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Youth Isn't Wasted on the Young: How Gen Z Uses Social to Initiate Change 

Jenn Lydon, Communications Strategist, and Tim Lay, Account Manager, comment on social media activism in the lead up to the US election and beyond, considering its implications for the future

Social media has undoubtedly changed the way people galvanise communities around important issues. From the #MeToo movement and climate change to social justice, voting and elections, social platforms represent an equalizing and accessible outlet for all voices to be seen and amplified.  Gen Z are paving the way in normalising this activism and influencing generations beyond just their own. Young voices such as Greta Thunberg, David Hogg and Malala have become international figures, reaching and influencing Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Boomers alike. But why is Gen Z having an ever-growing influence on the important global issues at stake and who are the real drivers of influence causing them to take action?

Gen Z make up a powerful group in numbers as the largest demographic cohort on the planet (40%) and account for one in 10 eligible voters in the U.S., according to Pew. The rise of social media activism has developed and evolved as the apps themselves have matured. Instagram graduated from a simple photo sharing tool to a platform where people (and especially the young) shape their identity, curate their public persona and establish their voice. Other platforms have also evolved or been created to fill similar needs and feed the greater appetite for storytelling and the sharing of common values and ideas. With the introduction of more sophisticated features across social platforms, individuals have a greater ability to motivate their peers around passion points and drive action using emotive content, swipe ups and shoppable posts. We’ve seen a significant increase in the use of functions like swipe ups, mobile-optimized landing pages and embedded QR codes, which can be scanned and send users straight to actionable destinations like voter registration forms, donation sites and educational resources.

So, who exactly are the individuals motivating their followers to drive the global change that we have been seeing of late? Celebrities are an important mechanism to generate high reach and awareness for social issues and catalyse significant movements such as #MeToo, but peer-to-peer word of mouth from everyday individuals, otherwise known as “nano influencers” – someone with less than 5,000 followers – are proving to be just as powerful.

In a world where authenticity and trust are fragile, people on social media are turning to nano influencers for guidance as a more trustworthy source. These individuals have a greater influence on their community given the more peer-to-peer, intimate and friendship-like relationship they embody in comparison to the more aspirational and unattainable celeb-fan relationships. Nano influencers are perceived to be more relatable and have the same lifestyle and attributes as those who follow them, providing a layer of trust and authenticity difficult to replicate at the macro-influencer or celeb level. They foster very intimate relationships with their followers, are highly active on a community level and therefore in turn receive high engagement. These influencers share the same sentiment and display the same scepticism of sponsored or overly curated social media posts, leading their followers to view them as more genuine and reliable sources.

Nano influencers are particularly key to driving change amongst localised and niche communities so have a significant part to play in influencer marketing strategy.  However, while these individuals are highly effective when engaged at scale, that volume, in turn, makes it more difficult to regulate disclosure and this can pose a threat to the integrity of an initiative if it’s not tightly managed. To work with them efficiently, careful deliberation must go into their recruitment with a thorough understanding of their posting behaviour and audience interaction.

All layers of influencer play their part in driving change – from A-list celebrities with millions of followers down to nano-influencers with only a few thousand. Success lies in identifying – and activating – the right medium to deliver the right message for the desired effect. Whilst those macro-influencers and social stars can deliver broad-reaching awareness of a cause, the nano-influencers are often those leading grassroots change at a local level.

Those with influence at all levels have a great opportunity to engage the Gen Z audience who are more interested in the message than ever and are keen to take part in, and lead, conversations around important issues from racial inequality to the environment. Throughout 2020, Tik Tok superstar Charli D’Amelio has used her platform to influence the Gen Z masses for the greater good – drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, raising awareness of bullying and mental health issues, and partnering with P&G to promote social distancing.  One of the most significant movements in the last six months in the UK has been founded and lead by a nano-influencer and businesswoman, Agnes Mwakatuma –  Black Minds Matter. This movement has driven funding for mental health and trauma within the black community and has been remarkable in bringing about change.

These conversations – at both macro and micro level – play an important part in driving positive change, encouraging participation in social and political causes and driving passion amongst the youth audience. With social media connecting diverse communities from all across the globe, there is an inspiring potential for the younger generations to shape the future of the world we live in now and for many years to come.

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