What Gives Gen Z The Ick on Social
Featuring an interview with Erifili Gounari, Founder and CEO of The Z Link.
“Want to slay your holiday? Come on in today!”
“Any way you choose, you’ll be the main character!”
Above is copy from recent emails I’ve received from three different brands. Yet the voice across all of them sounds so…similar.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that companies are desperately trying to understand and reach Gen Z right now. There’s no other reason that can explain why 1-800-CONTACTS is sending me an email with “bestie” in it. A quick Google of “Gen Z” pulls up suggestions of what I imagine are desperate marketing managers trying to come up with a new campaign—“gen z slang”, “gen z characteristics”, “gen z memes”.
While no generation is a monolith, I do think there are certain marketing tactics that are simply less effective on a specific age group. To dig into what those tactics are for Gen Z, I spoke with Erifili Gounari, the Founder and CEO of The Z Link. She runs the first Gen Z-led social media agency that helps brands reach Gen Z, and has been featured in INSIDER, NBC, and Fast Company. We talk about why brands have trouble marketing to Gen Z, “millennial” marketing tactics that don’t work, and brands that are doing a good job at it all.
Rachel Karten: First can you tell me about your current role and any previous social (or not!) roles you've had?
Erifili Gounari: My current role is Founder and CEO at The Z Link! Past roles include Head of Social Media at SafetyWing, Social Media Strategist for Greece (yes, the country—I built its social media strategy when I was 20, coolest project ever). I’ve also done social media for some other companies/organizations in the art industry (at the Uffizi Galleries and at Scottish Contemporary Art Network) and the film industry (at Park Circus).
RK: Talk to me about The Z Link—why did you start this agency?
EG: The Z Link is the first Gen Z-led social media agency that helps brands reach Gen Z. I started The Z Link in 2020, because I noticed a huge gap between brands and my generation, as well as a big willingness by a lot of brands to understand our generation and build relationships with us successfully. I wanted to build a team of Gen Z social media strategists and content creators, that would help brands communicate their messaging effectively to our generation in an authentic way.
RK: Why do you think so many brands have trouble marketing to Gen Z?
EG: Like with every generation before us, Gen Z has its own unique characteristics, that in our case are further accentuated by the fact that Gen Z is the first generation of digital natives. Growing up with this much exposure to information and content, as well as having access to social media from such a young age, means that Gen Z has some digital habits and characteristics that may not be as intuitively understood by an older marketer.
Of course, among a generation there lots of individuals—but the main elements that differentiate a generation from the next are still very much worth researching and understanding.
RK: If you had to distill it down, what do you think is important to Gen Z on social media? Specifically when it comes to brands marketing to them.
EG: Gen Z is tired of marketing and cringey ads and attempts to connect with us—so marketing needs to not feel like marketing.
Brands that succeed with Gen Z are the ones that understand how to create truly human and authentic content, and those that take a community-led approach to marketing instead of just letting paid ads get them in front of Gen Z's eyes.
RK: Do you think it's important that a brand's social team is made up of the demographic they are attempting to market to?
EG: I do think that brands that are serious about connecting with Gen Z would find it super useful to work with a Gen Z marketing strategist; whether by hiring Gen Zers in their social team or by working with an agency like ours. It's much easier for them to apply any insights that way and integrate them more deeply into their brand.
RK: What types of "millennial" marketing tactics turn Gen Z off?
EG: Gen Z is generally turned off by marketing that looks like it's "trying too hard": brands attempting to jump on every TikTok trend or use slang they don't understand, etc—it brings to mind that "How do you do, fellow kids?" Steve Buscemi meme. And no brand wants that!
I think Gen Z can very easily tell when a brand is trying too hard in a way that comes across as inauthentic, and they're quick to call them out in TikTok comments for it.
RK: Any brands that come to mind that do a great job of marketing to Gen Z?
EG: Some brands really lead the way in this field, that you've definitely noticed already as well on TikTok: Duolingo, Ryanair, Lionsgate, Joe and the Juice. On Twitter, an example is Innocent Drinks, because of their authentic and truly human tone of voice. On Instagram, Recess comes to mind, because of their unique aesthetic and visuals that make them stand out and show they're not afraid to be playful. All of these have one thing in common: they show that they don't mind not taking themselves too seriously.
RK: Talk to me about how you work with brands! What's a big breakthrough moment you love making with a client?
EG: We do social media strategy, content creation, influencer marketing, consulting, and social media workshops for brands. My favorite projects are social media strategies! Getting to dig deeply into a brand and brainstorm creative ideas to showcase its uniqueness through social media content to appeal to its specific target audience within Gen Z—often with the challenge of not alienating older audiences, which a lot of our clients target too—is really exciting and interesting!
RK: Do you have any examples of a project or post you've worked on with a client that you can share? Why did it work?
EG: One especially fun project that comes to mind is one we did for Hearst. We worked with them for a short period of time in 2021 to relaunch Sugarscape, an old publication of theirs that had a huge and super engaged community but had stopped their activities a few years prior!
We did a series of comeback tweets for them that we knew would hit the mark with their audience that used to follow them for exclusive One Direction content (throwback, anyone?!). This one is the most viral tweets we've ever done for a brand.
We also focused heavily on engaging with their community and matching their excitement over the following weeks; it felt like Sugarscape had its own fandom in a way, so replying to people's DMs, following them back, interacting with them in a fun way, meant a lot to them. It tapped into this segment of Gen Z that grew up on social media interacting in fandom communities, and engaged with that nostalgia. So it was all a matter of understanding a specific segment of Gen Z and knowing how to engage with them in their own online space!
RK: Imagine a CMO from a brand that just hasn't nailed reaching Gen Z on social media is reading this. What are three pieces of advice you'd give to them?
Start taking risks and having some fun. A lot of brands are stuck behind because they're afraid to be human on social media; but as we've seen in previous issues of this newsletter too, when the marketer behind the brand appears, and you show some personality and some relatability, it can work wonders. Stop taking social media way too seriously and see how you can be more playful and real!
Make community one of your content pillars. Gen Z loves active participation and values having a space for their voice to be heard. If your social content pillars right now are just sales/product content, experiment with adding some community-first content to the mix, for example: asking your followers questions, starting conversations with them, sparking some real engagement. Creating a space for them to connect with each other and with your brand around your niche.
Make sure you're showing up in the right spaces. Whether that's through a strategic influencer collaboration to show up in their targeted niche community or by expanding your social media presence to include another platform that your Gen Z audience might be active on. It's vital to look at the big picture and ensure your strategy includes the right channels. Make sure your resources aren't wasted in spaces that Gen Z likely isn't checking (like a Facebook page) instead of others where it's much more likely to get Gen Z engagement (like TikTok).
RK: Are you hopeful for the future of social media?
EG: I am! Of course social media has its downsides, but its biggest strength is fostering connections, which is invaluable. I am hopeful that whichever way it evolves, social media can always (hopefully) serve as a space for connection, inspiration, entertainment, and creative expression.
In this week’s Logged On send for paid subscribers I wrote about the oil painter that every brand is partnering with, ways to succeed on TikTok without using trending audio, and an embarrassing thing I Googled.
In the Link in Bio Discord we talked about text-only Facebook posts, an unfortunate typo from @UNGeneva, and a new wine brand called “Big Naturals”…
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Thanks for reading and have a wonderful rest of your day!
And yes, I am aware that me using “the ick” in the subject line is borderline try hard millennial vibes!!!
This was a great interview! I agree. It seems like SO many brands are trying too hard and taking themselves way too seriously.
Thank you for having us! 💙