Is Gen Z ‘a bit of me’?

Georgia Barrett. Georgia is a young white woman with long dark hair. She is smiling. Georgia Barrett | 13 Sep 2022

Are you communicating in the right way with the young activists inside your company and out?

Generation Z and younger millennials are often described as the digital native and changemaker generations that are poised to reshape whole areas of everyday life. We dug into the beliefs, likes, dislikes and expectations that younger people aged between 18 and 30 have around digital corporate communication. The result is the report, How the next generation is reshaping corporate digital communication.

It turns out that in a corporate context, a lot of what younger stakeholders want is not that different from what their older counterparts want: clear information, easy journeys, human contacts. Which raises an important question – are the next generation truly unique in what they want from corporate websites?

The short answer is, yes.

Generation Z and younger millennials already make up around 50% of traffic to corporate websites, according to Google Analytics data provided to Bowen Craggs by nearly 30 large companies in our Google Analytics Benchmark Group. This increasingly influential demographic is fundamentally different from other generations when it comes to some of their corporate communications preferences.

As digital communications managers, understanding these differences will ensure that you are communicating with the next generation in the most effective way possible.

A new type of activism

Many Gen Z and younger millennial activists seem ready to ignore and circumvent traditional routes of enacting change, such as volunteering with established NGOs or signing petitions. They are willing to partner with corporations instead of point-blank opposing them, for instance.  

There is no inherent reason why large companies and activists cannot be on the same side, at least some of the time, and there are some signs that the new generation of activists may be more strategic in picking their battles and their allies than earlier generations have been. This could open a door to new kinds of collaboration, in which young activists and companies align on one issue (diversity, for example) while being at odds on others.

We see this new brand of activism in the incoming generation of ESG professionals, both in organizations that monitor companies’ progress and those working within the companies themselves. They are calling for more transparent and joined-up corporate communication that focuses on bringing about an industry-wide change in the way things are normally done.

One example is the growing expectation that companies should make their online ESG data comparable across companies and sectors. This is something that the young ESG professionals in our research said they will continue to advocate for. More broadly, they are taking their cue from other members of this ‘activist’ generation, seeing their choice of jobs and careers as a chance to make change ‘from the inside’.

Jobseekers and employees – the activists inside your company

One of our research participants works for an oil and gas company that has been the focus of a series of public controversies. She said that the transparency of the company’s online communications encouraged her to work there, despite its reputation. She said it was clear from the corporate website that the company had made tangible improvements to address the problems. She added that she appreciated the open and honest communication that gave the ‘whole picture’:

“When a company hides it and does not talk about it – that’s bad, but when they say this is bad, but we can fix it, then that is a reason to join – better to be part of it and make a difference, rather than condemn and move on.”

Increasingly, young jobseekers want to see their personal values (such as a commitment to sustainability) not just reflected in the company’s values, but forming a fundamental part of working life.

What’s more, these values must be explained convincingly. Gen Z and younger millennials tend to approach corporate information with a degree of scepticism that goes beyond that held by other age groups. For example, we found that there was an underlying mistrust of many corporate ‘Careers’ sections – perhaps fuelled by the tendency to use Google, Glassdoor and social media channels to cross-reference the official company line.

Online corporate communications must adapt to fill this growing need for authenticity and ensure that all claims have full backing and evidence.

One of the overarching conclusions from our research is that the next generation are interested in changing companies for the better, whether as consumers who can choose where to put their purchasing power, as employees, or as jobseekers choosing where to put their skills. They can only make informed decisions if transparent data is available.

What can corporate digital managers do about this?

Although Gen Z and younger millennials, like most of us, are very sceptical of online corporate communications, all hope is not lost. Our research shows that, if corporate communications are done well, younger people are actually more inclined to believe what they read on a website than previous generations.

Indeed, aggregated website survey data from more than 20 companies in a variety of sectors clearly shows that students and jobseekers (an audience that tends to skew young for most companies) are the most likely to have their brand perception improved after a visit to the corporate website.

Practical steps you can take to encourage this include:

  • Seeking and publishing endorsements from trusted third parties: Corporate websites, and in particular the ‘Sustainability’ and ‘ESG’ sections, need to address increasing mistrust and scepticism head on. Younger people told us that they are placing less emphasis on what a company says, and more on what others say about the company, so invite third parties into the conversation. Ensure that external awards, ESG ratings, validations and labels are directly on the site, as AXA does with its archive on its ‘SRI Ratings and Ethical Indices’ page.
  • Making sure that the corporate website lets visitors see the ‘whole picture’: Stories and case studies about solar panel installation or a new social initiative now don’t make the cut with the next generation unless they are firmly contextualised and have enough detail to explain where they sit within a company’s wider ESG strategy. One young ESG professional told us that they are frustrated by no-context or misleading stories: “For me, it really comes down to data… if you look at the numbers then they are [often] actually a really low component of the overall product range, or the overall revenue”. Unilever combats this well by linking all blog posts to the relevant pages detailing its goals and progress on key issues such as recycling and plastic waste reduction.

Leading change across all generations

There are some aspects of online corporate communication that are here to stay. We were surprised to find that young ESG professionals love ‘traditional’ formats like PDFs and Excel sheets for ease of seeing data and other details all in one place.

However, we believe that the next generation really are different: they are the ones leading some of the changes that we are starting to see across all age groups, such as a desire to bring your personal values to work, a growing impatience with wordy web pages and cumbersome navigation, or a call for greater transparency and consistency when it comes to ESG reporting.

Truly unique is an overarching willingness to get behind corporate communications that are authentic, honest, and transparent, and a belief that online corporate communications have the power to change things for the better.

For more insights and recommendations from our research, please read our Next Generation Report.

Our ‘Next Generation’ research involved speaking to young jobseekers, employees, customers, investors, ambassadors, ESG professionals and IR analysts from a range of companies around the world. Our participants were aged between 18 and 29, broadly fitting into the adult Generation Z and younger millennials category.