Forget Focus Groups. Come To My Gen Z Classroom

Pauline Chiou’s Gen Z college journalism students are teaching her a lot about their media consumption priorities. It turns out Lululemon and Toca Boca can teach news outlets much about how to reach this elusive demo.

I’ve had several “aha moments” this semester while I teach journalism, digital media and production at Iona University in the suburbs of New York City. As a former news director, anchor and correspondent in the U.S. and Asia, I started the semester planning on bringing 20-plus years of newsroom experience to my undergraduate students. In an unexpected turn, they are unwittingly teaching me how to view content the Gen Z way.

For a moment, forget focus groups and the all-important 25-54 age demographic. Gen Z is anyone between 10 and 25 years old. Here’s what I’m learning and why it’s important to the industry.

Gen Z is selective.

In a discussion about subscriptions as a revenue stream, I compiled a list of what my students actually pay for. The answer: not much. They don’t pay for cable, newspaper/magazine subscriptions or digital news content. They will spend money on retail, entertainment and live sports. That means Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify and ESPN+ to watch college games.

Why don’t they shell out more? It’s understood that Gen Z doesn’t have much disposable income yet. If you dig a little deeper, think about their life experiences so far. Gen Z folks were born between 1997 and 2012. There’s a good chance historic events during this period impacted their parents’ financial situations and their own relationship with money. Those events include 9/11, the subprime mortgage meltdown, the great financial crisis (2007-09), COVID and its whiplash double-digit unemployment in April 2020.

To add further perspective, I reached out to my former colleague Matt Goldberg, VP of content strategy for LX News, NBC’s streaming and linear channel catering to Gen Z and millennials. Goldberg and I worked together at KPRC-TV in Houston during its Post-Newsweek days. I asked him why Gen Z seems unwilling to pay for more content.


“I think it’s segmentation and the ubiquitous nature of free media that drives that,” he says. “I don’t think they are necessarily opposed to paying for it, but I think that it’s got to come with a value. You’ve locked in on something already with sports.  There’s value in something like live sports.”

Gen Zers need to be met where they are. 

My other aha moment came after I assumed my students knew or cared about the historic milestones and pop culture of Gen X and Gen Y. There’s a distinct generation gap.

In September, we discussed the shift of cinematic content skipping theater premieres and going straight to streaming. I asked the class if any of them had seen Amazon Prime’s streaming premiere of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. None had watched it. The students were not very familiar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the early 2000s. So, I reached for a more iconic sequel and asked, “Star Wars? Anyone watch the original movies or the prequels?” Nope – didn’t care.

I realized I was navel gazing. I grew up on Madonna, Sting and the New York Islanders winning Stanley Cups. They like Dua Lipa, Tiesto and watching their parents discover pickleball. I needed to meet them where they are. If I had brought up Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, the discussion would’ve gone much further.

To make a comparison in the world of finance, legendary Fidelity fund manager Peter Lynch tells great stories about watching the consumer habits of his three teenage daughters back in the 1990s. In Beating the Street, he writes about missing out on investing in Chili’s restaurants. Even though his three daughters all wore Chili’s sweatshirts to bed, he didn’t take the time to research it as a stock pick.

However, Lynch didn’t miss the boat with the Body Shop. On a trip to the shopping mall, he watched his daughters make a beeline for Body Shop. One of Lynch’s Fidelity colleagues had also quit to buy a Body Shop franchise. He did a deep dive into the business and invested in what turned out to be a winning stock. The starting point was to observe and meet the younger generation where they were.

Gen Zers gravitate toward the Lululemon Effect.

Two of my students are varsity athletes on the women’s lacrosse team. In a discussion about digital websites, they said the only site they check regularly is on Thursday mornings. Why? Lululemon has a big sale for new items only on Thursday mornings.

This got me thinking about what marketers call “the weekly drop.” It’s that special item or moment where a viewer/user/consumer feels like they are part of an exclusive group that can get something in short supply.

Similarly, 10-year-old Gen Z kids in my neighborhood are crazy about Toca Boca, an app where they can decorate a house or café. They look forward to Fridays when they get a free gift in the app’s mailbox icon. When the kids click on the mailbox, the gift magically opens and jumps onto a conveyor belt where a Toca Boca character can pick it up.

The weekly drop provides a little surge of “I’m special” dopamine, which is something worth thinking about in the competition for eyeballs.

Pandering won’t work with Gen Z.

Good strategists can see around the corner. Visionaries look around the next three corners. Within the next decade, Gen Z will be among the changemakers in politics, business, entertainment and more. Their experiences and habits today make an imprint on how they will choose to lead down the road.

“Gen​​ Z cares more about the world than millennials, Gen X and Boomers did,” LX’s Goldberg says. “Our tent poles are on our foreheads. We care about climate, the economy, equity, race, sexual orientation… . Younger audiences want to know the answer to why all the time.”

I asked him what he would tell media executives who fixate on the 25-54 demographic. Goldberg puts it bluntly. “Don’t pander,” he says. “I don’t know any 25-year-old who’s anything like a 54-year-old, so good luck trying to figure that out. Where you can find a common denominator is in a great story, and that’s where we can all have success in the industry.”

Gen Z is very much part of this learning journey, and it’s clearly a two-way street.

Pauline Chiou (@PaulineChiou) is an adjunct media professor at Iona University and a previous news director at News 12 Westchester/Hudson Valley in New York; anchor/correspondent at CNN (Hong Kong), CNBC (Singapore), CBS Newspath; and local anchor/reporter at WBZ Boston and KPRC Houston.

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