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Design & Marketing

[This blog was originally posted at the Polymath Innovations]

The past 15 years have seen countless think pieces on millennial attitudes, trends, and preferences, and how to engage that group born in the ’80s through mid-’90s. But if you haven’t noticed already, 2020 marked a seismic shift as the next generation has taken the spotlight.

You can think of Gen Z as anyone currently in school or launching into their early career. We don’t yet have a solid end point—defining generational transitions tends to be a retrospective task—but the eldest Gen Z-ers are approaching 25 years of age. Already, they have made their mark on higher education, the music industry, and social media. And they are only just beginning to move into the workplace, where we’ll truly see how their attitudes evolve into a more mature form.

Here are a few things we know about Gen Z already:

  • They’re the largest and most diverse generation in American history.
  • Most weren’t born before the 9/11 attacks and were too young to remember much about the 2008 financial crisis; but, the unstable aftermath of these events were ever-present on the news and at their dinner tables.
  • They’ve never known a world where the Internet was not part of daily life. They were the first generation to have their baby pictures shared via email, Facebook and Instagram.
  • Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets were commonplace by the time they were in middle school.
  • Online bullying and lack of privacy were defining features of their school and social life.

Given the above, it comes as no surprise that the following are also true:

  • They’re more likely to shop on mobile (2 times more than even millennials), and they’re more accepting of companies tracking their data to deliver personalized ads and experiences.
  • They’re widely recognized as being more practical and pragmatic when it comes to spending and finances.
  • They’re strong advocates for a more just, equitable world.
  • They prefer raw and candid authenticity over scripted and polished production.
  • They prefer the diversity of the unique and quirky over the blandness of the safe and predictable.

All of these characteristics are feeding into a few macro-trends that today’s marketers need to understand in order to effectively reach Gen Z.

Macro-trend 1: More visual/video-based content; less traffic to websites

Millennials drove the explosion of Facebook and Twitter, where text-based status updates, blogs, and article links filled your social feed. Gen Z, however, came of age as social media (and data bandwidth) matured to allow more visual content, and they accordingly prefer the video-centric experiences offered by Instagram, YouTube, and newcomer TikTok. 

Of course, Mark Zuckerburg has been working to add TikTok-esque functionality to Instagram and to better integrate the cross-platform experience between Instagram and Facebook, both of which are helping to slow the shift away from their networks.

This isn’t to say that Gen Z entirely eschews text-based communication, but most of their chatting has moved into more private messaging apps like WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook).

The takeaway here is twofold: 

  1. First, video content is no longer optional (more on that in the next section), and…
  2. Second, Gen Z’s optimal online experience is built more around a handful of self-contained apps and social content than a collection of websites.

The paradigm in which brands used to view their website as the primary hub of audience communication is now outdated, thanks to Gen Z; marketers must now aim to engage and inform audiences where they are already, only driving them back to the website for details and special offers. This has huge implications for content marketing strategies.

It should be noted that, along with video content, the online gaming world has grown massively. Indeed, gaming platforms are an often overlooked form of “social media,” where popular titles like Fortnite are bonafide cultural landmarks.

Macro-trend 2: Low-fi “authentic” content goes mainstream

The world millennials grew up in had two types of people: celebrities and everyone else. Celebrities were seen in professional content made for the masses. Average people just shared their mostly low-fi photos and videos with friends. The lines began to blur with the rise of “influencers” who carefully curated their pseudo-celebrity personas. This trend picked up steam, cameras got way better, and, eventually, the perfectly composed photos of lattes and tourist destinations became millennial staples. “We can’t all be celebrities, but we can look like it.”

By the time Gen Z came of age, the idea of letting others into your little world evolved from a protected novelty to a thing everyone just does. To Gen Z, the difference between a celebrity and non-celebrity is whether one’s content goes viral. We are all creators and potential celebrities, therefore, and everyone has a stage. For these people whose whole lives have already been captured and shared online, that stage is a place to offer up their full selves, not a polished production.

Gen Z values authenticity. They publish social content the same way they would talk to a close friend, and they expect others will engage with the same level of raw honesty.

We saw this trend ripple across culture in 2020, when actual celebrities were forced to perform concerts and host talk shows from their couches. In some respects, the rest of the world has simply joined Gen Z and brought their stripped-down, low-fi approach to content to the mainstream.

Macro-trend 3: Customization evolves to interactivity

Similar to the change in dynamics that makes everyone a celebrity, we’ve experienced a massive evolution from one-way communication (TV, radio, etc.) to two-way communication (social posts/comments), and now to something that resembles “hive” communication (content, conversations, and gameplay that occur via networks of people). 

One person can create a TikTok of a drum beat. A dozen others might “duet” the post by adding their own instruments. Others can then add their own performance to the second set of videos, and so on, until there are hundreds of songs born from the same root. Take, as another example, the exploration happening in choose-your-own-adventure storylines for film and TV. While these may never become the norm, the experiments show how content creation is no longer the exclusive domain of high-paid producers and gatekeepers. 

