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Beyond the Buzzword: Actual Ways To Be Authentic With Gen Z Audiences

Even if you don’t feel cool enough to kick it with today’s kids, your marketing content better be. We all know that marketing materials should provide relevant and engaging information to your audience. Successful creative and campaigns help people form strong connections with your brand, create genuine relationships and win customers for life.

But what happens when your team loses sight of these goals? It’s easy to do, especially when demand for high-volume output is at an all-time high.

While finding ways to be genuine with potential customers has always been a challenge, creators are now expected to reach out in a personal way at scale. Not to mention, it’s no secret that much of modern content creation revolves around improving SEO, capturing eyeballs and reaching sales goals. And on top of all that, if we want to reach younger generations, we’ll have to start leaning into risk, as Gen Zer and Duolingo Social Media Coordinator Zaria Parvez said on the Brand Collective Podcast.

Is there a way to master the balancing act of both reaching practical business goals and making authentic connections with younger audiences? Absolutely.

Are the majority of brands pulling it off? Absolutely not.

That’s where this article comes in.

So what is authenticity, really?

Authentic marketing is all about connecting with audiences on a deeper level. Instead of selling, you should be sharing. Everything from personal stories to helpful advice is welcome…as long as your media is created with the intent to provide value to others in some way.

That doesn’t mean you have to hold off on promoting your product or service. But it does mean marketing and creative teams can stand to put more thought into the soul of what they are creating beyond what it means for the bottom line.

As the Washington Post says, “Authenticity has become a must-have quality in the business world, up there with diversity and sustainability.”

Still, businesses continue to use the idea of authenticity as a way to bridge the gap between their sales numbers and Gen Z without realizing the irony: By solely using authenticity as a way to turn Gen Z audiences into dollar signs, they are already being inauthentic.

Confused yet? Let’s clear things up with a closer look at what the kids are up to these days.

How Gen Z does it differently

The rise of Generation Z is forcing marketers to rethink their approach to content strategy and asset creation. Consumers are becoming more resistant to self-promotion and manipulative marketing techniques — Gen Z most of all.

As CBS News reports, many young activists are working to find ways out of the endless and addictive dopamine-to-depression cycle that the internet so expertly creates. With so much content floating around every second of every day, it’s no wonder that Gen Z is taking their power back by being selective with their digital marketing consumption. As a result, they are more likely to spot and ignore material that’s created entirely with a sale in mind.

TikTok is a real-world case study for this theory. Now, we all know being part of Gen Z isn’t just about liking TikTok. But the authenticity of the viral content shared on the platform is one of the major reasons why 40% of Gen Z uses TikTok as one of its go-to search engines over sites like Google.

The kicker is that selective consumption and a craving for genuine voices are things most marketers are already keyed into. They just don’t quite know how to pull it off.

What brands get wrong about authenticity

Instead of focusing on developing content and creative strategies that make people love your brand, teams should aim to give audiences a helping hand. In other words, make it about them and not about you. To build a strong and loyal fan base, brand teams need to get back in touch.

Think about how you make lasting connections in your own life. It takes time, effort and a willingness to support your chosen community. In some cases that may mean spending time on content that doesn’t directly tie back to your offerings. But every investment you make into supporting your audience is an investment that audience is more likely to make back.

And don’t even try to pull the wool over Gen Z’s eyes. They’re far too smart for that. Just look at what happened with the Kyle Scheele Meal.

In 2021 the gas station chain Kum & Go was pranked by a TikTok creator named Kyle Scheele…or so they said. Scheele placed a man-sized cardboard cutout ad of himself advertising a fake meal that the store was supposedly carrying. Then press came out saying that the chain was so tickled by the viral video that they would partner with RedBull to bring it to life.

In a cringeworthy turn of events, users quickly uncovered that this was in fact a lie. Scheele had actually partnered with Kum & Go to create the original viral video as well as the subsequent meal launch. The swiftness of the product rollout was just one of many reasons why commenters and comedians like Danny Gonzalez — whose video reacting to the incident has received nearly 3.5 million views to date — ripped into the content marketing plan’s uncomfortable lack of authenticity.

Stunts like these are exactly why younger generations don’t think twice about disengaging with content they deem less than trustworthy at first glance.

Authentic brands vs. posers: How to spot the difference

Authentic brands demonstrate how they care about audiences with their actions. Posers talk about how they care with their words.

In terms of content, this can mean the difference between a thorough and well-researched blog post for a keyword question your audience frequently looks for versus one that does the bare minimum to answer the query and pushes product instead.

You can also spot a poser brand by the way they discuss their products and portray their services within their content and creative. Podcast episodes and YouTube videos dedicated to other topics suddenly turn into one long, irrelevant and overly branded sales pitch. Blog articles wedge so many on-page ads in that it’s impossible to even read the post.

