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Gen Z wants to make a difference, uses social media to do it

Gen Z is the social media generation and is also focused on issues such as sustainability, we’re often told, but just how true is that? Very it seems, with young people increasingly feeling that social media is a way to make a difference and that it beats direct action in the physical world.

New research by Cone Communications shows that 58% of this key age cohort feel that supporting social or environmental issues online is more effective at making a difference than doing something out in their communities.

In fact, 81% of Gen Z believes that they can have an impact on social and environmental issues by using social media, according to the 2017 Cone Gen Z CSR Study: How to Speak Z.

The study, surveying Americans aged 13-19, showed us an always-connected group that is keen to engage with companies about corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Some 82% use social media to talk about issues and 87% would share positive opinions of companies addressing social and environmental issues.

Cone said that Gen Z may always seem to be staring at a phone, but it doesn’t mean they’re not getting involved with what’s going on in the world and taking action about it. “They’re looking to companies to help them create a movement of positive change,” says Cone executive VP Alison DaSilva.

That’s perhaps no surprise given that as much as Gen Z has been immersed in digital from early childhood, this is also a generation brought up in an age of recycling and diversity education. What may still be a habit that has to be learned by their older peers and parents, is simply natural to them.

The research shows almost all (92%) say they care about social and environmental issues and worry about the future, especially the health of the planet (89%), and 94% believe that companies need to play their part in helping.

Purchase power

So what we have is a consumer generation seeing purchasing power as a key way to support ‘responsible’ companies with 89% preferring to buy from a company addressing social or environmental issues. And 92% would punish those not making a difference as they say they would switch brands to one associated with a good cause, given similar price and quality. Looking at a wider age range, that 92% figure is higher than the national average of 89%.

Of course that doesn’t always translate into lost or gained sales, as similar products rarely come at exactly the same price and quality at exactly the same level. The appeal of a designer lookalike bag at just the right price can be very strong, regardless of the retailer’s/brand’s social activism.

But the right messaging at point of sale can swing things. While Gen Z doesn’t always seek out CSR messages in advance of purchasing, they do react at the point when they’re deciding to buy (65%) so a clear link to good causes in-store or on a website could be a deciding factor when making a purchase.

The report said that Gen Z really sees the power of positive reinforcement when it comes to supporting companies committed to important social or environmental issues. But they’re slightly less likely to take confrontational actions in comparison to their older cohorts, like boycotting a company (76% against 90% Millennial and 88% general population) or protesting to help a cause (58%).

So what will they do to make a difference? Buy a product with a social or environmental benefit comes top on 90%, although volunteering for a cause is on 87%, but we have to remember that volunteering doesn’t have to mean physical action in a social media world.

They would also donate to a cause (85%), sign petitions to help causes (84%), share social or environmental information with social networks (77%), boycott a company that is doing harm (76%) and protest to help a cause (58%).

“While close in age, there are vast differences between how Gen Z and Millennials prefer to engage with brands,” said Whitney Dailey, Cone’s director of marketing/research and insights. “Millennials are keen to boycott or engage in a frank dialogue with brands, but Gen Z prefers to have a less antagonistic relationship with brands. This generation is more likely to be an advocate than an adversary.”

What matters to Gen Z?

How does Gen Z’s actually define acting in a responsible way or doing good? This generation believes responsibility is primarily about being a good employer (97%), while also making products that are good for individuals and their families (95%). They also believe companies should help people and the environment (91%), donate to causes in local communities and around the world (89%) and support important social issues (77%).

The causes they priorities include poverty and hunger (28% vs 19% general population) rather than economic development (16% vs 34% general population), as well as the environment (20%), human rights (17%), health and disease (10%) and education (10%).

They’re also very interested in issues that are making the news closer to him such as job creation (96%) and reducing the high cost of college (92%), racial equality (88%), women’s rights (86%), immigration (81%), climate change (81%), gun control (68%) and LGBTQ rights (65%).

Cone said that news around many of the issues reaches Gen Z first because of their always-connected behaviour. But that 24/7 connection doesn’t mean they don’t listen to influencers to whom they’re physically close. When buying a socially/eco-beneficial product, parents (54%) and their close group of friends (44%) are most likely to influence purchasing decisions. Social media is lower down the list (26%), as is the news (26%). Companies (17%) and celebrities (16%) fall to the bottom of the list of Gen Z’s trusted sources.

“Gen Z doesn’t want to feel like they’re being marketed to by a company,” said Dailey. “This group is looking to those closest to them for trusted information. And with their phones always by their sides, they consider social media as influential as news. Marketers will have to take a more personal, social-first approach to reach this new generation.”

Gen Z sees social media as a powerful tool to create change with 58% saying supporting social or environmental issues online makes a bigger difference than doing something out in their communities.

Facebook and video

Top actions for online engagement with companies around CSR efforts for Gen Z include sharing their positive opinion of a company addressing social or environmental issues (87%) or learning what they can do to make a difference (86%). Other online actions include voting to pick a charity to receive a donation (86%), watching a video about a social or environmental issue (83%), ‘liking’ or following a non-profit group or company’s CSR programme (79%), and giving feedback directly to companies about their CSR efforts (70%).

And the favoured channel for doing all this is Facebook (66%), although Instagram (51%), YouTube (50%), Snapchat (43%) and Twitter (35%) are also important.

In terms of the content Gen Z prefers to engage with, highly visual and compelling content is most likely to resonate with videos top of the list (68%), followed by pictures (56%), written articles or stories (49%) and infographics or data (33%).

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