Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rise of the social natives: how Gen Z is changing the role of social media in business

By Gerard Murnaghan, GM of Sprout Social

The impact of social media on modern society can’t be overstated; but it’s important to remember that little more than 20 years ago, it didn’t exist at all. Consequently, for a significant proportion of people in the global workforce today, it simply wasn’t a consideration when they first started their careers.  

While the vast majority of organisations have now incorporated social media into their operations to some extent, the fact remains that most current executives, directors, and senior professionals (largely consisting of Gen Xers and elder Millennials) have had to learn about it on the job. For this reason, many of them tend to view or use it primarily as a marketing mechanism to supplement existing activities and initiatives, not as a business tool in its own right.

Conversely, Gen Zers were born/raised in a world where social media was already all around them, making it much more ingrained in their everyday lives. Now, as these ‘socially native’ Gen Zers make their way into the workforce, they are starting to have a significant impact on the way social media is viewed, used, and implemented.

Innate understanding vs learned understanding

In 1999, Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, suggested a set of three rules that govern our relationship with technology:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

While these astute rules can be applied to just about any technological breakthrough in the last 50 years, nowhere are they more applicable than in the context of social media. 

Many of the biggest household names today, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, were all founded within a few years of each other, between 2003-2006. This timeframe puts Gen Zers neatly into rule one above, Millennials and Gen Xers into rule two, and Baby Boomers into rule three. 

As increasing numbers of Baby Boomers reach retirement age – along with some Gen Xers – and are replaced with socially native Gen Zers (managed by savvy Millennials), social media and themes associated with it are increasingly taking centre stage across a range of sectors and industries. What’s more, a small but growing number of companies now have social baked into the very fabric of their identity, as the central pillar of their entire business model. 

A great example is the London fashion brand Corteiz (also known as CRTZ), founded in 2017 by an enigmatic 21 year old known simply as Clint. Corteiz puts social media and the idea of our public facing digital identities  at the core of its business model. But rather than following the trend of most retailers to gather as many followers and fans as possible across platforms, Corteiz subverts that idea of broad reach and mass awareness.

Authenticity is crucial to its identity,but counterintuitively, it builds appeal by restricting access to its social and web preference.  The brand’s Instagram is private, its E-Commerce site is private, and the founder doesn’t do any press or media interviews. It also doesn’t buy into influencers – celebrities seen wearing it, have bought into the brand. To your average Gen X or even Millennial marketing expert, Corteiz’s approach may seem unconventional, but it has quickly resulted in a passionate community that can’t get enough of the brand or its products. Corteiz epitomises the ‘tapped in’ marketing and branding mentality. It’s about niche interest with fans you want, rather than mass appeal with the general public.

A natural evolution

For all types of brands there’s an opportunity in embracing social media with both hands. The 2022 Sprout Social Index found a transformative shift in social media usage, acceptance and ability. In Britain and Ireland, the top two preferred methods of communicating with a brand are on social media. We’re also continuing to see improvements in the ecommerce experience within social media apps too – evidence that the front door and sales funnel for many organisations is there too. 

Yet the number one challenge for social media teams is hiring experienced talent. Without doing a disservice to the countless experts who have learnt their craft, focusing on the social native generation should help companies find the requisite talent. This will bolster marketing teams and encourage fresh ideas such as those on display at Corteiz.

As the global workforce continues to change over time, older ‘social media sceptics’ are being replaced by younger ‘social natives’ in ever growing numbers. The result is a fundamental shift in the role that social media plays in organisations everywhere. It is no longer a job for the most junior person on the marketing team. Insteadit is quickly becoming an essential consideration for nearly every business department and will only become more so over time. 

Early adoption of social media is a blip in the distance for most brands now. However, using it in a sophisticated manner across a business is still nascent for many. Social natives are found throughout a company and should be encouraged to use their experiences of it throughout their organisation.