There is one question I get every time I work with a library or speak at a conference. Library staff always want to know, “How do we reach teenagers?”

Teenagers are not alien beings. They’re just another target demographic with specific needs, wants, and pain points. And libraries can reach them with intentional promotional tactics. But first, we need to understand who they are, what they like, and what challenges they face.

Generation Z: what do we know about teens right now?

Teens are part of the generational label known as Gen Z. This generation encompasses anyone born between 1997 and 2015.

There are nearly 68 million Americans in Gen Z, according to the Pew Research Center. Teens make up one-fifth of the population in the UK and about 13 percent of the population in Australia. That’s a lot of people! It’s why this work is so important.

Here is some key demographic information to keep in mind as you develop library programming and marketing for this group of users.

  • They are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation.
  • Gen Z are digital natives. They can’t remember a world without smartphones and computers.
  • When it comes to social and political issues, Gen Z mirrors the values and beliefs of Millennials.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a teen in your household, you may be wondering what they like and dislike. Google did a trend study to find out what teens think is cool. Gen Z defines “cool” as something that is unique, interesting, or brings them happiness. Here are the findings that directly relate to libraries.

  • Male teens are more likely to be persuaded that something is cool by their friends, where female teens will determine whether something is cool based on how it makes them feel.
  • The top three social media platforms by usage for male teens are Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. For female teens, the top three social media platforms are Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.
  • However, the study also finds Facebook is considered “uncool” by teens. Teens connect with friends on Snapchat but are not consuming content on that platform from brands, including libraries. Instagram appears to be the place where teens both consume and interact with library content.
  • Gen Z loves on-demand entertainment options, like streaming music and video.
  • And here’s the best finding: reading is among the coolest activities for teenagers! It’s almost as popular with teens as video games.

What we learned from marketing to Millennial teens may apply to Gen Z

Whatever you did to market to Millennial teens a decade ago, it worked. The Pew Research Center’s study of millennials shows that they are the most active library users of any generation.

The study draws a connection between that increase in engagement and the changes libraries made to their service model in the last decade. Increased computer access, as well as extra services like meeting spaces, makerspaces, and collaborative workspaces changed the public’s perception of libraries and specifically appealed to young adults.  

The impact of the pandemic on Gen Z

The COVID-19 crisis may have impacted teens more than any other generation. We won’t know the full extent of that impact for years. But there is some research done in 2020 about the pandemic and teens to use as a starting point.

  • A Bank of America report shows the pandemic will impact Gen Z’s financial and professional future in the same way that the Great Recession did for millennials. They’re less likely to be employed, because of the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic. One in four Americans in Gen Z lost their job between February and May of 2020.
  • Because of the pandemic, some teens are more cost-conscious. The State of Gen Z report shows 54 percent of teens are saving more money now than they did before the crisis. 39 percent have opened an online bank account.
  • Before the pandemic, Gen Z was on track to be the most well-educated generation. But the move to remote learning has cost many teens a great deal educationally. Half of high schoolers will lack minimum levels of proficiency to enter college by the time they graduate (up from 40 percent before the pandemic). Many teens have put off applying for college altogether.
  • Social isolation during the pandemic created a mental health crisis for Gen Z. A survey by StuDocu showed about 62 percent of teens reported worsening mental health during the pandemic.

Library programming and service ideas for Gen Z

How can libraries help teens and turn them into lifelong library users? There are some specific programs and services that libraries could create to address the challenges facing Gen Z right now.

  • Your collection is an escape for teens. Your library’s books, streaming music, and movies can help kids deal with the emotional stress of the pandemic and of being a teenager in general! The collection is the gateway to introduce teen library users to other services. It should be regularly marketed to your teen community members.
  • We can minimize the educational losses for teens by offering personalized online tutoring services in a safe, judgement-free environment. Libraries spend a lot of time and energy on early literacy programs. I would argue that right now, we need to devote just as many resources to help Gen Z get back on track educationally as we do teaching little ones basic literacy skills.
  • We should create financial literacy programs for teens that include the basics like budgeting, how to open and manage a bank account, and realistic tips to help them save for post-secondary education.
  • Libraries can specifically target teens with job creation programs. Your staff can help Gen Z community members create their first resume, search for jobs online, and successfully navigate interviews.
  • Libraries should offer unstructured programs that let teens socialize in a safe space, even if it’s online.

The programs and services you provide during this critical time will build the foundation for a life-long library relationship between libraries and teens.

Next week: Specific tips for marketing your library’s collection, services, and programming to teens.

Do you have thoughts on this research? Is your library succeeding in marketing to teens? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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