Last week, Her Campus Media’s co-founder and president, Windsor Western, led a webinar on what she labeled ‘Genzology’ or, all things Gen Z. Her Campus was founded by Western and two of her college classmates in 2009. It has since acquired InfluenceHer Collective in 2013 and Spoon University and College Fashionista in 2019.
Her Campus Media speaks to, and is made for, Gen Z audiences – 16 to 24 year-olds – and has a presence on 1,750 college campuses and universities across the United States, making Western an expert on Gen Z.
As a member of Gen Z, a recent college graduate and an attendee of this webinar, I was impressed with how spot-on Western was in her presentation. There can be a lot of crossover confusion between Gen Z and millennials, both sharing a love for avocado toast and a passion for sustainable practices. However, there are also intrinsic differences that perhaps stem from the fact that Gen Z grew up holding cell phones in their hands, whether it was their parents or their own, and millennials were not acquainted with cell phones until high school at the earliest.
While Gen Z is currently the youngest generation with a purchasing power, it is not a generation to overlook. Gen Z is also the largest population in the United States with about 72 million people and a spending power of $143 billion.
Each property under Her Campus Media hits a different vertical within the target market. While HerCampus.com is focused on general lifestyle and is composed of college women contributing from the over 400 on-campus chapters at colleges and universities, Spoon University targets ‘first-time foodies,’ Western said. Her Campus Media also works with nano and micro influencers – working with a network of 20,000 beauty-obsessed nano influencers for College Fashionista and 6,000 micro influencers on the InfluenceHer Collective.
One thing to note about Gen Z is its aesthetic.
“So Gen Z aesthetic – it is the no aesthetic, aesthetic,” she said. “Things are intentionally ugly. So, if you look at millennial, you have millennial pink, lots of smooth pastels, stylized, clean, perfect … If you look at Gen Z, it’s much more raw, more relatable, more unfiltered. There’s a lot of nostalgia.”
The act of over-editing and face-tuning photos for a perfectly airbrushed effect are a thing of the past. Gen Z cannot expect brands to be “real” with them if they are not “real” with themselves. The older members of Gen Z were born in the late ‘90s and grew up with Tamagotchis and chokers, and there is a deep nostalgia with both of those vibes that is evident with the memes shared on social media and the way we portray ourselves.
While Western herself is a millennial, she admits that social media posts and images that might appeal to her would not work for Her Campus’s audience.
“I’m 31 years-old. If I think something is really beautiful, it probably is not something we should put out if we are trying to target Gen Z right now,” she said. “It’s really important you pay attention to high engagement rate and pay attention to what is actually resonating with this audience and what the conversation between them looks like on social.”
No marketer is doing their due diligence if their strategies, plans and messaging have not had to reroute in the wake of COVID-19. Western says brands should recognize consumers, what they are going through and show that “We are here for you!”
Students graduating from high school and college missed out on the pomp and circumstance this year due the implementation of social distancing and shelter-in-place. Despite the cancellation of parties and ceremonies, Her Campus Media made sure its audience felt supported and that their accomplishments were still celebrated with its #ImStillGraduating campaign and virtual event.
Celebrities and brands jumped at the chance to support the class of 2020, with the Jonas Brothers, Austin Mahone, Jesse McCartney and more making appearances, and brands such as Aussie, Sallie Mae, First Aid Beauty and Neutrogena showing their support.
Personally speaking, my graduation consisted of a slide show that had our names quickly scrolling alongside the degree we were receiving. My roommates and I had it on in the background as we packed our apartment into cardboard moving boxes. The fact that brands and public figures recognized our lack of ceremony and took it upon themselves to make the most of it for us is something that will be hard to forget.
No less momentous is the freshmen class still planning on entering college, and Her Campus Media plans to show up for them, too with College Re-Imagined, a program consisting of a ‘Welcome Week’ starting Aug. 24, a virtual dining hall that teaches students to cook in their own college kitchens, financial aid that will cover budgeting, among other activations and virtual experiences.
According to the presentation and School Reporting sourced from The Chronicle for Higher Education, out of 1,200 colleges and universities surveyed, “50% as of Monday are planning for in-person education, 35% are proposing a hybrid model of online and in-person,12% are planning for fully online. The rest are either considering a range of scenarios or still deciding.”
Lastly but most importantly, Gen Z is a generation that cares and a generation that uses its voice for positive change. We are a generation that grew up with active shooter drills in schools, massive wildfires burning through acres upon acres of land, iPhone-captured videos of police brutality against BIPOC, and for those in my class, the ability to vote for the first time ever in one of the most polarized presidential elections in history.
We have seen the impact of decisions older generations have made before us and would like our children to grow up in a world where the Earth isn’t burning. Yes, everyone has to take personal responsibility for the change they want to see, but it is also important that brands, both industry leaders and mom and pop shops, set an example.
“85% say that understanding a brands’ values is somewhat or very or very important to the decision to shop there,” Western said. “It’s no longer enough for you to have a great product. You need to have a great brand supporting that great product. Both things are very important. This demographic is really paying very close attention to the companies behind the products that they’re shopping from, what they stand for, how they produce their products, what the company really does.”
Gen Z places more weight on the brands it decides to shop from. It wants to know about a brand’s give-back initiatives, the causes it supports and its sustainability efforts. Following the same wavelength, Western reports that of the 100 Her Campus Media community members surveyed, “73% support the #StopHateForProfit boycott” and “59% do not trust Facebook … they will be spending their time on trusted publishers’ websites, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, and TikTok as a result.”
On TikTok, Western says that it is not an app to be overlooked, but it does not have to be an app that you push all of your ad dollars onto with the potential TikTok ban and the release of Instagram’s TikTok competitor, Reels.
“If you’re going to use TikTok, one important thing to remember about TikTok is that advertising messages need to be authentic and need to be organic to the platform,” Western said. “Do not create ads for the TikTok platform, create TikToks for the TikTok platform. Nano and micro influencers work really well here for that.”
A strong feature about ads on TikTok is that users often do not realize off-the-bat that an ad is an ad. Ads on TikTok are seamless and can often start TikTok trends, as NYX did with a lip gloss campaign.
Her Campus Media has a lot of programs planned for Gen Z and its community this coming fall, providing a lot of options for brands to get involved. Check out Her Campus Media’s proposals on BrandVerge to find out how your brand can show up for Gen Z.
Western’s key takeaways: “College is not cancelled, it just looks different. Gen Z is still here and they want to hear from you. Big themes are to entertain them, uplift them, give back and give opportunities.”
My takeaways: I can only speak for myself but I think that many would agree that because [Gen Z] grew up at a time when forming virtual connections, whether that be through LinkedIn, dating apps, using SnapChat to keep up with one another on a more intimate level or finding people with similar interests on Twitter, TikTok or Instagram, finding brands that align with your values and in which you find trust as ethical or clean is crucial. There is so much information available to consumers now and we are going to use it to make responsible and positive decisions.