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Word-of-Mouth Commerce

Beyond the Funnel: Gen Z's Influence on Modern Marketing

What does the marketing landscape look like today and beyond?
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The traditional marketing funnel is broken. 

For decades, brands looked at the buyer’s journey in terms of three conventional stages: awareness, consideration, and conversion. But we’re in a new digital era, where this linear path to purchase no longer creates impact. 

Young people have always had a large hand in shaping how consumers relate to brands. But Gen Zers — those born between 1997 and 2012 — have truly transformed the consumer landscape. This generation grew up with vastly different priorities, influences, and technology than previous ones, making their consumer journey evolve beyond what was imaginable in the past. 

So what does the marketing landscape look like today and beyond? 

Today’s path to purchase is an infinite loop.

As the first real digitally native consumers, Gen Zers leverage social media not only as their primary marketplace, but also their entertainment center, social hub, learning platform, news source, and more — creating a mixed bag of influences around their shopping decisions. With social media at the center of it all, Gen Zers have revolutionized the modern retail landscape to become an infinite loop of inspiration, exploration, community, and loyalty, per Vogue Business

These young consumers don’t follow the traditional top-to-bottom marketing funnel when making a purchase. Instead, they enter, exit, and re-enter at different stages of the purchase journey based on their needs and wants. There’s no starting or ending point, making it crucial for brands to create multiple touchpoints to meet consumers where they are.

This doesn’t mean bombarding them with ads everywhere they go. Rather, it means curating your brand experience to resonate with them wherever they are in the buyer’s journey. 

The best way to do so is through word-of-mouth commerce. Gen Z consumers want product recommendations from trusted, familiar faces and are increasingly turning to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram — which have become search, content, and point-of-purchase powerhouses — to discover, research, and purchase new products. By scaling word-of-mouth commerce through initiatives like influencer marketing, affiliate marketing, and customer referral programs, brands can build engaging consumer experiences that are impactful.

To win over Gen Z, brands need to activate their community of influencers, customers, employees, and other brand fans to make product discovery, research, purchase, and even post-purchase exciting and entertaining. In turn, you’re able to deliver inspiration to them in the right way at the right time, establish more meaningful relationships, and ultimately boost ROI. 

4 best practices to engage Gen Z shoppers

To understand how to connect with Gen Z, you first need to think about their top values: 

  • Authenticity: 92% of Gen Zers say authenticity is the most important value for them. As a generation that has grown up with endless access to information and an abundance of options, Gen Zers are hyper aware of disingenuous marketing tactics and misaligned partnerships. Gen Zers seek authenticity not only in advertisements, but also in the values that the product or service aligns with. This means that a brand’s story, principles, and ethical practices wield greater influence than aesthetics or branding. 
  • Third-party validation: For the most part, Gen Zers are not impulsive shoppers. They’re avid researchers, increasingly turning to social media platforms like TikTok as a search engine. They rely on the word-of-mouth of other consumers to learn about new products and the item’s quality, fit, packaging, and more. 
  • Community: According to the Cigna US Loneliness Index, Gen Z is the loneliest generation. Young consumers want to feel a sense of belonging — both IRL and online — and are often eager to join communities of like-minded people. 

With these values in mind, here’s how to revamp your marketing strategies to align with these young consumers and master the art of the infinite loop of commerce. 

1. Activate your entire brand community — from customers to founders.

For years, we’ve been preaching about the evolution of influence. The way people engage with each other on social media today has truly leveled the playing field for who is considered “influential.” In fact, even the comments section of social media posts plays a key role in Gen Z consumers’ purchasing process. In other words, anyone can hold the power to influence the perceptions and decisions of the people around them. 

For brands, this means moving beyond the standard partnership with social media influencers. While they’re still powerful, individuals such as loyal customers and employees can also spread advocacy for your brand and provide social proof in an authentic way. 

That’s why brands like Abercrombie & Fitch work with creators who create all kinds of content, and even feature its retail store associates and corporate employees in their social content.

Some of the savviest brands today even have their very own founders acting as influencers. From Matilda Djerf of Djerf Avenue to Nadya Okamoto of period care brand August, these founders regularly introduce and vouch for their products to their followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and more — and often see impactful results. Whether it’s a celebrity-endorsed label or a grassroots startup, the presence of a relatable persona fosters a deeper connection with consumers than a faceless brand. 

This kind of human-centric approach to marketing resonates far better with Gen Zers who value authenticity over glossy facades. 

2. Give influencers autonomy in their content creation process. 

Despite the changing marketing landscape, influencers are still an important part of Gen Z’s consumer journey, bridging the gap between a brand and its audience. 51% of Gen Zers believe social media influencers create new trends, compared to the 15% who said brands do.

The appeal of an influencer extends beyond their follower count. Influencers have a knack for connecting with people on a personal level through authentic storytelling. Gen Zers are drawn to  influencers who exude authenticity, who share real experiences over scripted endorsements. Yet they are not blind to the commercial underpinnings of influencer partnerships. Young consumers are constantly demanding transparency and sincerity from those they choose to follow — especially when it comes to the brands and products that they’re endorsing. 

