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For much of the last decade, marketers have poured millions of hours and billions of dollars into trying to decode the most enigmatic generation of our time: Millennials.

And why not? Studies show that Millennials are powering the US economy, accounting for $600 billion in current annual spending and a projected $1.4 trillion a year by 2020. And with that much economic clout, Millennial preferences have disrupted entire industries.

But somewhere along the way, as we marketers were trying to figure out this generation, we missed something important about Millennials: They grew up.

Today, the oldest Millennials have reached the age of 37. Many are now marketers themselves, and they are wisely setting their sights on engaging with the up-and-coming Generation Z (Gen Z).

Consider the power of Gen Z

Born between 1996 and 2010, Gen Z is already 61 million strong in the United States, outnumbering Millennials by nearly 1 million.

They are now 8-22 years old—not an age range you'd normally expect would justify heavy marketing expenditure. However, studies show they will represent 40% of all consumers within two years and that they already influence an estimated $166-334 billion of family spending annually.

It is critical to begin understanding members of Gen Z and nurturing long-term relationships with them. But it will not be easy. Gen Z is the first generation of true digital natives. Gen Z-ers spend 74% of their time—outside of school or work—online, according to Commscope. They are constantly bombarded by marketing content and ads, and those messages are beginning to become white noise to them.

But Gen Z might not be as elusive as we think. Here are three ways every marketer can break through to this rising generation.

1. Gen Z sees the good in technology

Some aging generations—including Millennials—have concerns about the value that technology brings to their lives. They are attached to their devices, moving constantly from one screen to the next while trying to navigate through hundreds of daily emails, texts, instant messages, and popup ads. As a result, many Millennials report higher stress rates in association with technology.

Gen Z, on the other hand, sees technology as a potential enabler of social change. And in contrast to Millennials, who have a reputation for complaining about problems, Gen Z believes in doing something about them.

Case in point: paying for parking tickets. The Silent Generation (currently in their 70s and 80s) usually paid for them without fuss, whereas Baby Boomers might have fought them in court, arguing that badly phrased signs or their poor visibility were to blame for the violations. Gen X, on the other hand, might pay their parking tickets on the last possible day and grumble about it, and Millennials complain to their friends on social media.

But Gen Z is challenging the status quo. Take, for example, 21-year-old Joshua Browder from the UK. Rather than venting about parking tickets with angry emojis, this young entrepreneur built a robot lawyer to help fight tickets. But he didn't stop there. He then put this app, Do Not Pay, online for free use by everyone. DoNotPay has helped US and UK drivers successfully squash more than 450,000 citations and $13 million in fines.

Because Gen Z wants to change the world, brands will need to follow their approach. Think about the growth of GoFundMe pages, for example, or how a viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose led brands like Starbucks as well as American, United, and Alaska Airlines to announce plans for plastic alternatives.

Those are examples of what Gen Z prominently cares about, and marketers must learn how to position themselves at the intersection of technology and social causes to engage with Gen Z-ers when and how it matters.

2. Gen Z is hungry for evolution

Marketers need to tap into Gen Z's constant hunger for what is coming next.

They have grown up in a world of such rapid change that, to them, constancy or consistency equals complacency. That makes sense when you consider the rapid changes in culture throughout their childhood. They've had three new Marvel movies to look forward to each year and a million new apps to pick from every day. Whereas Gen X and Millennials might feel nostalgic about '80s and '90s television shows, Gen Z-ers get misty-eyed over YouTube videos and memes published three years ago.

They are always ready for the next evolution. Face recognition? They cannot wait for it. Virtual reality? Bring it on. Artificial intelligence and personal assistants? Sounds good. In fact, for Gen Z, a primary driver of trust is innovation. Their attention span is all of about 8 seconds compared with 12 seconds for Millennials. For them, being a great brand has more to do with providing a steady stream of new products and services than how they are delivered.

Marketers must keep up with these fast-paced minds if they want to gain and retain Gen Z's loyalty. Declining innovation and experimentation is not an option if you want to reach Gen Z-ers. Reinvention—staying aggressive and leaning into new technologies, platforms, and ways of communicating—is necessary.

We need to start prioritizing a business case for this generation and continually push the boundaries of possibility when marketing to Gen Z.

3. For Gen Z, it's all about productivity

Gen Z is fundamentally different from Millennials in how they respond to the world.

Millennials have gained a reputation for being "kid-dults"—people who have a hard time maturing and leaving childhood behind. Most of Gen Z, on the other hand, grew up during the Great Recession of 2008. They watched their parents lose homes and jobs. They were forced to become adults before their time.

Not surprisingly, they are a more serious generation. Consequently, they are intentionally drawing the line between time that is productive and time that is not.

Whereas older generations are still struggling with how we might use technology to strike the perfect balance between work and play, that doesn't appear to be an issue for Gen Z. They move fluidly among technologies, and they use quite a few. Whereas Millennials use three screens, on average, Gen Z-ers use five. For this generation, shifting from technology to technology is as natural as breathing.

* * *

The takeaway from these three lessons? Marketers need to fully understand how this generation uses technology to engage with Gen Z on every screen.

Marketers are in the early stages of understanding how to do so. What is clear is that Gen Z has a penchant for social causes, constant innovation, and making the most of their time.

The most important thing to keep in mind as we embark on this journey is staying aggressive, strategic, and agile in our efforts. Because this generation is not standing still.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Emily Ketchen

Emily Ketchen is head of marketing, Americas, at HP, where she is directly responsible for the design and implementation of demand strategies that deliver over $15B in revenues.

LinkedIn: Emily Ketchen

Twitter: @Emily_J_Ketchen