An Open Letter From a Milennial to Gen Z: How to Navigate the Big, Scary Web

Dear Young People,

I’m sure you’ve already begun to encounter one of the peculiar phenomena of living in a highly individualistic, fear-mongoring, data-driven society: from the moment you enter the formal education system, you will be endlessly tested, sorted, and assigned to categories to define your learning styles, personalities, romantic tendencies, career prospects, and now, Buzzfeed can even tell you how you would die on Game of Thrones or which Taylor Swift song most accurately represents your current mood. But here’s some other questions to consider: What puppy most resembles your social media presence? What do the websites you follow consistently say about your future career? Is your social media use strategic?

Listen up, kids. This is the stuff that’s going to matter when you come of age. I I know that Snapchat and Buzzfeed seem inconsequential right now, but the moment your parents threw an iPad into your baby hands, you began to interact with the digital web. Already, you have the power to create an entire persona for yourself while sitting in front of a screen. One day, your entire identity will probably be determined by your social media presence and your digital interactions. Your every move is probably already being tracked. If you plan to enter a career in which your digital presence is a principle element of your job (news flash: in 2030, it will be crucial to every job), it is important to be on top of best practices in the field to develop a strategic network, find relevant content, and make your voice heard because every single one of you is a special butterfly who deserves to be heard.

I am here to help you navigate the quagmire that is Web 2.0, because there’s a lot of scary stuff out there. We millennials learned the hard way how to separate the Buzzfeeds from the New Yorkers, the TMZ-doctored celebrity photos from the Politicos. But now, we have the tools to maximize our impact on the constantly evolving Web.

Understand Your Platform

How are you going to tell your stories to maximize their impact? Is your power in visuals? Long-form narrative? Brevity and gifs? For most producers of web content, certain platforms are more useful than others for reaching particular audiences and conveying targeted messages.

Facebook: Facebook is great for shareable content, such as videos and articles. For many users, Facebook has become a primary vehicle for obtaining news as well. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and even The Onion maintain strong presences on Facebook.

Twitter: Twitter is a locus of engagement in many different forms. It is just as powerful as Facebook for sharing links, but it is also a fantastic place to engage with audiences directly by retweeting, liking, and replying to people that engage with your content directly.

Instagram: If your primary vehicle for storytelling is images, considering utilizing Instagram to illustrate your messages. While it’s not the first place most journalists and writers go, between #latergrams and #mancrushmondays, many storytellers like Niel Shea are utilizing Instagram to tell powerful stories.

Tumblr: Tumblr is the most crowd-sourced popular social media platform because of its relative anomynity. Individual users have power to connect with individuals on an extremely personal level in a way that they aren’t able to on other platforms, but the engagement generally doesn’t extend far beyond Tumblr.

Understanding Your Audience

The first — and most crucial — element to your success on the web is to understand that everything you post, share, or comment on will reach an audience of some sort. Your ultimate goal is to foster an engaged, loyal audience who will look to you as a credible source of information, and therefore share your information with their networks. The New York Times Customer Insight Group completed an in-depth study of social media users and discovered that there are six prominent social media personas who interact with web content in distinct ways. These personas make up your audience, and you probably identify as one of them.

The 6 personas of social media users (NYT)

It’s hard to believe that people ever existed in an age without the social web. How did they share information? How did they know who they were without BuzzFeed quizzes? Who even are they? But these identities are age-old — we have just adapted them for the social age, and as such, you should adapt your social content for an audience as you would for any other type of media. This means thinking strategically about your audience: are you targeting the “careerists,” who use social sharing to strengthen their professional networks, or the “hipsters” and “boomerangs,” who craft their social presence around identities, beliefs, and pop culture? Your content will never suit every persona, nor does it need to. Choose your content, your voice, and your frame wisely.

Understand Your Metrics

Everything today is about measuring success, and the social web is no exception. Web analytics are key to understanding how your content performs, and these data will influence revenue, strategic planning, and resource allocation. But you must pay special attention to what the numbers tell you. Today’s web analysts throw around buzzwords like “pageviews,” “engagement,” and “impressions” to explain how successful or unsuccessful web content performs with audiences. But with all of the jargon, it can be difficult to understand what it really means. So what are the numbers that really matter?

Page views and visits are not the most revealing metrics. Why? Chartbeat reports that over 55% of users that visit any given page spend less than 15 seconds on that page. That means over half of all visitors probably read a headline, view a picture, and then immediately exit out. That’s not the type of engagement we’re going for. Instead, Chartbeat suggests we should focus on two more meaningful metrics: engaged time and recirculation. Engaged time refers to the amount of time users spend on a web page, while recirculation measures the likelihood that users will spend engaged time with one piece of content, and then move on to another piece of content from the same source.

Source: ChartBeat

The above chart measures a user’s average engaged time during their first visit to a website against the probability that they will return to that website during the next week. As you can see, the longer users spend on the website during their first visit, the higher the probability that they will return. And that return is the type of meaningful engagement you should aim for.

What Next?

I know that these words don’t mean much in the context of Instagram filters and your latest snap story, but I encourage you to think strategically about what messages your content conveys, where you convey it, and how your measure your engagement. As web content accumulates, it can be difficult to break through the noise, especially when you begin without a plan. So start now, while you still have time.