Gen Z expects a certain openness and interactivity to the creative process, where users are able to contextualize and contribute to the experience for themselves and for others. Gone are the simple (yet not-so-distant) days of personalized or customized content; this is the era of mass, user-generated content. Technologies like virtual reality and AI will continue advancing this trend in new ways.

Macro-Trend 4: Values-driven brand messaging

Millennials wanted their careers and purchase decisions to have meaningful impact, believing drivers of the economy shouldn’t only be focused on making money but also using their power to create a positive influence. Gen Z carries that same ethos with an even more activist bent.

Most millennials didn’t outright say they would support or avoid brands with certain political ties or positions. They were simply more likely to purchase from a brand that was doing something to serve others. In today’s highly polarized political environment, and with the rise of “cancel culture” and public virtue-signaling, young people are looking to associate (or disassociate) with brands depending on their stances on major issues. For Gen Z, buying a product is more than buying a product; it is casting a vote of support for a personified brand and what that company stands for…a reflection of their own identity and the change they want to see in the world.

A few bits of advice

So, what do we do with this information? How do we reach, engage, and cultivate relationships with Gen Z?

#1: Focus on your video content strategy

What does your presence look like on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok? Are you creating regular video content that answers questions your audience has? Are you bringing humor, narrative, and originality into your content (or should you)? Are you doing live streams and webinars?

Consider the devices people are using. If you’re targeting Gen Z, you should probably be shooting/editing video for both horizontal and vertical formats that will translate on smartphones. 

We’ve all gotten accustomed to the idea that everyone needs a blog. But if Facebook and text-based content are no longer the dominant inbound marketing channels they once were, the next time you go to write a blog, you may consider shooting a short video instead (or at least alongside it).

#2: Evaluate everything you’re doing through the lens of authenticity and interaction

Ask yourself, “Am I making a personal and human connection here, or might this come across as manufactured or manipulative?” This isn’t to say there’s no place for high-quality production and scripting, but we should be far less reliant on traditional assumptions about what people expect and want. Where Gen X and Millennials may have seen high-value production as a sign of credibility and trust, Gen Z is more convinced by spur-of-the-moment, I-had-a-thought-to-share-and-didn’t-even-change-my-clothes transparency, especially if you’re not afraid to also invite your audience to contribute in some way. Vulnerability is highly valued. There is a time and place for polished content. But, there is also a growing place for spontaneous, low-fi brand content.

#3: Think about how to make your mobile experiences as seamless as possible

Do you sell products online? How easy is it to see something in a social post, browse similar items, and make a purchase from a phone—or, even better, without leaving the social app? How easy is it to try alternatives at home and/or send back unwanted items? Do you have augmented reality features that let people see an item in their home?

Even if you don’t sell products, does your website and/or app allow people to easily get info they need and take important actions from their phone, or is the experience a little clunky on mobile devices? Consider how information architecture can be designed for mobile gestures and screens, mimicking the kind of UX found in popular social media apps.

#4: Have the courage to plant a stake in the ground when it comes to values and public issues.

Brands who wish to connect with their Gen Z audience must do so in a way that resonates with their audience’s values, ideas, and interests. There are millions of brands out there, and they are all equally accessible online. For Gen Z, the choice of which brands to engage with is deeply personal, and whether it becomes a loyal relationship or not depends on how well the company delivers on its promise and values. Keep the promise and they’ll be your brand advocate. Break that trust, and they will not hesitate to move on.

SXSW 2019

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Design & Marketing

It’s 2026. Hundreds of tiny sensors are observing your every gesture, and microphones are listening to your every command.

The things around you respond like a robot orchestra as a virtual assistant feeds you personalized advice on everything from health and wellness to financial planning, all in real time.

You head to a restaurant where the menu is displayed digitally through your AR glasses, and recommendations are provided based on your sleeping patterns, activity, and fitness goals, as well as your personal genetics and microbiome. Out comes a 3D-printed sushi roll that contains precisely the nutrients you need and the flavors you love.

Such a future seems almost inevitable from the many talks and exhibitions encountered at last week’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX. Born as a music festival in the 1970’s, SXSW has evolved to cover every imaginable topic that stands at the intersection of creativity, technology, industry, and culture. It draws forward-looking thinkers and creators from across the globe to explore the very cutting-edge of where we are today, and what’s possible as we push into the future.


If there was one consistent theme in 2019, it was the blurring of lines between physical and digital, and the increasing demand for the kind of immersive, interactive experiences it is now possible to create.

There are different ways of thinking about these line-blurring experiences. I’ll touch on three current trends: virtual reality, experiential marketing, and multilinear storytelling.

