COVID-19 And Communications

If You Target “Young People” As A Whole, You’ll Likely Miss

The COVID-19 situation isn’t likely to improve quickly. While the world awaits a safe, effective vaccine, leaders are imploring the public to adopt behaviours that will help slow the spread of the virus in the months ahead.

As case counts rise across parts of Canada, reports indicate that most new cases are among young adults. It seems that some young Canadians are going to need extra encouragement to maintain social distance, wear masks and avoid risky situations, like clubs and large gatherings.

Our research indicates that people’s reactions to COVID-19 and response to guidance from public health authorities are shaped by their values. In May, we found that only about one in ten Canadians were enthusiastic about resuming the full range of activities that had been shut down. These people, who love socializing and sharing events with large groups, found distancing especially challenging and were eager to get back to their daily routines. This group’s values indicate that they’re risk-takers who will push boundaries to get what they want. In our analysis of how to communicate effectively with this 10 percent, we concluded that they do feel a sense of duty to others – and will behave accordingly – but they need to be cautioned and reminded about the potential impact of not following the rules.

More recently, we’ve been assessing how young people’s values might affect their responses to public health guidance during the pandemic. Environics conducted its first segmentations of generational cohorts based on social values in the 1990s. This values-based segmentation originally covered the Pre-Boomer, Boomer and Gen X age bands. The framework was later expanded to include Millennials (in 2013) and, this year, Gen Z.

Our research has consistently shown that people’s values – what we want for ourselves and our society – crystallize early in life and are largely fixed by the time we’re teenagers. While generations share important aspects of the early experiences that shape their values (things like wars, economic upheavals or major technological changes), there are nevertheless significant values differences within generations. This was true for Baby Boomers and their parents, and it’s especially true for young people.

We define Generation Z as those born since 1996 (and at least 15 years old, the cut-off for our sample). While our analysis of this youngest generation of Canadians is ongoing, our research has identified seven distinct values-based clusters within that generation, making Gen Z an even more diverse group than the previous Millennial cohort.

These seven segments will each have their own unique responses to the recommended public health measures around COVID-19. To develop communications that resonate with each of these groups, understanding their values is a good place to start.

Two of our identified Gen Z segments, for example, likely won’t need much encouragement to mask up and keep their distance. The first group has a strong sense of social responsibility and cares deeply about helping others. The second group’s values show that they’re respectful of rules and authority, and feel comfortable conforming to norms. Neither segment is likely to ignore, or even question, instructions from public health.

Together, however, these two groups account for less than half of the Gen Z cohort. Other segments in this generation will require very different strategies to make public health messages resonate.

One segment in particular will likely need some nudging when it comes to masks and distancing. This cluster of young people belong to a work-hard-play-hard group, who live for the moment. Their tendency toward impulsivity and immediate gratification leads them to seek stimulation, pleasure, and intense emotion and experience. But while they’ll need some convincing, they’re not committed rebels – they’re open to following a trend. This group is probably best reached by celebrities and influencers – but the message needs to grab their attention.

Just as older generations were not defined only by demographics like age and gender, neither are young people today. Their values – their orientation to rules and authority, as well as their sense of social responsibility, and their appetite for spontaneity and risk – will all shape their tendency to comply, or not, with COVID-19 guidelines.

If you target “young people” as a whole, you’ll likely miss. You risk wasting your efforts on the rule-followers while failing to break through with the fun-seekers. Crafting messages that resonate requires tailor-made approaches that speak to young people’s values, not their age. Pick your groups, target precisely and message accordingly.

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