The following research looks to investigate Generation Z, and more specifically university students who fall into this category, and the importance that they place on their online personal brand and if there is any difference between the two groups. The research draws on a mix of qualitative and quantitative primary data in the form of a survey of University of Wollongong students as well as secondary data in the form of previous research and journal articles on the broader and separate topics of personal branding and Generation Z.
The social media and technology boom of recent years has led to a rise in the importance of personal branding, with most of us engaging in the practice at some time or another, whether consciously or sub-consciously. It is no longer a trend that is reserved for entertainers, politicians or businesses, but rather considered a necessary strategy to achieving professional success for anyone in any industry (Viţelar, 2019, p. 257). Personal branding as we know it today is an evolution of branding in the marketing form, and follows the same six main levels of meaning; attributes, benefits, values, culture, personality and user (Viţelar, 2019, pp. 257-258). The way that individuals manipulate these to create their personal brand is up to them, but every decision has an influence on their reputation and subsequent influence of themselves and their brand. Due to the rise of social media, the line between the social networks of brands and consumers is becoming increasingly blurred. The relationship between the two is no longer limited to brands building on the networks of consumers, but the consumers are also able to generate their own brand stories within their own social networks (Bergh, et al., 2017, p. 3).
As one of the first generations to go through the process of tertiary education entirely in this new heavily media saturated world, the importance of personal branding is arguably higher than ever for Generation Z. With over 600 000 students enrolled in Commonwealth funded places at Australian universities in 2017 (Universities Australia, 2019, p. 7), personal branding may be the differentiating factor in being hired over other graduates and competitors. With a new social media platform seemingly popping up every day, the need to grow and adapt to the many ways that one can present themselves online can be difficult, particularly in finding the balance between reputation, trust, identity, personality, attention and execution (Viţelar, 2019, p. 260).
Gen Z: Life Online
Generation Z is loosely described as including anyone born from 1995 up to 2009, and as such are currently between 10 and 25 years old (Viţelar, 2019, p. 262). This age range means that they are largely one of the first generations to be entering both university and later the workforce with the extremely high level of connectivity that social media provides. Obviously it is naïve to believe that all of Generation Z will attend university, but there is research to show that there are four fundamental behaviours which can be intrinsically linked to the Generation Z experience, regardless of a university experience; individual expression, inclusivity, using dialogue to solve conflicts and analytical decision making (Francis & Hoefel, 2018). These behaviours are important when considering how Generation Z uses social media for personal branding and how it may inform their choices.
Most people who fall into the category of Generation Z use social media in some form or another. In a survey of University of Wollongong (UOW) students, 100% said that they had a social media presence on at least one platform, with Instagram and Facebook having the highest user percentage at 100% each, closely followed by YouTube at 92% and Tik Tok at 54%. From this, 58% of respondents said that they placed the highest importance and put the most effort into Instagram when creating their personal brand. This is relatively in line with previous research, which marked Instagram as the favoured social media of Generation Z, as well as it being described as the best platform for building a personal brand (Viţelar, 2019, p. 264).
A word that tends to come up a lot when looking at personal branding is authenticity. In the same study previously mentioned, a majority of respondents said that authenticity was the highest essential factor in building their personal brand, higher that both social media content and personal attributes (Viţelar, 2019, p. 266). This is interesting as in recent years personal branding and social media have been closely linked, whilst social media is often seen as an unauthentic, sometimes glorified, representation of an individual’s life. This does not mean that it is still not an essential tool in creating an effective personal brand. According to Philbrick and Cleveland, creating a digital footprint, whether through social media or other digital means, is the most important step in personal branding (2015, p. 185). In their guide to personal branding for professional success, they highlight things such as using a distinguishable name, keeping photos up to date and interact with others online (Philbrick & Cleveland, 2015, p. 186). They also stress the important of maintaining this digital footprint, as social media relies heavily on frequency and consistency in interactions (Philbrick & Cleveland, 2015, p. 186). This is possibly a factor in why Generation Z are so effective in using social media for personal branding. Having grown up with social media as a constant presence, knowing how to interact on digital platforms is by this point almost assumed knowledge. This makes it easy for members of Generation Z to maintain a consistent digital platform which inevitably aides their personal brand, as it doesn’t necessarily feel like they are ‘working’.
When comparing university students with members of Generation Z who either pursued other opportunities or have already entered the workforce, the majority are of the opinion that there is no difference in the level of importance that either put on their online personal brand. In the survey of UOW students, 54% said that they did not believe there was difference, while 29% said they believed university students placed the higher importance. This is somewhat surprising, as it may be assumed that university students would place a higher importance on their personal brand for professional purposes when graduating and attempting to enter the usually highly competitive workforce. A possible factor in the figure is the year of university that students are in; many students in their first or second year of university are likely to not yet place a high importance on their professional image, while students in their third year who are about to graduate are likely to hold it to a higher level of importance.
The Strategy of Being Social
For this purposes of this research, social media is generally defined as communication systems that allow their participants to interact and communicate in an interpersonal manner (Bergh, et al., 2017, p. 3). While the idea of personal branding and branding in general are not new, the way in which it is done has changed and evolved dramatically in line with the rise of social media. This rise has made it easier than ever for individuals to develop a personal brand and actually create a paying job out of it, however it also brings with its new challenges that have previously not been an issue. There are many factors that must be taken into account when using social media for any purpose, not just personal branding, including but not limited to purpose and the permanence of the internet. If these factors are not considered, it can have a significant impact on the way that content is received and the reputation that an individual is given as a result. It is possible to argue that while social media has made it easier to create a brand, it also raises a lot more questions than answers in regard to what constitutes effective personal branding, in that there is no one way or exact science to using social media in general or personal branding.
