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Young buyers: What marketers should know about the next generation of consumers

Jennifer Reid
President and Chief Methodologist

Understanding the significance of the youth market and knowing how to engage with it are two different things.

Note: This is the first article in a series of blog posts from our President and Chief Methodologist, Jennifer Reid, on how to engage Gen Zs and Millennials in the mobile age. To get notified of new content from this series and for more best practices for market research and insight professionals, subscribe to our blog.

In my role at Rival, I often find myself speaking to Generation Z (Gen Z) and Millennial consumers, facilitating conversational surveys (or, as we call them, chats) that allow me to interact first-hand with this young and dynamic generation. Combine that with my experience at home — I have three children ranging from seven to 19 years old, two of them Gen Zers — and you could say I have an ongoing front-row view of how youth today interact with each other and the world around them. And I've learned much about how their experiences shape the way they engage.

What Ive seen is that young people have their own language and ways of communicating, not to mention their own priorities and goals. Yet because theyre young, their attitudes, opinions, and preferences are still emerging — which means they can lack the predictability of older generations.

But brands have begun to realize how important the young market is. And they’re starting to see how critical it is that they better understand it — both because of the significant impact young buyers are making today and the impact they’ll continue to have into the future.

Take the so-called Gen Zers (also known as Gen Zs). Born between 1997 and 2012, they’re anywhere between eight and 24 right now, and make up 40% of global consumers. Depending on estimates, they also represent as much as $323 billion in spending power in the U.S. — a number that can expand as much as four times, researchers hypothesize, when you factor in their influence on others in their household. Meanwhile, Millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 and currently between 24 and 40 years old — were expected to spend $1.4 trillion last year.

We’re not talking about buyers who dominate niche markets, in other words. They are a significant economic force — one that promises to continue to influence market trends for years to come.

But understanding the significance of the youth market and knowing how to engage with it are two different things. Many marketers are still trying to figure that last part out — uncertain how to interact with this key group, especially when traditional market research methods don’t work.

The answer, I think, starts with getting to know them. 

The 3 sub-groups of young buyers

So what do we mean when we talk about “young buyers”? 🤔

This is a group shaped by its relationship with technology. The oldest among them barely remembers a world without the Internet. Gen Zers are the first true digital natives. They’ve grown up texting, interacting on social media, and making strong connections online. Other generations have embraced many of the same things, of course, but none are as embedded as young consumers. Technology influences every aspect of their lives — including brand engagement.

Still, this isn’t one homogenous group. Rather, there are three distinct cohorts, each experiencing different life milestones.

14-18: Getting started

While Gen Zers are as young as eight, 14 is when they’re likely to get their first job, and it’s when they really start making their own buying decisions. In middle and high school, these buyers have disposable income to spend — and since most are still living with their parents, they don’t have to worry about rent or other living expenses.

They’re still under pressure, though, and making big life decisions — the career they want to pursue, for instance, or what university to go to — all while trying to fit in with their peers. They’re also often idealistic about the world around them — with issues around immigration, race, guns, and gender identity some of their most prevalent concerns, as well as the environment. They want to apply those concerns to their buying decisions, and are attracted to brands with something to say about them. And all of that connects to what they wear, how they shop, and the brands from which they choose to buy.

19-24: In transition

The cohort from 19 to 24 is experiencing a much different set of life events and making different decisions. Whether they’re attending college or entering the full-time workforce, they’re likely living away from home for the first time. That means they’re experiencing freedom from their families’ expectations for the first time as well — a freedom they try to enjoy as much as possible while also attempting to build connections within this new space. They’re learning the value of a dollar, which can put their ideals at war with their budget, affecting their buying decisions.

Email won’t cut it.

This is a group, in other words, that’s in a state of flux. They’re trying to figure things out. For brands, that means this can be the most challenging group to pin down. Email won’t cut it — Gen Z is the first generation to have grown up with smartphones and, as such, are embedded in chat culture. And without nine-to-five jobs, they aren’t yet tied to a work computer and accompanying email address. Still, since this is often when young people make prominent decisions that can influence their loyalties for years to come — the bank they’ll use, for instance, or their cell phone provider — it pays to find a way to engage. Figuring out how to connect and delivering positive brand experiences can establish positive associations that last a lifetime.

25-35: Getting established

The final group isn’t Gen Z at all, but young Millennials. Ranging from 25 to 35 years old, we include them because they still grew up around technology in a significant way. If you ask a 30-year-old whether they remember a time before smartphones, they’ll likely say no. And as they settle down into adulthood, they carry with them the influences of their younger selves. 

Young Millennials thrive on personal one-on-one engagement.

In the market research space, this group is often elusive when using old techniques — rather, young Millennials thrive on personal one-on-one engagement and respond to a mobile-based conversational approach. But as early tech adopters, they were also the first to be raised to understand that stranger danger doesn’t always come from a white van on the corner, but could be lurking behind their computer screen as well. As a result, they can be skeptical when messaging rings as inauthentic.

In terms of life events, young Millennials are settling down: starting careers, getting married, and maybe even having kids. While attracted to nostalgic things from their childhood, their lives are different from the cohorts before them, and so are their buying habits — they’re creating homes and often combining incomes with a partner or spouse for increased buying power. They still have issues they care about that shape their choices — in this case largely centered around the environment and sustainability — and their newfound financial stability makes those issues a greater factor once again in their purchasing decisions.

How to engage Gen Zs and young Millennials

Understanding the nuances of each cohort — and what matters to them — is critical to brand engagement. But so is recognizing the things they have in common.

All three groups are quick to recognize an authentic voice and embrace it, and won’t support a business they think is talking down to them or dismissing their point of view. Their experience with social media means they’re also incredibly adept at articulating their opinions and emotions across mediums — all of which I’ll explore in future posts over the weeks to come.

But there's one thing all brands should know about this key market. Something I see both when I talk to my own kids and in the young people who participate in our chats. That is:

When you speak with them authentically and in their preferred channels, young people want to share. To tell you what they care about and where they stand.

So how do you engage with young buyers? You talk to them. Authentically, directly, and with the goal of truly listening to what they have to say.

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