The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

Well, how do you win Gen Z?

The twelve-year-old WebSummit is, arguably, the world’s most important technology conference. The Guardian called it “Glastonbury for geeks” and The Financial Times “the world’s largest tech conference”. The bootstrapped event company grew from a 2010 Dublin conference attended only by Irish people to one that sees up to 70,000 attendees flying in from 170 countries.

But, while it has its fair share of tech talk about cloud services and data processing, it also includes a hefty focus on digital media. 

This year’s panels in Lisbon last week included a fair bit of musing on one of the thornier topics established media organisations have been grappling with for some time – how to reach and monetise younger audiences, particularly Gen Z. Here are some highlights from senior executives at Vice, Washington Post and the FT on just that.

Gen Z

On a panel about Gen Z news consumption, moderator Sara Fischer, from Axios, pointed to a Pew Research poll which showed that only TikTok was seeing a major increase in usage by younger generations in the US, with all others experiencing declines except for Instagram, which was seeing only a mild uptick. “Is there a risk that Gen Zers are pivoting to have TikTok the platform where they get a lot of their news, and TikTok is still relatively young and new – and might not have great content moderation?” she asked. 

However, the Vice Media global head of news, programming & development Subrata De pointed out that Vice was able to engage 200m people with content about the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through its newly-launched TikTok channel: “We always say you can’t be above the news. You also can’t be above the audience. I just don’t believe that there is one set of people who want news or that people age into news. I really believe it’s on us to figure out where the audiences are and speak to them and find out where they are.”

Making money

While it’s clear that reaching Gen Z will involve the embrace of platforms such as TikTok, tuning your output to those audiences is a challenge, particularly for brands that might not have a style that maps directly into younger platforms. 

One such organisation that has built a successful TikTok presence is the Washington Post, which has 1.5m followers, many acquired during the pandemic when it produced daily humorous videos about lockdown life from journalist Dave Jorgenson, but also with TikTok-friendly takes on the news of the day. “We started experimenting on TikTok in 2019… and we started to go very, very heavily into experimenting on this new platform to the point where now, three or four years later, we’ve got 1.5 million followers on TikTok,” said Washington Post chief revenue officer Joy Robins. “We’ve really upended the way that people and Gen Z in particular can relate to The Washington Post. When they understand that we are a newspaper. Which is the account that they’ve [followed] is actually from The Washington Post. It’s an inspiring consideration in that we have to start really penetrating this generation.”

But while the Post has succeeded in attracting young people to news on TikTok, it will also have to begin thinking beyond the standard subscription model if it wants them to pay for it, believes Robins: “This generation is going to completely change the business model for news. And we really need to think about how this generation wants to consume news, wants to be part of the news, wants to have a conversation.” I think we will come to an age, if we’re not already there of subscription fatigue. And what a subscription means has got to be something beyond simply access to content.” 

Podcast profits?

There is one format where publishers have been successful at reaching and monetising new, often younger audiences on third-party platforms, and that’s podcasts. Though the vast majority of people listen on services owned by the likes of Spotify, Amazon or Apple, both content licensing and advertising have enabled publishers to make money while introducing themselves to a younger audience, even for a high-brow and hard-paywalled title like the Financial Times. 

The FT’s head of commercial audio and video Alastair Mackie told the Summit that the newspaper had learned four key things from its forays into podcasting that both underlined its potential and posed some challenges. 

“The first thing is that everyone listens for free and the FT is obviously a paid-for proposition. So there’s a little bit of tension in that. And the second is that people will listen away from the FT, nobody is coming to the FT to listen to podcasts. The third thing is that the data we did have from Spotify showed the listeners were all in their 20s and 30s. Which is really exciting for a traditional organisation like the FT. And the fourth thing is there was a lot of interest from advertisers. They wanted to spend a lot of money with FT.”

That had led the FT to conclude that podcasts were “a really good way of introducing the FT to young consumers, building scale, hopefully getting them engaged with our content demonstrating how valuable the FT is,” said Mackie. Those young listeners would hopefully “slowly start coming back to the FT to become readers and subscribers.”

Platform conundrum

What all three of these insights point to is the longstanding conundrum for media organisations trying to reach younger people, first millennials and now Gen Z. It is vital to go to meet younger audiences in the places they spend their time, and in formats that are known to appeal to them. But those environments are controlled by huge companies that also compete for advertising and sometimes subscription revenue, and who set the terms of engagement with those audiences. 

Even in podcasts, where monetisation options appear better, the core problem of getting younger generations to become your customers, rather than merely consumers of your content via a third party, remains. It’s perhaps the biggest challenge facing many established media companies over the coming decades and is a reminder that – long after news brands first got sucked in by Facebook – the same problems of content ownership and brand identity keep coming back.