Just as meeting planners are learning how to reach and engage Millennials who range in age from 18 to 34, the next generation, known as Gen Z, is shifting the landscape. While there is not yet an exact definition of this generation, demographers generally use the birth years from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s to describe them.
In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a Gen Z population of 73.61 million, just behind Millennials at 79.41 million, and far ahead of Gen X at 65.72 million. It’s estimated that by 2020 they will account for 40 percent of all consumers. Even more so than their Millennial siblings, Gen Z are digital natives, but their engagement with the digital world, and especially social media and social activism, is even stronger and more influential – and that’s how to engage them.
“If it’s not interactive, they’re not going to stay at the meeting,” said Cindy Lo, president and event strategist at Red Velvet Events in Austin, Texas. “They need to be entertained and they’re looking for those ‘Instagramable’ moments.”
In that sense, Gen Z is no different from Millennials, but it’s not enough for the younger folks to have a great image; they want to know that a brand or company gives back to the community. Lo cited the example of Toms shoes, which donates a pair shoes for every pair sold, or Warby Parker, which does the same with eyeglasses.
“Here’s the funny thing about Gen Z and even Millennials; if it looks like you’re trying too hard it won’t work,” said the 41-year-old Lo. “When we are meeting with clients to talk about conferences, before we even begin we ask them a lot about their company culture and what their values and goals are, so we can align it with the event.”
Lo said that when deciding whether to attend an event, the first thing a Gen Z individual does is go to the company’s social media channels to see what they’re all about. Then they look at the meeting agenda to see if there is something of value to them. It’s not necessarily a person who appeals, but a concept, explained Lo.
“Maybe they’ll tweet about it, or even write a blog post, but unless they are inspired they’re going to let it go because they don’t want people to know they wasted their time. Gen Z can sniff out fake so fast.”
Aubri Nowowiejski, age 28, and an executive producer at Coterie Spark, was even more blunt in her assessment.
“Gen Z can spot B.S. a mile away. They are keen on being authentic, and that’s why they gravitate towards YouTube; they are connecting with real individuals. They don’t believe reality TV because they know it’s fake, but they do believe in the content creators on YouTube.”
Nowowiejski suggests that YouTubers and popular vloggers are where meeting planners who want to engage Gen Z should be looking for speakers or attractions, but cautions that it’s a double-edged sword.
“As YouTubers gain popularity, they get more sponsorships, and their channels and personalities can shift. When change is driven by dollars, their viewers can tell. Again, it all goes back to the integrity piece for this generation,” said Nowowiejski.
She added that meeting planners need to create something that’s genuine. Gen Z doesn’t want to be coerced with messages like “Tweet this!” or “Post that!” They understand PR and personal branding more than any generation, and how social media can influence it.
“They are going to be even more self aware of what they attach their names to, and what they endorse,” said Nowoiejski, echoing Lo’s comments.
In trying to appeal to multiple generations, she said planners need to remember that all attendees want the same thing; the awe factor, value, and authenticity.
“We want to leave better than we came. The biggest differential between generations is attention span.”
No one agrees more with that statement than Deep Patel, a Gen Z consultant who has worked with companies such as IBM, and is the founder of Owlmetrics, an Instagram analytics company. Patel is 18 years old and just recently graduated from high school.
“Gen Z’s unique factor is that they live on social media and they grew up on social media, so the fear of missing out (FOMO) is an even bigger factor for them than Millennials. They are processing thousands of pieces of information every day, and they have stimulation overload. They are quite literally addicted to social media and have ridiculous attention spans because of it,” said Patel, author of the 2016 book, A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success.
He said that, in an effort to reach Gen Z, meeting planners need to think about optics, not just content. “If you want to get maximum benefits, it has to be Instagram-worthy,” he said, adding that will only engage them so far.
“Really, meetings can do a lot better. If you have printouts, text them beforehand or have a mobile file so attendees can follow along on the screen. Try to keep slides more graphic and cut down on the text. Gen Z is oriented toward images, not text.
“You have to focus on mobile. I can’t tell you how often I go to events and they are passing out copies of things, and realistically I’m never going to go back and read them. They’re probably going to end up in the trash because I don’t work with paper,” said Patel.
Staying digital and having a mobile orientation are both vital, but so is keeping presentations short and to the point. If things start to drag, you’re going to lose attention and they’ll pull out their phones, according to Patel. But what about meetings that cater to a cross-generation audience; will older generations tune out if the pace is too swift?
“There should be a sweet spot where you aren’t beating a dead horse, but you’re not sprinting through content,” he said. “In the worst-case scenario, you can go at a slightly faster speed and build time in for questions.”
He suggested splitting attendees into different sections to overcome the generational disparity. And although Patel doesn’t think this is the only answer, it may be something meeting planners want to consider if they want to engage the next generation.
“Right now, it’s not really working. I can speak from personal experience. Even if I’m not distracted and I’m paying attention, I’m not going to sit in a room with 50 people and read what’s on a screen,” said Patel.