Generation Real: Decoding the Gen Z Client

When Renee Bowen launched her senior portrait business in suburban Los Angeles in 2007, her clients were millennial teens hungry to post her images all over social media. But in 2014, she began to notice a shift in clients’ attitudes toward marketing and photographic style. She realized she was witnessing the transition into a new and different group of teenagers, Generation Z. Fascinated by this fresh crop of clients and how she could tailor her offerings and marketing to appeal to their sensibilities, Bowen dove into research. “I just really geek out on generations,” admits Bowen, who has a degree in psychology and also works as a life coach. She’s begun offering workshops on the Gen Z client to help other photographers adapt to this growing group of clientele.

© Renee Bowen

Gen Z hallmarks

Based on research and her own observations, Bowen notes the following Gen Z high school senior client characteristics:

  • They’re savvy. They don’t fall for marketing gimmicks, and they know when they’re being sold to.
  • They crave authenticity. If they sense a fake, they’re turned off.
  • They have an 8-second attention span. To pique their interest, you have to deliver a message quickly, concisely, and authentically. “They have no time for sugar coating,” she says.
  • They don’t like to brag on social media. Millennial clients (born 1981-1996) posted senior photos liberally, says Bowen, but Gen Z clients prefer to post sparingly and only when there’s a reason to do so. “They are not into humble bragging,” she says. 
  • Their Generation X parents (born 1965 to 1980) give them the freedom to choose their photographer, so you have to appeal to the Gen Z teenager first to reach the person who’s footing the bill.
  • They prefer lifestyle and editorial images to posed portraits. “That’s what they’re seeing with the influencers they follow on their feeds,” Bowen explains.
  • They want to look good in their photos, but they don’t want to seem like they were trying to look good. “They want it to appear offhanded,” she says.
  • They crave in-person gatherings and authentic bonding time because they spend so much time engaged in the online world. 
© Renee Bowen

Selling to Gen Z

Gen Zers are the most internet savvy group of consumers today. “They can find anything on the internet in two seconds,” Bowen says, and heavily vet people and brands online before making a purchase. Research shows they need 30 or more touch points with a brand before they’ll buy.

With that in mind, “You have to court your clients,” Bowen says. What will they find out about you when they begin their vetting? If they see a friend’s photo on Instagram with your studio tagged, they will immediately hit your Instagram profile. “If there is no content for them to consume, you are done.” If you have no highlight reel, no Instagram Stories to show them what you do and who you are on a personal level, they won’t click over to your website, which is your ultimate goal. “You have to be where they are and have the right information readily available to them.” 

She recommends taking the following steps to make your social media presence more interesting to them:

Update your Instagram Stories daily. But it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Since Stories expire in 24 hours, it’s OK to repurpose photos and videos regularly. Keep a folder on your phone of marketing slides and blog post images to rotate through.

Be strategic in the timing of your Stories. For example, the day you deliver images to a client, include those images in your Stories with a call to action. That way, if the client’s friends click over to your Instagram profile, they’ll see those same images mirrored in your Stories and feed, and that’s a clear path for them to book a session.

Incorporate behind-the-scenes images. “They like to see what goes into what you do, and that it doesn’t just magically appear,” Bowen says. Many Gen Z teens have good cameras and want to learn more about photography. 

Include some images or videos alluding to your everyday life. “They want to see who you are as a person behind this brand,” says Bowen.

Make captions read like a story. Gen Zers love stories. In yours, the client is the hero; you’re the guide. Begin captions the way any good story begins—with something unexpected, such as, “We almost didn’t make it today … .”

© Renee Bowen

To appeal to Gen Z clients you need to understand what they’re consuming. “Their [social media] feeds are going to be different from yours,” she says. They want photos that mirror the style of photos they see on their favorite influencers’ accounts. To gather intel, Bowen conducts an annual email survey as well as short social media polls throughout the year, and she chats with clients, parents, and her model team as she works with them. “Ask them questions like, What is important to you? Who chooses your photographer, you or your parent? What images do you value most?” she recommends. A social media poll could pose four different photos in various styles and ask, Which one is your favorite?

When she conducts social media polls and email surveys, she offers the lure of giveaways, as this generation of kids “have been incentivized to do everything their whole life,” she says. She’ll give away a $5 Starbucks card to the first 15 participants or raffle off a prize to one lucky respondent chosen at random. To gather perspectives from her model team, she invites them for a lunch at year-end to discuss what they liked most about the team and what might be improved. “The greatest thing about them is that they are polite, but they are not worried about hurting your feelings,” she says. “They will tell you the honest truth. They don’t hold back, and that can be a good thing for us if you really want to know what they think.”

Model Teams for Gen Z

Bowen launched her model team to help her build her business via word of mouth when she entered the high school senior portrait niche. But over the past five years she’s tweaked the team for the Gen Z client. “I know what their pain point is—content,” says Bowen. “They live in a world of content creation, and even if they don’t have a YouTube channel, they are definitely in that world. Most of them will say they would post more if they had images they were proud of posting. So I provide them with that.”

For her millennial model teams, she orchestrated elaborate themed portrait sessions. But because Gen Z clients prefer lifestyle and editorial style photos, and because they crave authenticity and in-person get-togethers, she’s altered sessions to be more purposeful bonding experiences. For example, she’ll gather the team for a spring picnic at the park, a college planning session to help them with their applications, a holiday party, or an educational session on how to become a social media influencer. At each get-together she makes photographs of the team while they enjoy the activities, which she posts on social media afterward. Since Gen Z clients are reticent to post a photo without purpose, these kinds of sessions provide them with that reason, which is great marketing for Bowen’s business. 

Gen Z teens don’t like the idea of becoming models, a significant shift from the millennial generation, but often are interested in being social media influencers. And they love the idea of being TikTok famous, which Bowen describes as an attainable goal. Recently one of her model team members went mini viral on Bowen’s TikTok account, she says, to the teen’s delight. What’s a big deal to them must become a big deal to you as well, Bowen notes. She strongly encourages senior portrait photographers to use TikTok to build rapport with clients.

© Renee Bowen

Inclusivity is also important to Gen Z, so it’s unwise to build a model team around a particular personality type or look. “If they feel like you are not inclusive as a brand that is a turnoff to them,” Bowen says. Bowen prefers to keep her teams small so the members can forge friendships. Her price point is high enough to reduce the pool of candidates. She asks her current team for recommendations of younger students who might like to join the next year’s team, begins an email campaign, and then designates a time period for signup. She prefers a team of about 15, though she’s had larger. Included in the cost of joining the team is an album. Clients can purchase prints separately. Her model teams are a money maker, accounting for $45,000 to $50,000 of her income each year.

Working with teenagers is a dream for Bowen. “I love them,” she says. “I was that mom who couldn’t wait for my kids to be teenagers.” And she enjoys delivering an experience that Gen Z clients value. When she asks model team members what they liked most about being in the group they always say it was the team itself, she says. “It was bonding and being able to get to know girls who they would never have been exposed to otherwise and the experiences they had.”

What’s their favorite session of the year? A cozy California beach get-together with a bonfire and s’mores for both the outgoing and incoming teams and their parents, they tell her. Authentic perfection.  

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professonal Photographer.