There's a lot to consider when it comes to running communities with Gen Z members — much of which I had to learn the hard way.
Like so many of us in the community space, I wore plenty of hats in my previous position: customer support, content moderation, user research, trust and safety policy, team leadership, and more. And at one point, the user community I supported consisted mostly of teens, putting the bulk of the community squarely in Gen Z.
For the uninitiated, anyone born between 1997 and 2012 is usually considered to be part of Gen Z.
Working with this group wasn’t why I originally joined the organization, but learning about Gen Z turned out to be my favorite part of the gig. I’m an Elder Millennial (I refuse to use the term 'geriatric' just yet). As much as folks try to pit Millenials and Gen Z against each other, I have nothing but respect for Gen Z.
They’re much more articulate, self-aware, and politically informed than I ever was at their age. They’re very clear and up front about their needs, their frustrations, and their opinions. Through my community work, I got to know their hopes and struggles and came to really admire them and their radical honesty.
So: if you’re considering building or leading a Gen Z community, I have a few tips for you, both practical and philosophical.
Almost all of the teens I talked to actively hated email. At least in my experience, newsletters were a complete non-starter with this group. Push notifications were OK, but not if the tone of the language used in them was off (more on that below). If you’re drawing the conclusion that texting is the way to go, think again, as there are a number of laws around SMS marketing that apply in markets like the US and the EU. Oh, and don’t even think about Facebook. “Facebook is for grandparents” was the line I often heard.
So, how do you connect with the Gen Z members of your community? Go to them. Back in the pre-COVID times, our team gained a ton of insight by physically traveling to conduct group research sessions in teens’ hometowns.
In a COVID world, this might look like taking the time to observe which social platforms and tools they’re already using and connecting there. If all else fails, you can follow this tried and true community rule: ask them directly what their preferences are.
Having said that, don't forget that...
I’m not a legal expert, but I do know that some forms of user research with minors require parental consent in most countries. This extra step is worth keeping in mind. You’ll need to have consent forms at the ready for those under 18. Allow for some back-and-forth between the participant and their guardian in the process of obtaining written consent from them before paid research sessions.
Say you’re developing a language style guide for your Gen Z community. While you may be tempted as an older person to throw in some slang you picked up from your nephew and call it a day, do not do this.
Teens, in particular, have a good eye for 'fellow kids' behavior and they abhor it. Speak to them like you would any other adult who you respect. Be real. If a distinct brand voice is important for your product, here’s a sure-fire solution to make it sound authentic: pay someone who’s actually in Gen Z to write for you. The oldest people in that generation are currently 24.
On a broad level, Gen Z are acutely aware of the raw deal that previous generations gave them. Economically, environmentally, and politically, they’re at a huge disadvantage and they know it. It was amazing to hear teens talk about those issues with such informed clarity. Some were very practical in their approach to safeguarding their own futures, from starting their own side-hustles to organizing protests. It was amazing to see and very far from my early 2000s teen experience.
Along with this acute awareness comes a high dose of skepticism, particularly of brands (which includes your community). In one survey, only 39% of Gen Z internet users in the US said they trust brands to keep their data safe.
Gen Z grew up with Snapchat, Twitter, and all of the rest of it already fully formed and in their lives. They know how dangerous and deceptive the internet (and the real world) can be, they need to feel that their privacy and safety are valued and protected.
So how can you establish a sense of safety with them and gain their trust? First, be transparent with your community members about why you need to collect their data and share exactly how it’s being used. Along the way, give them plenty of tools to control their experience and make it personal to them: notification toggles, messaging opt-ins, blocking and reporting tools, etc… Investing in privacy and safety up front will pay off in engagement later.
While my time managing that community is over, I hope to continue to learn about this group. I personally cannot wait to see what they do once they’re old enough to be the ones leading teams, holding offices, and influencing policy.
We all have a lot to learn from Gen Z.