How I — A “Zilleniel” — Want to be Marketed To

I am a contractor for a digital marketing agency. This morning, I sat in a virtual conference meeting with my colleagues. Having only targeted Generation X up to this point, we found an unexpectedly positive response from the Gen Z demographic and were considering leaning into the marketing direction with our pre-existing assets. As the team’s designer, I was then asked,

Thankfully we have a 20-something who designs our ads.
You'd interact with the designs you create, wouldn't you?

This simple question posed to me earlier made me really stop and think. “How do I prefer to be advertised to?”
Clearly, I’ve been the recipient of advertisements before. I’ve had my share of instances where ads have led to purchases. But, as someone who works in marketing and has an eye-out for criticism on these tactics thrown at me, I find myself driven to write a blog collecting my thoughts.

I’ve worked in marketing for over 3 years, but have had a fascination with the psychological aspect of the field for much longer. I’ve always had a habit of stripping off the visuals and breaking them down to their intentions.

I’m what’s sometimes referred to as a “Zillennial”. I do not completely identify with the culture of Gen Z, nor am I old enough to relate with what society considers to be a Millenial. Different websites will give you different definitions on an official generational marker divide… and somehow my birth-year always straddles that line. In this way, when companies identify common marketing strategies unique to the two, I feel out-of-the-loop enough to be self aware of the tactics. I don’t fall directly in place for the messaging typical of one demographic or the other.

I have only every designed for Boomer and Gen X audiences, so I am not particularly experienced in marketing to Millenials or Gen Z. Therefore, I am no authority on strategies that prove most effective. That said however, I can speak for myself, and myself is in my early 20s. Here is how I want to be advertised to.

marketing strategies that i both dislike and prefer

i cringe at loud music, colors, and personalities.

It feels like I’m being force-fed enthusiasm. I know you want me to be excited about your brand, but you need to stop grabbing and violently shaking my eyeballs. It feels aggressive and I will pull away. I have a mute button and I will absolutely use it. If the first 5 seconds of an ad- understandably meant to capture my attention before I press the skip button on YouTube – is unexpectedly shocking in this way, I’m more likely to pull that trigger.

The thing (especially unique to Gen Z) is that we’ve grown up surrounded by ad campaigns. They are a part of our lifestyle. We know when we turn on the TV, browse the internet, or even walk down the street, some company will be clamoring for our attention. CTAs like ‘ACT NOW’ and ‘LIMITED TIME OFFER’ have been drilled so often in association that they have become just words to me.

honesty and subtlety is how you can earn my trust.

Personally, I’ve found that advertisements are most effective when I sense they are on my level. In our modern lifestyle, advertisements are sandwiched in between the content that we all actually want to see. If one suddenly pops up on my screen, I want it to feel like a welcome break. The value that can be provided is that of emotional relief from the noise with simple messaging and gentle tone.

Regards the ad-copy, I don’t personally care for slogans– I hear upwards of 30 a day. I just want the straight facts about a product. Often I find that, because I expect commercials or ads to be loud and wordy, the ones that have a direct statement, soft music, or no spoken dialogue at all are what get me to turn my head and leave it.

That said, and maybe this is the Millenial side poking through a bit, but I want to read more than a simple statement sentence. I want to feel like I’m making an educated decision. If you boil things down to being “It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3!”, I feel like I’m being spoon-fed as little information as possible like I am a child incapable of making a basic decision. I am also wary of marketing scams, so if it seems all too simple, I will feel like I’m walking straight into one.

In short, I want to know about your product as directly as possible. If you can accomplish this without making me feel like I’m missing critical information leading up to my purchase or reading paragraphs of unnecessary information, then that’d be preferable.

i'm not going to act now.

I didn’t grow up with ad-block, so I saw all sorts of shady advertisements on sites I visited as a kid on the early 2000s (you know, the ones with the clickbait gifs and awkward 3D emojis). I’ve been conditioned to tune out the pressure and not click on advertisements. For me, it’s almost synonymous with the phrase ‘Don’t talk to strangers’.

Now as an adult, and especially one in marketing, I know that whether it’s a Google ad or a promoted IG post that you’ll use cookies and adgroups against me, too. I don’t want to be tagged, buy your product on the spot, and then be blasted with competitive advertisements from 5 different companies trying to sell me the same thing.

If a competitor’s ads are going to show me that same product with superior messaging or price, then I’m just going to be left with buyers regret for leaping on a purchase for the first product thrown at me. It’s happened before, so I know enough to open an incognito window and shop around.

follow up with more incentive later on.

Frankly speaking, in this economy, I don’t have the finances to try new  products left and right. I will absolutely compare my options and be thorough enough to find a good deal on what I’m looking for. We sadly live in a very commercial world. I know that I have many options. 

