Tapping into Gen Z’s spheres of influence

Competition for your audiences has never been tighter, and traditional marketing doesn’t always cut it. Sometimes you need a little help. That’s where influencers come in: the people who have the ear of your audience.

The celebrities

When you think of influencers, the first group that probably comes to mind is celebrities. That’s no surprise: this form of influencer marketing dates back to the 1760s, when “celebrity” meant “royal.” But with the advent of social media, stars are no longer unattainable—in fact, many are highly accessible. And with that shift comes a shift in perception. Only 20 percent of Gen Z-ers have a positive reaction to an ad simply because it features someone famous.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 4.44.04 PMBut that’s not to say there aren’t interesting ways to tap into celebrity influence. Take the University of Texas, for example. When the school was looking to promote its SURE Walk program, it recruited Matthew McConaughey (an avid alumnus) to serve as one of the volunteers helping students get home safely after dark. Not only did UT get the attention of students, but it also scored organic media coverage of the event. By tapping into McConaughey’s celebrity status, UT was able to elevate the campus program, creating a strong association between the university and a commitment to safety.

The takeaway: Celebrity endorsement is different from celebrity influence. Endorsement is artificial, driven by profit—and Gen Z sees right through that. Influence, on the other hand, emerges from a genuine affinity for and engagement with a brand. And when it comes to reaching today’s students via celebrity influencers, it’s a magic equation of authenticity, relevance, and vanity (“how does it apply to me?”).

The social influencers

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 4.39.54 PMOf course, today you no longer have to be a celebrity to share your voice. Anyone can use social platforms to develop and engage a large following, a phenomenon that regularly launches everyday people into fame. But again, status alone isn’t enough to sway Gen Z. Instead of investing in a single face to represent its brand, Gap works with a long list of influencers—women and men from across the globe, with followings large and (relatively) small—to share how they wear the company’s apparel. This strategy allows the clothing brand to reach a huge network of followers, in niches that they might not have reached otherwise.

The takeaway: You don’t need to find a personality with millions of followers to make an impact. Look to partner with influencers who have smaller, more engaged audiences. Then you can craft niche communications to reach your target demographics. And if you’re targeting members of Gen Z, make sure your communications serve a purpose—make them laugh, share an interesting story, or teach them something.

The inner circle

For Gen Z, the strongest influencers are the ones they regularly interact with—their family, their friends, and their communities (both real-life and digital). Tapping into this circle is the most challenging, since it relies heavily on organic sharing and engagement, rather than paid media. But it can be the most rewarding as well, because audiences are more likely to engage with and act on content that comes from a trusted source.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 4.41.27 PMOne way to engage the inner circle is through highly shareable content. White Bear Mitsubishi took outtakes from its commercial shoot and created a video with wide appeal, thanks to some classic physical humor. The result was simple but effective, and was shared endlessly across social networks. And for a small dealership in Minnesota—and the University of Minnesota by association—the millions of views and countless shares make up more exposure and engagement than any TV spot they could have run.

Another way to tap into the inner circle is through user-generated content. Sephora created the Beauty Board as a way to engage customers, allowing them to create profiles and post beauty looks that can be shopped by fellow customers. The end product is a social network tailored to the brand’s target audience that provides both a creative and utilitarian outlet for their makeup interests.

The takeaway: Don’t try too hard—or at least don’t look like you are. The best content is often the simplest. And sometimes, the most effective way to engage with an audience is to let them do the heavy lifting. Instead of relentlessly marketing to your targets, allow them to interact with your brand and create something alongside it. That’s when you have the best chance to cultivate true brand affinity.