What’s Old Is New Again
My eight-year-old son says he’s bored.
As he sits there with his Bluetooth headphones, slumped on the couch staring at the iPad, I notice his “boredom” acts quite differently than you’d expect. He’s not watching six seconds of “content” and skipping ahead, as we’ve been told digital natives do. He’s not displaying the attention span of a goldfish. He’s not “snacking” on content. He’s going all-in.
And he’s not watching exaggerated adolescents playing Minecraft, either. He’s watching what I used to call infomercials, albeit on an online retailer’s bespoke video channel. To him, boredom is the result of having too much choice, not too little (in my head, I can hear my husband’s voice rhapsodizing about the three BBC channels he grew up with).
As a marketer, it stresses me out to know my clients’ brands are facing a similar sea of content and future consumers like my son. As a parent, it stresses me out to realize my son prefers content to programming—like so many of us nowadays.
Then a friend stopped by and my son went outside to play baseball, all the while confidently educating him on the non-Newtonian properties of neon slime and the benefits of unicorn poop. And all was right with the world.
That two-minute interlude made me realize a few things about the business of content creation and the next generation of content consumers.
According to a Fullscreen report, they expect entertainment to feel like conversation, meaning they expect influencers to talk to them as if they are peers and the stories they watch to come from “friends”.
No matter how digitally savvy we’ve become, social currency works in the same way it always has done, albeit in a much more accelerated form. We see this with Gen Zers, who are more likely than Millennials to like and share content and tag their friends. According to a Fullscreen report, they expect entertainment to feel like conversation, meaning they expect influencers to talk to them as if they are peers and the stories they watch to come from “friends”.
But what has changed is the way we store and reference those nuggets of precious talk value.
I’m reminded of the famed marshmallow test, an experiment in which scientists offer children the choice between a marshmallow for immediate consumption and a pile of marshmallows in exchange for another few minutes of waiting time. It’s a longitudinal study, which means the test is retaken by new willing subjects every year. Scientists are finding that “the length of time kids were able to resist the marshmallow increased an average of six seconds per year, or about a minute per decade.”
There are two lines of thinking around this phenomenon.
The first hypothesis—kids just aren’t into marshmallows anymore—is plausible but probably not the ultimate reason. The second hypothesis—marshmallows are so plentiful, so available, and immediate it makes them less worthy of “stressing out” over—seems closer to the truth.
Scientists are finding that “the length of time kids were able to resist the marshmallow increased an average of six seconds per year, or about a minute per decade.”
Imagine this isn’t a marshmallow, but client’s long-form video. I’d argue that if your audience knows where your “marshmallow” lives, and how to access your “marshmallow” at any time, it’s still likely to be eaten. But instead of being gobbled up right away, it’s being filed away until a craving strikes.
In other words, we’re getting more patient because we know our content is always waiting for us.
As marketers, how do we make sure we’re creating craveable content, something people will want to look for, binge on, and share with their friends? How do we make sure our content is not only interesting, but attributable—yielding some positive kick-back for our brand image?
The answer is surprisingly simple: More than ever, brands need to create and own their points of view, be about something, and share their unique perspectives on the category, culture, or consumer mindset they’re tapping into. In fact, it’s more imperative than ever for marketers to find their sweet spots for content, to own their subject matter expertise, and become a go-to reference.
The latest Pew Research Center study explores a theory that the brains of Gen Z consumers are now rewiring themselves to adapt to the increasing glut of information online. Again, like the meme about Einstein never remembering his phone number (he famously said, “Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?”), Gen Z is simply doing what humans do—finding shortcuts to manage what they need to know and find what they want to learn. They don’t need to always know where the “marshmallow” is, they just need to remember the keyword to access the marshmallow.
This means the small cognitive shortcuts we create for consumers need to work harder for us, so anytime someone’s looking to feel a little more cultured or cosmopolitan, they’ll immediately head to Warby Parker’s blog. If they’re seeking inspiration and connection to the outdoors, they’ll check out what REI has been doing. This is the new branding, but it’s also an old-school thought—only now top of reference is the new top of mind. In a world of plenty, a message’s usefulness is dependent partly on entertainment value and partly on being discovered at the exact moment when it’s needed.
The novelty goods company my son loves is now synonymous with “stories about cool stuff I can buy and show off.” Which is exactly as it should be, and in many ways, how it’s always been.
When content is commerce, and everything is instantly available, the best we can do as marketers is be “about something,” while making sure that it’s easy to find, easy to relate to, and easy to share.
 Reason Magazine, November 2017: http://reason.com/blog/2017/11/01/gen-z-and-millennials-are-better