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Digital Natives Are Different: Three Tech-Enabled Ways Restaurants Can Reach Gen Z


Gen Z – those born after about 1996 – make up the latest wave of customers poised to have a great effect on the way America eats out. Though the oldest members of Gen Z are only 21, they are already becoming more influential than the much-talked-about millennials. Gen Z offers $828 billion in spending power and represents 26 percent of the population, a stake that will grow to 40 percent by 2020.

With that much influence, now is the time for restaurant brands to engage Gen Z. But buyer beware: Gen Z are the first “digital natives,” who know only the post-internet world. Below, student affinity network and Gen Z behavior expert UNiDAYS offers a three-step primer on reaching this mobile-enabled generation, based on quantitative research generated by a survey of 1,800 Gen Z students in the U.S. 

1. Get Personal

Of 1,800 Gen Z-ers surveyed, 41 percent said they learn about new menu items in the restaurant. The rest rely on social media networks (20 percent) and friends (19 percent). These customers are already loyal or depend on their friends and community for recommendations.

How to reach the 60 percent who aren’t yet loyal customers? Go to the people they trust. The opinions of peers and family play a big part in Gen Z decision-making. If brands can’t get one-on-one with Gen Z-ers, the next-best solution is to get "grouped" through affiliations they trust. Word of mouth can be effective if student groups, organizations, clubs and affinity groups, such as UNiDAYS, deliver the message.

Once Gen Z visits and interacts with your brand, asking their opinions on menu items and service at your restaurant will help establish a two-way dialogue and enables targeted offers via a platform that Gen Z-ers pay attention to – mobile alert, for instance – to create loyal customers.

2. Add a Visual

Gen Z is an interesting dichotomy when it comes to visual advertising. The group speaks in visuals – but they don’t listen to them. Only 8 percent of survey respondents find out about new menu items from TV advertising. This isn’t a big surprise, given what we know about Gen Z’s broadcast TV and movie-watching habits, which are practically nonexistent.

Restaurants waste valuable resources trying to reach this generation through display advertising, too. Only 4 percent of students learn about new menu items from display advertising. They also proactively block digital ads. In fact, an overwhelming majority (69 percent) of Gen Z says the best ads are ones they can skip (Kantar Milward Brown, AdReaction: Engaging Gen X, Y and Z, 2017).

This generation streams. And, with an attention span of eight seconds, they favor streaming content in snack-sized bites, like that offered through YouTube, consumed on phones and computers.

While these stats may be intimidating, brands can take advantage of authentic photos of menu items and experiential videos posted where Gen Z-ers are – on social media. Brands can encourage user-generated content through influencer campaigns or contests. But remember: those images have EIGHT seconds to make mouths water and get them in the door. Which leads us to our final point…

3. Act Fast

Gen Z-ers are spontaneous by nature. Only 5 percent said they plan their meals. Almost half try a new quick-service restaurant chain every month.

Restaurants can take advantage of Z-ers’ willingness to try new things with tactics like mobile push alerts to promote menu items and pricing. Gen Z-ers rarely leave home without a mobile device, which opens opportunities to reach them anytime and anywhere they’re hungry. Brands can capture attention, data and the attention of Gen Z by creating playful, Tinder-like campaigns around food items to engage young people with the menu, gain new customers and deliver insights that feed into member profile data to deliver a personalized message quickly, visually and personally – the trifecta!

If you can add a discount, even better. Nearly 93 percent of survey respondents say they “are more likely to try a restaurant that offers discounts.” Brands unwilling to discount might consider a student happy hour or other off-peak promotion. Some 91 percent of students are willing to eat at an off-peak time if it means they get a discount or special offer.

One last tip for capturing Gen Z’s attention: value, to this audience, is more than just monetary. The value could be in a laugh, an interesting quiz, a relatable moment or, of course, a discount or special offer. Just remember to keep it personal, visual and spontaneous, and you WILL capture Gen Z’s attention.

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