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Ideas Marketing strategy

Gen Z and the audio opportunity

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Clare Chapman

Po-faced wokeness. Fierce activism. Obsessed with TikTok. As with generations gone by, today’s teens and young adults have been mythologised as unique creatures with divergent needs, desires and habits to older generations. Labels have been applied, influencing where and how we communicate to this new group of consumers. But are we on the right path?

Earlier this year, tired of the clichéd descriptions, Essence set out to sort myth from fact and discover what really makes Gen Z tick when it comes to media and marketing. Our findings revealed how Gen Z values influence their attitude to audio advertising and how agencies and brands should respond to this.

One major myth we busted was that Gen Z are receptive only to advertising that speaks to a cause they support. In an online survey of 2700 young adults, we compared Gen Z to Millennials and found virtually no difference in what made ads memorable to them.

In fact, “made me laugh” was by far the top answer for both groups. So far, so human. “Related to a cause I support” came a miserable fourth place in each case, with Millennials proving to care slightly more than Gen Z.

This indifference to cause-based marketing was borne out across the focus groups we held. Across a variety of UK locations, we interviewed Gen Zs ranging from 16 year old college students to 24 year olds in full time work, exploring the opportunity for audio and building a clear set of planning guidelines.

Our findings did reinforce another area of Gen Z mythology - the belief that the group places huge value in authenticity. Perhaps even more importantly, our focus groups conveyed a raging need for independence and control and a highly protective attitude towards ‘their’ spaces.

Gen Z audio behaviour

Let’s step back for a moment and consider the role that audio plays in Gen Z’s media day. IPA Touchpoints data for 15-24s shows that total audio (covering all forms of radio, podcasts, audiobooks, music streaming and listening to owned music) accounts for 23% of unduplicated daily active media consumption. This is slightly less than the general population at 27% but close to their 24-35 year old Millennial cousins at 24%.

These stats seem unremarkable until you unpick the headline figures, at which point Gen Z is revealed as a completely different beast. Whichever way you look at it - by hours spent, weekly reach or percentage of overall media time - there has been a major break between the generations, with Millennials preferring live radio and Gen Z overwhelmingly biased toward streaming. The figures are approaching the inverse of each other, with 15-24s spending almost half the time listening to radio and double that with streaming than 25-34s.

So what’s driving this? It’s not simply down to a greater willingness to adopt new technology or media formats, as could be assumed when comparing across generations - Millennials and Gen Z are equally likely to own smart speakers, for example. In fact, when it comes to embracing one of the newer forms of audio entertainment - podcasts - it was Gen Z that lagged behind the curve. Although now the fastest growing audience for podcasts, Gen Z were previously slower than older groups to adopt the format.

There’s a clear link here to radio consumption, with habitual listeners taking very naturally to a new audio offering, while the generation raised on YouTube originally failed to see the point. However, adoption is not only set by previous habits alone - as we’ve seen with social media, new habits can form quickly when the content is right. But the original podcasters were also from an older, radio-literate world so Gen Z’s slow adoption had much to do with a lack of relatable podcast content - in the absence of representative voices, they simply didn’t find much to tempt them at first. A need for media channels to feel like spaces that are authentically ‘theirs’ was a key finding of our research; Gen Z want to feel at home, amongst peers and un-intruded upon by annoying older folk. See the OK Boomer meme for further evidence of this.

It’s also worth noting that podcast technology took a while to catch up with Gen Z preferences. Once Spotify integrated podcasts into their apps and a podcast player was available on Android, the content was finally discoverable in all the places Gen Z spent their time. And when YouTube talent began to host podcasts, Gen Z came enthusiastically on board.

Engaging Gen Z with audio advertising

So, technology does play a role in how and why Gen Z consume audio as they do, but not in the ‘usual’ way. What we’re dealing with here is a unique combination of an age-old truth and a very modern phenomenon. Ever since youth culture was ‘invented’ in the 1950s, teens and young adults have used music to assert their independence, their identity and their difference from older generations. And in Gen Z we have the first generation who take it for granted that they can wield absolute control over this. Having never known a world without the internet or mobile phones, why would they accept having to wait for their favourite song to come on the radio? It’s unthinkable!

The signals were clear; when seeking to engage Gen Z in audio campaigns there are some fundamental priorities:

  • Be native and non-interruptive: formats such as podcast host-reads and Spotify’s Sponsored Playlists are great for this, as are good old fashioned radio promotions when well integrated by presenters within their shows.

  • Offer rewards: Gen Z are fiercely protective of their time and their spaces but understand value exchange, so look at formats such as Spotify’s Sponsored Sessions.

  • Be relevant: understand and respect need-state and mindset. Morning listening is about listeners setting themselves up for the day. Other times of day require a different vibe.

  • Be authentic: leverage young audio talent - trusted and relatable voices are key. See host reads/presenter promotions again and think carefully about who voices your ad.

  • Leverage music: it gets ads noticed and remembered. Our focus groups referenced ads we would never have expected them to because they had loved the tracks.

  • Use humour and a hook: witness the popularity of TikTok and learn from it; feel free to be silly and NEVER underestimate the power of a catchy jingle!