The process of using social media for personal branding, while incredibly efficient, is also very transparent. Because of this, individuals must be proactive in the way they brand themselves so they can effectively influence the information that other users receive (Viţelar, 2019, p. 260). One of the first major challenges of using social media to create a personal brand is choosing the ideal platform on which to create content. While the internet is incredibly broad and there are countless platforms that an individual can use to create and present their personal brand, having a purpose behind what you are posting can make or break your brand. Without an established strategy of how one will use their social media to create their brand, there is only likely to be confusion from their target audience (Viţelar, 2019, p. 261). This strategy can include anything from the broader spectrum such as the social media platforms used to something as small as the individual tags used on a single post. Choosing a platform is a key part of this strategy, as each social media require different levels of self-presentation and social presence (Viţelar, 2019, p. 262). For example, sites such as Facebook and Instagram allow for a high level of self-presentation and a medium level of social presence, in that they allow individuals to consciously share personal information, such as photos and statuses, to an audience of their choosing at their own pace (Viţelar, 2019, p. 262). These platforms are generally what we most closely associate with when referring to social media and are also the ones most often used for the purpose of personal branding. It is possible to us other online platforms such as online gaming and blogs to create a personal brand, however they generally require different levels of self-presentation and social presence, so are not usually the best choice when creating an effective personal brand.
When looking at the general population, which includes people who are not purposefully looking to create an online personal brand, the importance of a strategy and purpose for posting on social media becomes less. Despite this, when posting on social media, there is usually still some level of thought that goes into the content even when a clear personal brand is not the intended outcome. In the survey of UOW students, 67% said that they did not use social media for the primary purpose of promoting themselves as a brand. Further to this, only 21% said they used a special feature or third-party app to inform how they posted on social media. In somewhat of a contrast to this, only 25% said the visual aesthetic of their social media was not at all important to them or only sometimes important. Keeping in mind that platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr rely on their visual aspects which tend to go hand in hand with personal branding, it is surprising that the number of people who value their aesthetic contrasts so heavily to those using social media for personal branding. This could in part be due to new pressures to maintain a visually pleasing profile that tends to come from not only employers, peers and friends but also from our own pre-conceived notions of what is and isn’t acceptable on social media. Because of this, while less important, it makes it almost impossible to post on social media without a strategy which likely results in some form of personal brand, whether it was consciously created or not.
Permanent Personal Branding
With so much of our daily lives now being lived on the internet, it has basically become a fact of life that anything posted on the internet is permanent in some form or another. The permanence of social media has at times been likened to a tattoo; once it’s there, it’s there and it’s incredibly difficult to remove, and even if you think you have removed it, there is likely still traces (Bergh, et al., 2017, p. 2). The saying “once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever” has become almost common place in recent years, and for good reason. No matter how many privacy settings you may apply to an online profile, the information that you post online and on social media is never truly ‘private’, in no small part thanks to screenshotting and saving, both of which are possible without notifying the original creator. Content that may have been posted 5 years ago and has since been deleted may still pop up in Google searches or on other platforms if it was saved by a third party in some way, as has been seen in cases where celebrities have been criticised when their old tweets or posts have resurfaced. A high-profile example of this was Kevin Hart, who was forced to step down as the Oscars host in 2018 following backlash from homophobic tweets from 2011 which resurfaced (Arnowitz, 2018). This example shows how content posted on social media and the internet can still impact an individual’s personal brand and job opportunities years after the fact.
While the permanence of the internet is a well-known fact, it is something which appears to at times be forgotten, even despite the many examples of it causing issues years after the fact. In the survey of UOW students, 96% said that they did not believe their social media accounts and their content would have any influence on a prospective employer’s decision to hire them. 54% also said that they placed a higher importance on the way an employer may see them when posting on social media over family and friends, so it is clear that most individuals are not ignorant of the fact that what they post can affect their employment opportunities, however they may have forgotten to take into account past posts and comments. This is in part why having a strategy to posting on social media and personal branding is so important, as even spur of the moment lapses in judgement can have a serious impact years later.
It is no secret that social media is already an essential tool when it comes to personal branding, and its importance is only likely to grow as we continue to live our lives online, particularly for Generation Z who already tend to share so much of both their public and private lives online. Maintaining authenticity is a key factor in effectively using social media for this purpose, as is having a purpose and maintaining consistent interactions online. While it may be assumed that university students would place a higher importance on their online personal brand over members of Generation Z who do not attend university, this report shows that on the whole, there is not a large difference; both groups are mindful of their personal brand and how the content they post can affect it. Social media is most definitely here to stay so it is important that we seamlessly integrate it into our everyday personal branding efforts.
It is important to note that both the primary research done specifically for this report and the secondary research used both had limitations. The major limitation is the relatively small data field used in both. This means that using this data to make generalisations of the entire Generation Z population should be done with caution as it is possible that it does not accurately represent the population as a whole.
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Philbrick, J. & Cleveland, A., 2015. Personal Branding: Building Your Pathway to Professional Success. Medicall References Quarterly, 34(2), pp. 181-189.
Universities Australia, 2019. Data Snapshot 2019, Canberra: Universities Australia.
Viţelar, A., 2019. Like Me: Generation Z and the Use of Social Media for Personal Branding. Management Dynamics in the Knowledge Economy, 7(2), pp. 257-268.