Understanding Gen Z and Millennials with ViacomCBS' Wired for Mobile Study

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One of the most fascinating generations is Generation Z, born between 1997 and approximately 2008, the first generation of mobile natives. How can programmers and marketers better understand this unique population and how does it compare with Millennials, the generation that preceded it? ViacomCBS completed a seismic study called Wired for Mobile that uncovers how brands can effectively connect to and communicate with – the two most connected generations in history.

"The study delves into how devices have affected the way Gen Z and Millennials not only see the world but also learn and consume news and information, and what role they play in connections with each other, with brands and with culture at large," explained Tristan Marra, Vice President, Ad Sales Research and Insights, ViacomCBS.

Conducted between June 2020 and January 2021, the national study used a range of methodologies from Desk Research, Digital Quals, Deprivation/Alteration exercises, and expert interviews. Wrapping up the study with a survey of nearly 3500 respondents, the results underscored the vital importance of mobile.

"While there is still a lot that connects Gen Z and Millennials, there are some nuances that we uncovered," Marra said. "Mobile phones are inextricably woven into Gen Z's DNA. There is no separating from mobile entirely, and the devices don't offer an "alternative reality" or even a "supplemental" one" As mobile natives with endless access at their fingertips, Gen Z's experience with the world is very different from the generations that preceded them.

Takeaways from the study include:

The Complexity of Relationships. Easy access to social media impacts how Gen Z prefers to connect, whether it's through a text, a direct message or a phone call. "The number of platforms we use to connect has been growing rapidly and becoming more nuanced. Because of this, relationships that Gen Z and Millennials have are also becoming more complex," Marra revealed. Levels of closeness in relationships -- from more superficial ties with your local barista to strong ties with members of your family -- have their own rules and ways of preferred communication. Both superficial and intimate relationships are important in boosting happiness, but the more superficial ties especially tend to create a sense of belonging and facilitating discovery. "What we are seeing now are different levels of intimacy. Because of social media, those weak ties that used to exist on the fringes are now being pulled in a little closer," Marra added. Over 60% of Gen Z participants believe their social media friendships are just as strong or stronger than their in-real-life relationships. And there are several unwritten but understood rules of the digital road when it comes to mobile etiquette, as the team uncovered in the study.

"During COVID, we were limited in our engagements and moments of connection in-person," Marra noted. And while digital devices became critical lifelines during the pandemic, these devices should be linked to deeper forms of communication, as well.

Sharing content is integral to building relationships for both Gen Z and Millennials. The content each generation gravitates toward most is funny content (even moreso for Gen Z), personal stories (for Gen Z) and inspiring content (for Millennials). Some Gen Z participants mentioned how they have created group chats and DM streams that are devoted solely to sharing links and videos.

The Age of Mutual Influence. "There used to be a separation between celebrities and us," Marra said. But that gap has closed because of social media, changing the dynamic. Social media enables celebrities and fans to more personally interact. "Direct connection with celebrities is now the expectation, with fans and followers reaching out to previously unattainable figures," she explained. This creates a new set of standards for celebrity figures.

Take note, marketers: These standards also apply to brands for Gen Z and Millennials. "One-way interactions are no longer enough. Today's youth expect brands to engage them honestly and personally with both sides contributing equally to the conversation like standard human interactions," Marra noted. And, while ad personalization is expected, brands should be careful in how they customize the advertising experience for Gen Z customers.

Advertisements that appear too personal or correlate to conversations that occurred out loud are a turn-off for Gen Z.

Empathetic Facts. "Social media has made it complicated for youth today to decipher fact from opinion," Marra explained. With a more comprehensive, global view of the world, Gen Z faces a grey area between the facts and opinions that are shared on social media, which can be dangerous in an increasingly divided and complicated world.

The challenge today is to help Gen Z make sense of the facts without going through the filter of social media. It is not easy, but the study's deprivation exercise may offer a solution. Respondents indicated that when they consciously avoided their smartphone's social media feed for a certain length of time (as part of their participation in the study), it helped them step back and process how they felt about the news without being influenced by others feedback and reactions.

Digital Nutrition. Sadly, the stress of the pandemic as well as the potential loneliness cultivated from communicating virtually has created a need for better mental health for some Gen Z participants. According to Veronica Fabiani, Director, Ad Sales Research and Insights, ViacomCBS, "Six in 10 agree that they sometimes feel like their smartphone has a negative effect on their mental health, but if they don't have their smartphone with them, they would miss out on important things."

But it's not all doom and gloom. "Phones are used as an emotional defense mechanism by both Gen Z and Millennials who are looking for content to help them self-soothe and protect boundaries," Fabiani explained.

Digital access offers opportunities for wellness, "seeking that balance of media for both meditation and emotional safeness," Marra added.

Both generations seek out meditative and mindless media when they can take a break and need a mental pick-me-up, with over 70% agreeing that online videos are particularly well-suited to fill this need. This is moreso true of Gen Z. "The content they are choosing is driven by emotion, and largely that emotion is to feel better," Fabiani added.

The insights from this study are not only useful for programmers, but also helpful for marketers seeking to connect with both Gen Z and Millennials. "This was such a big study. We talked to so many people, and we got so many insights. It was hard, in a good way, to prioritize the important takeaways. We got there in a way that was meaningful," Marra concluded.

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