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12 strategies for keeping your Gen Z community engaged

Article ID:
April 2014, page 56
Jeanne Connon

Article Abstract

The CMO of FashionPlaytes on the right – and wrong – ways to approach, interact with and learn from the pre-Millennial generation.

‘Ask them. They will tell you.’

Editor's note: Jeanne Connon is CMO of FashionPlaytes, the Beverly, Mass.-based creator of and the FPgirl online community.

If you’ve ever interacted with members of Generation Z – the kids coming up behind Millennials – you’ve likely discovered that they are savvy, smart, completely plugged in and more engaged with the world than anyone who has ever come before them. There are many reasons for this: the media, the Internet, our pace of life, our connectedness.

While keeping any community engaged is critical to market research, it’s even more essential with today’s kids, given the myriad things vying for their attention (Snapchat and Instagram, anyone?). Here are 12 strategies for doing exactly that.

1. Understand what’s important to them.

Don’t guess, assume or harken back to your own teenage years and think you’ve got today’s children figured out. We know Bob Dylan said “The times they are a-changin’,” but today’s kids are into different music, different shows, different everything.

So how do you discover what’s important to them? Hang out (virtually, that is) in some of the same places they do. Watch the TV shows that matter to them (or at least have a strong working knowledge of what they’re about). Subscribe to the Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube accounts they do.

To start, you can follow some of the leaders in the Gen Z space, like Teen Vogue or Seventeen, and then research the social media accounts that those big-name players follow. And, yes, you’ll need to adjust your list depending on the age group you’re targeting. If your community has younger members, say between the ages of five and nine, you’ll want to follow accounts that cater to them, like Disney or Nick.

2. Respect their language but avoid mimicry.

Kids can sniff out condescension, so never talk down to them. They’ll also see right through a robot mentality, so don’t auto-message/text/tweet them – ever. Always keep the medium you’re using in mind. Anything kids read online, especially on smaller screens like smartphones, should be written in short, punchy, conversational text. (This is true for all communities, not just ones for kids.)

At the same time, avoid trying too hard. If you throw in too many phrases they use, like “totes adorbs,” it will sound forced (and so uncool). Talk to them like real human beings. By simply showing an interest in – and an understanding of – their world (see the point above), you’ll earn their trust. You don’t need to use their lingo in order to get them to engage with you.

3. Ask questions – constantly.

For better or worse, our world today allows for instant comments, interactions and feedback. The Generation Z community is no exception. They don’t shy away from questions; just the opposite. They enjoy sharing their opinions, so be sure to pose open-ended questions, allow them to talk and be sure to listen – really listen – especially to the subtext. At the same time, never make assumptions. If you need them to clarify something, ask them. They will tell you.

4. Talk back…

Today’s kids understand the give-and-take of an Internet community better than anyone else does. They put the “social” in social media. What does this mean for market researchers working with this demographic? It means you need to talk back to them. The Gen Z community isn’t interested in talking to the void. They want to know they’ve been heard, which means they expect responses from you and their fellow members. In fact, you’ll likely learn just as much from observing interactions between community members as you would from talking directly to each person.

5. …but moderate the conversations.

This is your community, so you’re allowed to set ground rules (e.g., no bullying). Because you’re dealing with people who are under 18, it also makes sense to moderate comments. If you’re catering to kids 13 and under, this isn’t even an option. In order to be compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), you need to provide comment moderation, among other things. (Learn more at

6. Consider including moms and dads.

Again, if you’re working with the under-13 crowd, this is automatic: You need to get parental permission and sometimes, involvement. But even if you’re engaging older kids, it can’t hurt to have a space on your site dedicated to parents, especially those who monitor what their kids – even their older children – are up to and where they spend their time online.

What should you tell parents?

  • Outline the goals of your community. Transparency is essential (and refreshing).
  • Detail how and what information you’re collecting.
  • Clearly state your privacy policies and terms of use.
  • Offer an FAQ section.
  • Provide a way for parents to reach you and offer feedback.
  • Give tips on how parents can engage their own kids regarding this community their children are involved with.

7. Provide a way for the kids to engage you.

Don’t offer only one-way engagement where you send out a query and wait for their response. Create a community where members can easily submit content, ask questions and talk (virtually) with other members.

And this is important: If a child takes the time to reach out to you, acknowledge his or her efforts – within the boundaries of COPPA guidelines, of course.

8. Be prepared to move – fast.

Kids jump from one thing to the next, get bored and jump again. It’s like the channel-flipping. It’s important to understand that you could lose your audience at any minute, which is why re-engagement is just as critical as initial engagement. Your research strategy must be nimble enough to make adjustments on the fly, based on the reactions (or lack of reactions) from your community members.

So how do you re-engage your audience?

Reach out when a member’s activity has diminished beyond a certain point (try “we miss you” texts or e-mails).

Always have new offers in the pipeline so that you have a steady drip of fresh things to entice people back or to stick around longer.

Use multimedia. Different people respond in different ways to messages, depending on the medium. Release your messages and offers through a variety of channels – visual (images), visual (video), text, applications, social media.

9. But know you can count on some tried-and-true methods.

Here are some methodologies to consider adding to the engagement mix:

Quick polls. Make the poll question compelling in both subject and the way it’s presented. Make it easy to answer as well (e.g., select from four choices).

Surveys. These are typically longer than polls. They should still be fun, not overly long and written in kid-friendly copy (short, bullet-points, conversational).

Contests. Nothing engages a community of kids like a fun, easy-to-enter contest with a cool prize.

Forums. A forum is just a fancy way of saying a place where members can interact with one another. For example, your forum might be a blog where members are allowed to comment on the posts and to one another’s comments.

“Tell Us What You Think” features. This goes back to the above point about making it easy for kids to communicate with you. Featuring a place on your site where kids are invited to provide feedback is one way to accomplish this.

Visuals. A great image goes a long way with Gen Z – think Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr. Whenever possible, replace text with images; this goes for polls as well as posts.

10. Make it all mobile.

We don’t consider them the most connected generation for nothing. Cell phone and smartphone usage among tweens and teens will only continue to grow, as will the number of kids who access the Internet via a mobile device, according to the Pew Research Center.

They have a “mobile-first” mentality, which means you need to as well.

  • Make sure all communications you send to your community are mobile friendly.
  • Make sure your Web site is built using responsive design (which allows the site to automatically adjust to fit whatever sized screen it’s being viewed on).
  • Consider the power of the app. Creating an app for your community is another way to keep your community engaged. Yes, custom apps are an investment, but a smart one.

11. Experiment – and ask them how it worked.

Don’t be afraid to try new things with your kid community. Ask them for feedback on what worked and what didn’t work. Don’t be surprised (or put off!) by their honesty, because they will tell you what they think.

12. Let them direct.

Set the ground rules and have a strong infrastructure but hand the reins over to your community members and let them do their thing. You’ll be amazed at what happens when you give them their space and allow them to create their own magic.

Interested in sharing

Generation Z, digital natives, kids today – whatever your term for them, this community is bright, eager, informed and interested in sharing their thoughts with you and hearing what you think. Take the time to learn about them, who they are, what they love, what they hope for and create communities that foster conversations these young people crave.

Guaranteed, you’ll be surprised at what you discover.

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