blavity. 

“At the older end of Gen Z are early career professionals who are establishing roots and making purchasing decisions that will influence their spending habits for years to come. They are more likely to engage with brands online and are more likely to make purchases through digital channels. Not engaging with this generation is a missed opportunity,” she added.

Another publisher, Brainly, built a core demographic of Gen Z consumers. A massive part of that success is the app’s function — it helps students answer homework questions — but it highlights a good point. Publishers must understand and cater to consumers’ needs. 

“Gen-Z leans into platforms that provide some kind of value related to their day-to-day needs and preferences, whether that is for entertainment relief in Tiktok or other social media, social gaming with friends, or engaging with a learning community and studying on educational apps like Brainly,” said Willaim Won, Senior Director, Sales Operations, Brainly.

Won also acknowledges brand safety concerns when targeting Gen Z, under 18. Brainly’s safety tactics are conservative regarding collecting and using this demographic data for measurement, deployment, and targeting purposes. This is especially important as the federal government is becoming stricter with how publishers aggregate data from minors. 

For segmenting and contextual targeting, Brainly ensures to differentiate the needs of young Gen Z who are still in school and those who are joining the workforce. 

“It’s an interesting audience to reach because younger Gen Z is likely still in school and studying for exams, while the older end of the Gen Z spectrum may be on the job hunt and in the early stages of their careers, and so you can’t have a generalized approach with your messaging,” said Won.