Authentic brands, on the other hand, share content that is useful, engaging and on topic. They comment on their own offerings but keep the conversation focused on the subject at hand without veering off course just to make it about themselves again.

And last but not least, the best way to spot an authentic brand is to go with your gut. Studies conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine have concluded that there is a clear neurological connection between the brain and the gut. So if your body is telling you that branded content seems off, then it probably is!

Good news though: While you can’t trick people into believing your content is authentic, you can create authentic content that Gen Zers love. You just need to have a strong foundation first.

4 ways to incorporate authenticity into all marketing content and campaigns

Top brands use the following actionable marketing and creative tips to connect with Gen Z on a deeper level:

  1. Communicate like you're talking to a friend

The most successful B2B and B2C marketers all have one thing in common: They understand the importance of tone. Based on our experience with content marketing, we can confidently say that people enjoy reading something that makes them feel like they’re talking to an educated friend.

In fact, some of the most viral content on TikTok owes its success to making the viewer feel instantly connected to the creator as if they’ve known each other for years. The key to replicating that success is to master the right tone.

According to Grammarly, the most common types of tone in writing are:

  • Formal
  • Informal
  • Optimistic
  • Worried
  • Friendly
  • Curious
  • Assertive
  • Encouraging
  • Surprised
  • Cooperative

To make your blog posts and video scripts sound like a pal your audience is getting a coffee with, you’ll want to lean into tones that are informal, optimistic, friendly, encouraging and cooperative. These often feel familiar and turn a cold, formal brand into a living, breathing persona others can relate to.

The same concept can be used to guide the kinds of images and visuals that accompany written marketing materials. For instance, instead of using photographs of sullen-faced employees sitting at their desks, opt for more natural shots of friendly colleagues laughing together over a working lunch.

  1. Provide clear answers to real questions

Gen Z audiences value clear, quality information. Having had access to technology since birth, they are used to seeking answers from Google and other user-friendly digital sources. That’s where your content strategy comes in.

Build your calendar around answering their most relevant and frequently asked questions about your product, your industry and their career development. Even if their question isn’t directly related to your offerings, you can always tie it back to the brand using your CTA.

For example, a project management tool can reach Gen Z business professionals by offering tips on how to accommodate disabilities in the workplace. Even though their software doesn’t directly relate to the topic, they can easily segue their content from tips to tools and spell out how a project management tool can plan, strategize or execute on their advice.

From a visual perspective, make sure this information is represented in an intuitive and easily digestible format. Providing helpful diagrams, headers and subheads, CTA buttons or boxes, and plenty of white space are just a few ways to help your audience cut out any noise and focus on the helpful material at hand.

  1. Accept and use feedback

Being part of Gen Z means needing to feel heard. And today’s young consumers often determine whether or not they trust a brand before making a purchase. Being open to critique and suggestions is a large part of what makes a brand trustworthy in the first place. Using this to your advantage in your content will make your marketing that much more authentic to readers and viewers.

You can solicit feedback in the form of:

  • Instagram Stories question boxes
  • Direct consumer email surveys
  • Comment sections of published brand videos

And those are just some of the ways you can make Gen Z feel heard with your content!

To get started, consider how your audience interacts with your various platforms. Then, observe where and how you’re already receiving feedback from Gen Z. Find a cross-section of these two spaces or choose an organic path forward to connect these dots.

And when you finally do implement their feedback, let them know. Tag the person who originally suggested it on social media. Screenshot the many different comments that led to the change. Or simply share a video giving people a heads-up that you’re changing things and explain why. The more casual and straightforward your brand is about it without patting yourselves on the back too much, the more authentic it will feel.

  1. Focus on your brand mission

Have a clear and consistent reason why you’re creating every new asset. As positioning and branding expert Andy Cunningham says, “You have to establish a set of values that everyone in your company understands and actually lives by, because you can do anything with your brand as long as it’s authentic to who you are.”

Not sure where to start? Ask your team and yourself who your brand is and what it stands for. How does this relate to Gen Z and what’s important to them? For every new asset or piece of content, ask yourself, Why this story and why right now? Then, compare that why statement to every outline, draft and final version to make sure it’s in alignment.

Being of service to your audience by finding ways to champion what’s important to them is one of the most important methods of showing younger generations that your brand genuinely cares. Doing this in a consistent manner is the true key to authenticity.

Solving the Gen Z equation

Like networking, authentic marketing for Generation Z audiences relies on clear and genuine intent. This generation can smell a fake from a mile away, so being thoughtful about how you connect the dots between driving business goals and delivering true value is critical.

Following the four tips outlined in this post is a great way to start going beyond the buzzword. For more, watch our video on how to engage Gen Z and create a resilient, future-ready marketing strategy built on authenticity.