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Mar 15, 2019 BY Gardiner Rhoderick, former Mighty Citizen UX Design & Content

Designing for Digital Natives: Connecting with Gen Z

When it comes to digital communication, the world is changing. Those of Gen Z (born between ~1995 – 2015) have never known life without omnipresent technology. Smartphones. Fitbits. RFID sensors. This constant access to connection and information shapes how they see the world and how they communicate—and how they interact with brands.

Digital natives aren’t that different from millennials, but they’re different in ways that make them a great audience for digital technology. First, let’s get to know Gen Z. Common-sense disclaimer: looking at the qualities of a whole generation requires making some generalizations. While we’ve based our descriptions on facts, of course, there will be individuals who don’t fit these profiles.

They’re Connected to the World.

Digital technology is incorporated into their lives, and Gen Zers are adept at multi-tasking. On average, they have 5 screens going at the same time. This generation is highly dependent on their smartphones, and 40% of them admit to being addicted to technology.

And competition for their attention is fierce.

They’re Connected to Each Other.

While they are excellent researchers, digital natives trust their personal networks more than the internet. With Gen Z, the conversation is constant. They switch seamlessly across multiple platforms and in real life. And while they’re (always) on YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, many of them report feeling lonely.

One point of differentiation: digital natives don’t see a big difference between talking to friends online versus offline. So when digital natives say they’d rather get medical advice from a friend/family than Google (which millennials prefer, btw), they don’t need the advice to come face to face.

Well-made online experiences are now the minimum cost of entry for engaging young audiences.

They’ve Seen a Lot. And They’re Savvy.

This age group has grown up in a tumultuous time. They’re used to a highly polarized media environment, and they’re active participants in open discussions and debates. Their experience is unlike that of any generation before them.

Access to all of this information + Social networks = A collective understanding of the world at a young age

Gen Z learned early on that big institutions and brands can be untrustworthy. This generation can spot advertising a mile away—and they’re suspicious. The digital native can recognize fake corporate-speak instantly, and they (like most of us) hate ads. They use private browsers, 82% of them skip ads, and more than half use ad blocking software.

But They’re Not Afraid to Dream Big.

Their sophisticated worldview hasn’t made Gen Z world-weary or even cynical. Quite the contrary—they’re focused on the future, and they believe they can make a difference. Gen Z is realistic, and they want to pursue something bigger than just profit.

The entrepreneurial spirit is strong in this generation. 72% want to own their own businesses, and 76% hope they can turn their hobbies into full-time jobs.

They’re Socially Conscious.

Because they’re already active participants in a global dialogue, Gen Z is the most tolerant generation to date. 56% consider themselves to be socially conscious, and 50% say they’re more likely to buy from socially conscious brands.

They value diversity and inclusion. They see gender and sexuality as less of a binary—and they’re more likely to see everyone as equal. As 17-year-old Elena Quartaranro says in the New York Times, “We get to experience the world from everyone’s point of view; we’re not limited by the danger of the single story, aren’t held back by our own ignorance.” Boom!

Digital Natives Understand Marketing Better Than You Do.

So, given all of that, how can you use digital technology to make an authentic connection with Gen Zers? Here are some things to know:

Your Content Must Look Good.

Great visual design isn’t a luxury for Gen Z; it’s the cost of admission. Well-made online experiences are now the minimum cost of entry for engaging young audiences.

The ability to communicate visually can help you break through the constant firehose:

  • Be clear
  • Be organized
  • Break content up into digestible bites
  • Use high-quality photos, infographics, and videos

Be an Unexpected and Bold Storyteller.

While they might not like advertising, Gen Z loves a good story. Develop your authentic brand narrative, and find concrete ways to bring it to life. One great way to do that is to leverage user-generated content.

For example, Seattle University used college application essays as personalized content. They sent each accepted student a personalized poster featuring a meaningful quote from the student’s application essay. The students took to social media, enthusiastically sharing their posters with the hashtag #SUONEofONE. The authenticity of the project resonated with students and the project got comments like, “Coolest college mail ever,” and “That’s so badass.”

Be Real. And Be Yourself.

Post real photos. Share real stories. Be authentic. Be transparent. The more they feel like you’re talking to them, the more digital natives will feel comfortable engaging with you. But that doesn’t mean you should try to be like them. No one likes this:


Inauthenticity is easy to spot—and it’s so cringey. Instead, use your experiences as connective collateral, then rely on your audience to tell your story. Let word of mouth do the work for you.

Give Them Options.

This is a generation that is always swiping, scrolling, tapping, streaming, and playing. Information and tools that don’t let them do these things are labeled inferior, outdated, and untrustworthy.

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It’s your job to meet Gen Zers where they are and give them lots of choices. Offer content across websites, email, and social media. Invest in online chances for digital natives to exercise their freedom-loving, self-made, entrepreneurial ways. The power of these robust tools is what’s given rise to a new POV in this generation, one that is louder than it’s ever been before.

For example, a university might let prospective students create their own journey by building their career plan, touring dorm rooms, and chatting with current students on Snapchat. Since Google first launched its Cardboard technology in 2014, hundreds of schools have created VR campus and dorm tours, giving prospective students the campus tour experience from home.

Be Responsive.

Don’t talk to them, talk with them. Gen Z expects a two-way conversation. That means not only being responsive across social media, but also taking part in wider industry and global dialogs—in real time.

Gen Z is paying attention, and they expect you to pay attention, too. For example, when the president tweeted about hamberders, Burger King responded in kind:

Time to Change The World…

By offering lots of digital doorways, you can slice and dice your brand identity to show digital natives how you’ll empower THEIR desires. This is a generation that’s used to receiving multiple touch points, so you don’t have to over-simplify your messages. It’s just like your mom always said—get out there and be yourself.


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