A closer look at Gen Z—how today’s teens behave, buy, and build online

by | Feb 11, 2019 | Public Relations

What does Generation Z—the first true “digital natives”—want and expect from technology? And what do brand communicators need to do to engage this highly connected sector? New research from The Center for Generational Kinetics, commissioned by WP Engine, reaffirms that Gen Z is fueled by technology in all facets of their life, and expects the Internet to connect them, entertain them, sell to them and build their digital brand.

It’s a generation whose relationship with technology can be summed up by Steve Jobs’ famous quote when launching the iPhone in 2007: “your life in your pocket.” The survey, a follow up to one conducted in 2017, explores three key aspects of Gen Z’s relationship with digital: Being Online, Buying Online and Building Online.

“Gen Z is well on its way to becoming the largest generation of consumers by the year 2020,” said Mary Ellen Dugan, chief marketing officer at WP Engine, in a news release. “This will have profound implications for marketers and brands who, to effectively engage Gen Z, must embrace new technologies, experiment with new forms of communication and internalize the nuances in how Gen Z seamlessly blends the analog and digital worlds.”

Being Online

According to the study, Gen Z continues to be the most Internet-dependent generation—55 percent of Gen Z can’t comfortably go more than four hours without the Internet, while 22 percent of Baby Boomers can go a week or more. Gen Z, which has never known a world without the Internet, not only expects 24/7 digital access but expects that within five years everything—clocks, refrigerators, vacuums, dishwashers and other appliances—will be connected online.

A closer look at Gen Z—how today’s teens behave, buy, and build online

Gen Z has grown up in the hyper-personalized world of targeted advertisements and social platforms. As a result, they are willing to trade privacy for personalized experiences—44 percent will provide their personal data to enable a more personalized experience over an anonymous one. Additionally, 44 percent of Gen Z would stop visiting a website if it didn’t anticipate what they needed, liked, or wanted.

Buying Online

Given Gen Z’s dependence on the Internet, it’s fitting that merely being online is no barrier when it comes to earning their trust as consumers. When asked if an online-only company was less trustworthy than a solely brick-and-mortar business, 75 percent of Gen Z say no. Gen Z also prefers businesses to have an online presence and a physical storefront, a clear reflection of the “clicks-to-bricks” opportunity brands such as Warby Parker and Bonobos have identified and are capitalizing on today.

A closer look at Gen Z—how today’s teens behave, buy, and build online

As shoppers, Gen Z demands that brands be both socially accountable and imbued with a sense of authenticity in their interactions. 69% of Gen Z are more likely to buy from a company that contributes to social causes; nearly the polar opposite of Baby Boomers, of which only 23 percent are more likely to buy from companies that contribute to causes with which they agree.

Another interesting digital note: despite Gen Z’s eagerness to access the web using new methods and different devices, they still show a clear preference for a company’s website over a mobile app when making purchases. This fact held true across all generations, with Baby Boomers leading the pack at 85 percent, followed by Gen X (82 percent), Millennials (68 percent), and Gen Z (61 percent).

Building Online

When it comes to building their career, Gen Z is much more entrepreneurial than their predecessors—64 percent plan to start their own business. They are also the first generation to express an interest in building a tech business over retail, the first preference of all other generations. 66 percent of all Americans would start their business online first, proving that most new companies will be a tech company at heart.

A closer look at Gen Z—how today’s teens behave, buy, and build online

For Gen Z, building a personal brand is also highly instinctive, but they are much more purposeful and conscientious about it than their Millennial counterparts. 72 percent of Gen Z worry that their online actions, including social media posts and past purchases, will affect job offers; 53 percent believe their online reputation will determine their dating options. Perhaps that’s why Gen Z is fiercely committed to authenticity when considering the brands they use and buy. In addition, 79 percent of Gen Z trust a company more if the images they use are not photoshopped and 84 percent trust a company more if they use actual customers in their ads.

The following are key findings from the study.

Internet vs Education

A staggering 64 percent of Gen Z would rather have unlimited access to the Internet and no college degree than a college degree and no access to the Internet. This was a tracking question from the 2017 survey and it jumped 23 percent year over year (52 percent).

In Internet We Trust

Gen Z is the first generation to view the people who manage or build the Internet as more important than political leaders around the world, with 54 percent of Gen Z reporting that belief. This increased 12.5 percent from 2017 (48 percent) to 2018.

Content Matters

Twenty-six percent of Gen Z prefer to be entertained by a company’s online content, while 92 percent of Baby Boomers prefer to be informed. 82 percent of Gen Z are more likely to purchase from a company that provides consistent and relevant content (videos, blogs, social media posts, magazine).

News vs Entertainment

When it comes to news, 85 percent of all Americans prefer that it is accurate, however Gen Z (18 percent) and Millennials (19 percent) lead those who prefer it to be entertaining. Gen Z had the least amount of trust in the news, with only 21 percent saying they trust or highly trust it compared to 37 percent of Gen X and Baby Boomers.

Tech Forecast

Gen Z has a powerful tech-centric view of the future. When thinking about how websites will function five years from now:

    • 80 percent of Gen Z believe that with biometrics (fingerprint and face recognition, voice and speech recognition), Internet authentication will be done without keyboards.
    • 78 percent think that through augmented reality or virtual reality, the Internet will impact our view of the world constantly, wherever we are.
    • 72 percent believe that everyone will have their own personalized virtual digital assistant (Siri, Alexa, etc.) to help them do everything they need to do online.
    • 79 percent think all software and websites/digital experiences will have digital learning/AI capabilities.

“Gen Zers are empowered, connected, practical, empathetic self-starters who want to stand out and make a difference in the world,” said Jason Dorsey, president at The Center for Generational Kinetics, in the release. “They merge the human and digital experiences – it is all one combined reality for them. They are fueled by technology engagement and value uniqueness, authenticity, creativity, shareability and purpose. And they look for that from the world around them.”

Raised on the Internet, Gen Z lives in a different world

From being to buying and building online, Gen Z is already changing the way we build digital experiences. While generations from Baby Boomers to Millennials continue to view the Internet as bimodal, Gen Z is the first generation to intrinsically combine the digital and the physical worlds. From now on, the digital experience will be synonymous with our human experience.

Download the ebook here.

A closer look at Gen Z—how today’s teens behave, buy, and build online

The custom 30-question survey was designed collaboratively by WP Engine and The Center for Generational Kinetics. The study was administered to 1,258 respondents in the U.S., ages 14-59, who currently use a smartphone on a regular basis, and it was weighted to current U.S. Census data for age, gender, and region. The survey was conducted online from August 27-30, 2018. The study’s margin of error is +/-3.1%.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


6 tips for mastering product ranking for maximum conversion impact

6 tips for mastering product ranking for maximum conversion impact

Did you know that, on average, a customer doesn’t interact with search results in two out of every three searches? It doesn’t even matter what segment or product you’re offering if the results are consistent throughout. This can lead to potential missed sales and...