recent article from Vogue Business is getting a lot of attention for the way it reveals how Gen Z has fundamentally changed marketing. Let’s look at what it says, and what we can take away from it.

The piece breaks down new research from youth culture agency, Archrival, that surveyed 750 Gen Zs and 250 Millennials to compare how they interact with brands. The result: Gen Zs are significantly more active participants in the discovery and buying process.

Where consumers used to rely on push messaging like billboards and TV ads to discover new products, Gen Z is seeking them out by consuming content from each other, searching for trends, and watching product reviews.

When it comes to brand loyalty, according to the author, there has been a shift from simply repeating a purchase to actively engaging with content they like. The article cites brands like Madhappy and Represent as having connected with their young audiences to the point where they feel like they’re a part of a community, rather than simply a part of a transaction.

What’s new here?

The ideas probably sound pretty familiar to you by now: Build community, go beyond features and benefits, tell a story that people want to share. Advice like that has been around for decades.

What’s changed is how it’s now possible for a consumer to move all the way from Awareness to Purchase without ever interacting with a single message from the brand.

Consider how anyone (not just Gen Z) might discover a new purchase: They scroll through their feed and stumble on an account that’s talking about a recent product, trip, or other purchase. Then, they search the brand name on social apps for other content that validates what they just saw, digging deeper into specific experiences and the types of people who love the brand.

Only then, when they’ve found what they’re looking for, will they even consider checking out the brand’s own accounts and/or website.

Social discovery is not new — in previous generations, that could have happened through word-of-mouth or traditional media, we just didn’t see it happening.

What’s new is the step after awareness. When that potential buyer is interested, they’re now likely to search on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube for other people who have bought the product. We don’t have direct control over that content, which is one of the biggest reasons why they will seek it out – they trust it more than what we might put on our own accounts.

They may continue down that path all the way to the time that they’re ready to check out, and this was another interesting data point: Gen Z reports that they’re roughly 50% more likely to go into a physical store to check out the product for themselves.

Notice that throughout that entire process, the brand had 0 control over any of the messages.

What’s not new?

The article, and many of the people talking about the article on TikTok, are making a bold claim that the traditional funnel no longer applies. That this self-discovery process means that we need a new model. But is that the case?

In order to make any purchase decision, we all still must move from unaware to aware. We then build interest, evaluate options, and become motivated to take an action.

The funnel phases have been re-labelled as the following:

  1. Awareness → Inspiration
  2. Interest → Exploration
  3. Desire → Community
  4. Action → Loyalty

Yes, Gen Z shops differently, and yes the prevalence of social search means we have to broaden the way we think about creating a path that people can follow, but have humans fundamentally changed in the way that we make decisions?

We have a lot more options available to us now to gather that information, but we still go through the same steps. Brands still need to find ways to move people from “I’ve never heard of you” to “I love your brand enough to tell my friends,” the aperture has simply opened up.

So What?

Gen Z (and all digitally savvy shoppers today) are smart.

Any claims that we make about how much people love us, or how we have built a “community” will be immediately checked.

Social search means that, rather than pushing messages out to an audience, then hoping that they’ll take the bait and follow down the carefully laid funnel we’ve built, we can’t assume that we’re in control of any of the next steps they take. But that doesn’t mean that we’re helpless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

If we think about what the study tells us about today’s buying habits, it means brands that are building content and connections with their people will be rewarded. Buyers today need to see those reviews, the user-generated content, and the communities we’ve built before they’ll take the next step.

We don’t have to leave social search and loyalty to chance. What this means is that efforts to earn user-generated content, to build a connection with customers, and to invest in content that goes beyond the transnational marketing funnel will now have significantly more value.

Is the marketing funnel broken? No. But it has widened significantly, and it’s on us to build a brand that people want to talk about.

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