Imagining Gen Z Life Online: Q&A with IMGN CSO Noah Mallin
Jordan P. Kelley, Content Director, Brand Storytelling
IMGN is a leading media technology company that produces, programs and curates content for Gen Z audiences. With media and technology trends moving so quickly, it can be hard to pinpoint how to reach Gen Z. IMGN’s focus on the generation has found what works - and although storytelling is a key component, ultimately the way it is packaged might be different than you think, and is likely to be different tomorrow than it is today.
Brand Storytelling caught up with Noah Mallin, Chief Strategy Officer at IMGN to learn more about the strategy behind speaking to Gen Z:
First, why focus at all on Gen Z? What portion of the consumer population do they represent?
We focus on Gen-Z because they make up 32% of the global population, more than millennials. They also represent a generation that is more diverse in every way than the generations that preceded them, and in many ways more sophisticated about media, storytelling and content, which I love.
With the way that media trends have changed so rapidly in their lifetime, how and where do you reach Gen Z audiences?
This is a generation that was born with a smartphone in their hands so earning their attention means understanding why they spend time where they do. We've built our own brands across places like TikTok, Snap, Instagram, Twitch and Discord (so far) to reflect that but what we do in each place is complementary to what audiences choose to do there. That's also our approach when working with partners like Panasonic and Levi's.
What do members of this generation respond best to in terms of content?
Authenticity is such a tired word now that it almost means the opposite of itself but this is a very aware, sophisticated media savvy generation. If you look at the shift from the glossy performative nature of Insta to the rough and ready trendiness of TikTok that's part of it. Look at BeReal which is designed to lean into the kind of let it all hang out "goblin mode" presentation of self that Gen Z loves to explore. But there's also the idea that content from brands can center the audience and not the brand, which is very powerful.
How do brands fit into the short form + learning model of content?
For brands it means exploring two things: simplicity in storytelling and thinking of the value your content brings to the audience. We talk about Invisible Sophistication a great deal - a short video that feels simple and punchy and artless in the best way actually takes a great deal of work to do right. We are basically engineering lighting in a bottle, and if the seams show, Gen Z will hit us in the comments with the kiss of death: "Silence brand." Having a purpose for the content that transcends the brand is a great way to center content on the audience. I don't mean big "P" grand purpose - it can be as simple as "How to get chocolate stains out of your hoodie."
What are some brand examples you’ve seen work for this demographic?
Look at, on the one hand, the approach that Ryanair or Duolingo have taken to TikTok - it's pure zeitgeist. When they participate in trends on the platform they make it their own rather than blindly follow what the algorithm is spitting out - we call that Bending the Trend. Alternately look at what Chipotle is doing on Roblox - they have created a restauranteur experience that plays on the restaurant tycoon activity that is already happening there but they are using it to debut new flavors. In a place where people can't even taste them! It sounds insane but it's actually brilliant because they are inviting participation. When we think of branded content so often it's a one way brand --> audience construct but this is what it looks like for Gen Z - participatory.
What organic content are you creating at IMGN that meets this model? How do you share your vision of gen Z content with brands and get them on board?
Our ownership by Warner Music has opened the door to push what we do into places like Decentraland, Roblox and Discord, all places that require participatory content and engaged communities to be successful and we make sure that spirit infuses what we do on every other channel. We launched a music oriented channel called Bluelist.TV in partnership with Twitch and we knew that what we streamed on screen was only going to be 50% of the success of each show. The other 50% is having a thriving ongoing chat happening during each episode with active participation from us. When it comes to helping brands see the value here we really do go to the basics of reaching an audience that won't be seeing your TV spots, cannot stand pop up ads and lifestyle websites, and is adblind to most cookie cutter paid creative. Gen Z is too big a generation for many brands to leave by the wayside.
What’s the next big place Gen Z will spend their time and attention?
BeReal is something my team and I have been playing with a lot and there are definitely interesting things a brand can do there. I do think the way Gen Z uses platforms like Roblox is really fascinating and much more of a social network than many people may realize. Gaming environments that lend themselves to hanging out and creation beyond competition are the next phase. There's tremendous opportunity there.
About Noah Mallin
Noah Mallin launched Vertical Studios for Warner Music Group’s IMGN Media subsidiary, where he acts as Chief Strategy Officer. In this role, Mallin leads the brand partnerships and content programs for major brands like Levi’s, Panasonic, Amazon Prime, and others. He also leads a team of Gen-Z creators to build impactful content to help brands reach Gen-Z audiences through top social media pages like So Satisfying, Daquan, and Try Hard. Mallin’s career has included senior leadership roles at WPP’s Wavemaker, Digitas, Reprise Media and Business Wire. Awards for Noah include Cannes Gold and Silver Lions, OMMA, Internationalist, and Campaign Magazine’s 40 Over 40. He has also spoken at industry events including Advertising Week, CES, VidCon, and others.