So, what does this mean for influencer marketers? 

In the age of authenticity, it’s extremely important to give your influencers enough creative freedom to produce authentic, on-brand content that they know will resonate with their audience.

Consumers don’t want influencers to read off of a script provided by the brand — they want to hear the influencer’s honest opinions and their authentic experiences. So, provide a few talking points but leave the rest up to the creator. This is key to effective word-of-mouth marketing, leading to higher engagement and more conversions down the line.

Take a look at Paycom’s partnership with Corporate Natalie. While the video is clearly marked as a paid partnership, it still resonated well with her audience because it seamlessly blends with her other workplace comedy content. Some viewers even commented, “I shared this with several coworkers before I even realized it was an ad!” and “This was an ad? Lol so relatable.” 

@corporatenatalie #ad There's no way I could survive the corporate world without having everything I could ever possibly need in one place - thanks @Paycom #corporate #9to5 ♬ original sound - CorporateNatalie

3. Encourage user-generated content — and repurpose it everywhere.

From renting out a studio, to shooting with a small group of models, to polishing up final assets, traditional ways of creating branded content has been a difficult and time-consuming task. Plus, over the years, we’ve seen that overly-produced brand-directed content no longer resonates. 

In the era of “lo-fi” content, user-generated content (UGC) is king. UGC refers to content created organically by a brand’s community members via social media, customer reviews, and more. 

Because UGC is created by real users, it’s the best way to provide social proof and inject authentic voices into your brand story. It’s also one of the most powerful tools brands can leverage to win over Gen Z customers. In fact, UGC has been proven to be extremely powerful with 80% of consumers saying UGC highly impacts their purchasing decisions. 

It’s no wonder UGC is a major part of industry-leading brands’ marketing strategy. Just take a look at cult favorite beauty brand Glossier’s Instagram feed — it’s fueled entirely by UGC. 

Because of its track record of success, UGC has always been in high demand for brands across all industries. That’s why today’s smartest brands are taking charge of user-generated content creation by partnering with paid UGC creators — changing the way they leverage traditional UGC.

There are several ways to source UGC:

  • Partner with influencers and UGC creators to source a diverse array of high-quality branded content.
  • Send out mailers and include a note about how they can engage with your brand should they choose to, whether it’s by posting an unboxing video with a branded hashtag or sharing a unique affiliate code. 
  • Use a social listening tool to scan social media platforms for those who are mentioning your brand. 

Once you have a goldmine of UGC, you can repurpose this authentic content across your marketing channels, including your organic social feeds, paid ads, your website, or in newsletters, to provide third-party validation and drive sales. 

4. Build a reciprocal relationship with consumers to turn one-time transactions into long-term brand loyalty. 

50% of Gen Zers say they would switch out their favorite brand if another brand were cheaper or of higher quality. That means even if you’re their favorite brand today, you can be ousted and replaced by another tomorrow. 

Brand loyalty has always been an important factor for sustainable business growth, but the traditional model of building brand loyalty centered around consumers’ repeat purchases. For Gen Zers, loyalty comes from brand relationships that feel far more reciprocal. To earn Gen Z’s elusive loyalty, brands need to keep them engaged in the long-term by creating a variety of touchpoints for them to explore, beyond just simple transactions. 

The key is to open up a two-way dialogue to have genuine conversations with consumers and connect with them in a human way. This can be done through private groups or message threads, or through exclusive in-person events that go beyond the typical shopping experience. 

For example, Manchester-based clothing brand Represent invests heavily into its (mostly Gen Z) community both online and in person. Alongside its online communities like the Rep Talks Facebook group, Represent also hosts events for the physical community to get together and feel part of the brand journey. 

Last year, the brand hosted a Rep Talk day in Manchester, bringing 50 of its most engaged customers to a Q&A session with founders George and Michael Heaton, as well as the brand’s Chief Product Officer and Chief Digital Officer. More recently, with the launch of its activewear line 247, Represent’s founders, employees, and fans participated in events such as Hyrox and ultra marathons, aligning the brand with the functional fitness community. 

And it’s paying off. Launched by the Heaton brothers in their garden shed, Represent has become a global contemporary brand that turned over £50 million last year and is now building a presence in the US.

A new era of commerce

Brands are no longer at the center of the consumer journey. People are.

Gen Z consumers have revolutionized the marketing landscape for good. This digitally native generation has redefined the path to purchase, moving away from the one-size-fits-all marketing funnel to the flexible infinite loop. Social media serves as the epicenter of the consumer experience, driving inspiration, exploration, community, and loyalty in a continuous cycle. To win customers in this new era of commerce, brands must adapt by creating a universe of touchpoints that entertain, educate, and resonate. 

Ready to level up your word-of-mouth commerce? Get in touch to see how Aspire can help.

Learn how leading brands are driving impact in our guide, The Secret to Efficient Growth. 

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