The oldest members of Generation Z aren’t yet 30; the youngest are tweens. But this cohort’s 70 million-some members have already had outsize impact on the consumer economy, and as they replace retiring baby boomers in the workforce, their influence will only grow.
So far, Gen Z is making the biggest splashes in sectors you may expect: education, social media, sustainability, entertainment/attractions and consumer tech. It already dominates some niches, like private social media and nextgen dating apps (think Tinder, but less painfully awkward). Gen Z has already surpassed 50% of the dating pool on DOWN, for example, overtaking the app’s millennial users.
DOWN Dating App founder Colin Hodge has thought a lot about Gen Z’s growing influence on the dating scene and the apps that drive it. Hodge’s team recognized this influence early and iterated their product around the generation’s unique needs and preferences. I spoke with Hodge to gain more insight into what motivates Gen Z consumers and how brands can adapt.
I started by asking him to sum up how Gen Z consumers differ from previous generations. He first cautioned against black-and-white thinking, noting that early Gen Z members born in 1995 and 1996 aren’t wildly different from late millennials born in 1993 or 1994. But he allowed that Gen Z consumers, especially those born after 2000, are clearly different.
One important difference is an openness to and even preference for rapid-fire social interaction. This is often oversimplified as a weakness — the need for “instant gratification” — but it’s actually a strength. As the first truly digital-native generation, Gen Z grew up connected online, and its members are accustomed to quickly processing huge amounts of information to find what they want.
Social media consultant Adrienne Sheares formed a Gen Z focus group to discuss their searching habits. She says that, “They want to get the information really quickly, and get to the meat of it really quickly and not have to sort.”
Hodge’s team leaned into that by tweaking its UX to allow Gen Z users to swipe freely. That work has paid off in a 550% increase in matches made by Gen Z on the app when comparing user data in 2022 to data found in 2020.
Digital-native Gen Z consumers are, at the same time, more open to algorithmic curation. Curation is already core to the social aspect of most dating and social media apps, but Hodge sees opportunity on the personal side as well.
“In the next five years, I suspect we’ll see more and more pieces of dating apps automated,” he says. “Imagine a profile almost entirely built using your content from other media, automatically selecting the most appealing photos, videos, even your bio.”
Hodge sees the same principle applying to the overall user experience, with apps learning how users tend to interact with other users’ profiles and customizing — hopefully optimizing — their views to fit. Ultimately, Hodge sees social apps acting more like human concierges, taking the tedium and time commitment out of finding and selecting matches.
This potential shift intersects with another Gen Z consumer trend: the generation’s preference for privacy and intentional communities. While this preference might seem at odds with Gen Z’s openness to new digital experiences, and is sometimes oversimplified in negative terms, it’s a natural response to information overload in a more-interconnected world.
“I see a growing backlash against an always-on, always-public social media presence,” says Hodge. Private social media groups continue to grow in popularity, allowing a few dozen “mutuals” to share more amongst one another than they ever would with the general public.
Apps like DOWN cater to Gen Z’s guardedness by emphasizing safety and choice. Hodge’s team has rolled out additional layers of verification to build stability and trust among younger users. That gives users confidence “to truly be themselves,” he says. Hodge advises app makers to lean into this preference, and potentially put aside competitive differences and collaborate toward multi-platform verification standards that ensure users are who they say they are.
Gen Z’s preference for privacy and safety isn’t a radical shift. DOWN’s first iteration, “Bang With Friends,” allowed largely millennial and younger Gen X users to find eligible (and interested) dating matches within their Facebook friend networks. Facebook is no longer the social media powerhouse that it once was, at least not with Gen Z. But the concept isn’t much different than what Gen Z users are after today, albeit with much better algorithmic curation and privacy controls. And that holds important lessons for app makers elsewhere in the consumer tech realm.
Joe Cox, youth marketing consultant and host of the Pop-Marketing podcast commented, “Gen Z navigates the digital realm like a video game, strategizing their online dating encounters like a Fortnite battle. They morph, experiment, but always remain aware of the privacy settings, understanding that in today’s digital era, personal data is the real loot. Their online behavior is a fusion of playfulness and protection.”
Gen Z is uniquely expressive and self-confident even as they seek more control over the digital experience.
DOWN has rolled out some unique features that embrace these traits. One, “Highlights,” lets users choose from over 30 profile stickers to showcase the best attributes they want to share with prospective matches. “Icebreakers” helps users get to know each other better by posing and answering fun and, at times, highly-personal questions. The implemented features resulted in significant improvements, with message volume increasing by over 750%.
Gen Z’s influence will only grow in the years to come, and its consumer preferences will become even more apparent than today. So, take note: The time to build consumer tech that embraces Gen Z’s unique wants and needs is now.