Maybe I won’t click your ad, but if I liked it’s messaging and remember your name, I may visit your site independently later on my own time. In digital marketing, this is the part of the buyer’s journey where you’d want to get to identify me as a potential customer and capture my email. However, I know not to give it up that easy. Maybe I’m a minimalist, but I hate being flooded with email notifications begging for my attention constantly. In addition, I know data breaches happen every day, and I may end up getting more than I bargained for.

If I am a newcomer to your brand, then you have not yet earned my trust to hold my personal information. So, that said, how do you remind me that you have this great product and can give me the extra push to buy it?

One thing I’ve found that proves incredibly effective is a countdown timer on the top bars of websites. This way I get the sense “Oh, this deal won’t last forever. I need to make a decision soon.” without having to forfeit my contact information. Maybe do a retargeting ad if I leave to consider, again reminding me of its deadline.
If you trust that I’ll find a need to act at this point in the buyer’s journey, then your marketing emails will be a welcome addition to my inbox because I have decided you are worthy of being included in it.

i know photoshopping can be easy but please don't do it.

If I see your product comes in multiple colors, and each product photo is the same exact position but in a slightly different color, then that’s a red flag.

Maybe my being a graphic designer is why I am especially keen to this practice. Regardless, when I see this, I smell a scam. You lose honesty-points in my book because, for all I know, it’s not that exact color; You couldn’t be bothered to show me the product in the first place.

be real with me.

Show me your product from different angles. Show me the basic one in the photo studio. Show me how it looks being held in someone’s hand. Show me it in an environment. Now show me the same thing for every color variant.
I need confirmation that not only are you being real with me, but the product is too. In order to visualize this product in my life, I need to rule out whether or not a brand is a scam or can be trusted to have it in the first place.

On another note, if a brand have some disclaimer you think needs to be downplayed, then fine– just don’t hide it from me. Be honest and forthcoming. I will respect that as a customer.

we hate subscriptions.

This is an entirely different can of worms that I will restrain myself from ranting over. Having watched the transfer from being able to physically own media to only being able to see it if I fork over a monthly fee is immensely frustrating. It’s the main reason why I still by DVDs and CDs.

I don’t want a commitment– I just want my thing. In short, seeing something that is listed as a subscription service– even if it is listed at a cheap rate each month– is an instant turn away. If you are a company that has convinced me thus far to potentially consider your product or service, do not break that trust now when you are so close to closing the sale.

I will happily pay for your expensive product one time.

I actually make an effort to avoid products that are exclusively subscriptions. Even if it costs more up front, I would much rather pay that and then forever be its owner happily ever after. I do not want to be a financial slave and never truly own my product. We are struggling with the likes of inflation and inadequate living wages: At this stage of my life, a company’s product or service cannot convince me to prefer a debt of any kind. My trust as a customer is far more important than whatever financial excuse or reasoning one can present towards justifying a subscription because, in the end, it’s my money to decide where to be spent.

(Please pardon my passive aggressive tone. I hate subscription models.)

awkward humor isn't funny. it's awkward.

I see a lot of companies trying to present themselves as down-to–earth and ‘real’ through awkward or quirky style humor. While I understand and appreciate the marketing value of a funny commercial or ad campaign… awkward humor is not necessarily how to evoke this reaction. It just leaves me feeling awkward. I’m probably going to skip past or mute the ad the next time I see it.

humor is still effective when it's the right kind.

In this instance, I find myself drawing the comparisons between insurance commercials. Insurance is a topic I could care less about (and have personal experience marketing with), so the only opinions I have regarding it at all on the topic are the strategies for advertisements that I am being thrusted every day.

Whenever I see commercials for Liberty Mutual Insurance, all I can see is the stiff-looking marketing company revising a script 30 times. “Okay, you can be ‘funny’, but you need to squeeze in our meticulously scripted leadline to the first 5 seconds of every ad. Then you can throw in your joke after.” The result is something so out of touch and obnoxious, the only opinion I have is that I do not want to interact with the company at any point.

Let’s contrast this with commercials for Progressive Insurance. These are designed to be humor-centric, with an insurance offer as the punchline. Often the scene is so removed from the topic that when the topic of insurance is delivered or name dropped, it feels like a natural progression to the joke. I laugh at the performers in your ad only to ask at the end “Which company was that for?”. The name Progressive pops on the screen and that is the end of the commercial experience. It’s a great time because you weren’t selling insurance to me. I came to the conclusion on my own after being swept in the fantasy.

Obviously this is not a tactic that works for every field of marketing, but while I’m throwing my thoughts at the wall, I figured I’d add my two cents here as well.

closing statement

I am aware likely few will find this blog. However, I felt it was my duty– as someone who works in marketing and may potentially be confronted with advertising to my own demographic– to collect my thoughts on the matter in a manner that was tangible.

If you find yourself at the end of this article, thank you for your time. I hope my opinion proved valuable in some way to you too.