Virtual Reality

The Virtual Cinema ballroom featured a host of content producers giving audiences a first look at short stories, films, and games experienced entirely through VR. Two that I found particularly interesting were the short animation Gloomy Eyes and first-person sci-fi game Eleven Eleven. In experiences like these, we’re finally beginning to see some of the promise of VR take shape.

In a conversation with Gary Radburn, head of VR technologies at Dell and highly demanded speaker on the topic, I asked what he thought was the key breakthrough that will be the watershed moment in VR. His response: “Two things. Full 360 degree movement without cables or heavy equipment strapped to our back (which we are achieving this year), and content that is so compelling it drives people into stores to buy headsets in droves.” Today, VR is largely relegated to trade show booths and consumer electronics expos, but we’re set for this field to explode in the next few years.

SYFY’s Eleven Eleven was an impressive gaming experience

Experiential Marketing

Studies have confirmed that millennials value experiences over things, so it’s no surprise that the marketing industry has figured out how to capitalize on it. Amusement has always been a money maker, but instead of charging at the door, experiential marketing is about taking the fun out into the open public and creating a brand connection that is memorable and meaningful.

Last year, HBO put on an activation that made national headlines with its real-life Westworld experience. Giant Spoon, the production company behind the idea, came back this year with another highly talked-about experience for the final season of Game of Thrones. These immersive and interactive experiences are all about taking the audience into a world they’ve only seen digitally, and an immense level of thinking goes into making every sensory detail just right in order to transport your brain from the real world to the created one.

In an on-stage interview, Giant Spoon’s lead creatives talked about one of the benefits of experiential marketing: “You have the opportunity to move the customer through the whole funnel at once, from introduction to education to conversion, and even brand loyalty.”

Game of Thrones activation at SXSW 2019

Interactivity and User-controlled Storytelling

If you’ve seen Netflix’s Bandersnatch, you’ve taken place in an emerging experiment in interactive, multilinear storytelling. Already, software has been developed for scriptwriters to create branches of their story, and companies like CtrlMovie are offering films where the audience collectively decides what the characters will do at certain junctures in the story (while retaining some mystery, of course).

This experiment is largely a response to the changing nature of how we consume media. The internet has broken down the barriers of communication so that the old one-way platforms are giving way to two-way platforms, and content is finally catching up. Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti asked SXSW audiences to embrace the unique opportunities for engagement that is now possible with online media. “Involve your audience in the story,” he said, by offering ways for them to express their ideas and interests. By doing so, he argued, you create a story that is more relevant to them and that they feel they took part in creating. And that is ultimately about cultivating a relationship, which far exceeds any other metric in value.

It’s not possible to capture SXSW in a blog post. The buzz and bustle, the hundreds of brands and thousands of innovators coming from all over the world to share their latest ideas and technologies—it must be experienced. And that’s the point. SXSW is itself an immersive experience, and the user can choose his or her own journey from the endless number of events happening in a given day. The costs of such an excursion can mount pretty quickly, but I am one millennial who thought the experience was well worth it.

It’s hard to be simple: a love letter to minimalism

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Design & Marketing

“If I had more time, I would’ve written a shorter letter.”.

This quote from Blaise Pascal stakes a counterintuitive position, that something more simple ought to require even more time and thought.

Indeed, it is a jarring concept because we are inclined to believe that there is always a correlation between quantity and value. More things for the same price, more features packed in, more buttons, options, and so on—we think this means more value. But there is a trade-off in most cases between quality and quantity, which is why it often pays to take a minimalistic approach.

Minimalism prioritizesYou can’t do every possible thing with excellence. In your business—as in life generally—you have to choose from an infinite number of possible pursuits. When you narrow these options, you have to think deeply about what really matters, and what doesn’t.

Minimalism is about purpose. The way you find what really matters and what doesn’t is to focus on purpose—what can be called the Big Why. If you set out to design a salt-shaker, you have to start with why anyone needs one in the first place. If you set out to create a company, you must understand why you personally care, and why others truly need your product or service—the real and unique value you provide.

Minimalism is freedom to focus. We encounter countless decisions in a given day. We are bombarded by thousands of distractions. Once we know what really matters, and why, minimalism provides the mental clarity we need to accomplish our goals with greater efficiency. The two largest companies in America—Apple and Google—built their empires on a philosophy of simplicity in design, products, and business strategy.

Minimalism inspires innovation. Once you’ve removed the clutter, new possibilities emerge. When Uber revolutionized the taxi industry, it did so by eliminating preconceived notions of what a cab company was, and how the business model had to work. This allowed them to focus on the central problems and build new solutions around it.

Minimalism raises the standard. When you remove all superfluous elements and allow the bare pieces to speak for themselves, it becomes painfully clear where the flaws are. Too often, mediocre work is simply covered up by bells, whistles, and other distractions that rarely add to the quality because they don’t emerge from the core purpose.

Choosing quality over quantity is not an easy path, which is why so few people do something truly great. It takes time, thought, patience, and persistence. But when done well, it demands notice.