Gen Z Is Ready for ‘Lean-Forward’ Content – Are You?

06.06.2023 | Ray Gilmartin

The 2022 United States Census defines Generation Z (also called Zoomers or “Gen Z”) as a demographic cohort consisting of 68.6 million Americans (about 20% of the total population) born between 1997 and 2013.

Gen Z is the youngest generation that includes adults and the first generation of digital natives, having grown up with the Internet and mobile connected devices from a young age. Gen Z has very different content consumption habits than their Millennial or Gen X counterparts, often preferring fast-paced and interactive “lean-forward” experiences over the “lean-back” experience offered by traditional linear media.

As Gen Z matures into the next generation of Over-The-Top (OTT) video consumers, content sellers and OTT platforms will need to adjust their content creation and distribution strategies to more effectively engage Gen Z audiences. This blog explores the differences between lean-back and lean-forward entertainment, how the maturation of Gen Z could drive a rise in lean-forward media, and six types of interactive OTT media that content sellers can leverage to better engage Gen Z audiences.


Lean-Back vs. Lean-Forward Media – What’s the Difference?

The terms “lean-back” and “lean-forward” media describe two fundamentally different ways that audiences consume content.

Lean-back media refers to content that is consumed in a passive and relaxed manner. Examples of lean-back content include movies and plays, traditional linear television, and entertainment radio. When consuming lean-back media, the audience is a passive recipient of the content with little to no interaction taking place.

On the other hand, “lean-forward” media refers to content that requires or encourages active participation, engagement, and/or interaction from the audience. Examples of lean-forward media include interactive live streaming and video games. Audiences consuming lean-forward media are more engaged and actively participating in the content, often shaping their own experience and outcomes.


Why Does Gen Z Prefer Lean-Forward Content?

The content consumption habits of each generation are driven by technological trends in mass media distribution.

In the 20th century, we saw the advent of entertainment radio in the 1910s and linear television in the 1950s. These new mass media formats provided unlimited in-home access to audio and video/film content for the first time, and Americans who grew up in this period developed deeply ingrained “lean-back” media consumption habits.

The next big shift in mass media consumption happened between the late 1990s and early 2010s, overlapping with the birth of Gen Z. This period is characterized by regular seismic shifts in the mass media landscape, including:

  • The mainstreaming of personal computing and the Internet in the mid- and late-1990s,
  • The launch of the first subscription-based video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms in the mid-2000s (Netflix and Hulu),
  • The launch of the first ad-supported video streaming sites (YouTube and Vimeo),
  • The dawn of social media, including platforms like Facebook (2004), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), and Vine (2012),
  • The birth of interactive live streaming platforms like Twitch (2011), and
  • The massive global proliferation of smartphones and tablet devices starting in the mid-2000s.

When we look at the content consumption patterns of Gen Z, we can attribute those habits directly to the media technology environment in which this generation matured.

Hub Entertainment Research shows the stark contrasts in entertainment preferences for Gen Z vs older generations.

As the first generation to grow up with mobile phones and tablets, Gen Z media consumers are used to touchscreen interactions and controlling the viewing experience with the swipe of a finger.

In a recent study from Parks Associates highlighting Gen Z’s media consumption preferences, less than 50% of 18- to 24-year-olds (all Zoomers) reported watching video content on a TV in the past 30 days. Much of this generation will be cord-nevers – media consumers who lean heavily towards OTT streaming and have never paid for a traditional Pay TV subscription.

When they do watch TV, Gen Z is accustomed to a multi-screen viewing experience where content is consumed on more than one device at the same time (e.g. Watching the NHL playoffs on TV while playing games, chatting, or streaming on a smartphone).

Some Gen Z media consumers grew up with services like Facebook and Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts and prefer to consume (and share) video content in bite-sized clips as short as ten seconds or less.

Others have gravitated to interactive video streaming platforms like Twitch where they participate in online communities organized around shared interests while consuming live video content. Twitch allows audiences to directly fund their favorite streamers, cultivating a strong sense of community and connection between content creators and audiences.

All of these observations reflect Gen Z’s strong affinity for engaging, lean-forward content and their desire to control and shape the viewing experience, share it with friends, and build communities around their favorite content and creators. For Gen Z, consuming video content doesn’t have to be a passive experience – it can be a participatory one where audience members exercise agency, shape the outcome, experience community, and foster meaningful connections with others.


6 Lean-Forward OTT Content Formats for Gen Z Audiences

As more of Gen Z reaches adulthood and starts paying for streaming subscriptions, content sellers and OTT video streaming platforms should develop more interactive streaming experiences that cater to this generation’s media consumption preferences. These experiences might include things like:


1) Trivia and Gaming on OTT Platforms

One interesting OTT trend that streaming providers are beginning to explore is gaming experiences as a way to increase engagement and enhance the user experience. Netflix is at the cutting edge here, with its competitive and social “Triviaverse” experience, plus the Netflix Games App that offers Netflix subscribers access to 50+ exclusive mobile games.

Triviaverse by Netflix lets players compete by answering questions about science, history, pop culture, and other topics.

Incorporating gaming elements or bundling with a video game service are solid steps to boosting engagement and customer retention with Gen Z audiences.


2) TV Quiz Shows

TV Quiz Shows like Jeopardy, Millionaire, and The Price is Right give audiences the option of playing along at home. In the past, this meant yelling at the television – but there’s a real opportunity to update TV quiz shows for the OTT format. How about Millionaire’s “Ask the Audience”, but instead of a studio audience it’s the OTT streaming audience? Or a live-streaming Jeopardy show where audiences can play along at home on a desktop or mobile device?


3) In-Show Trivia

Music service Vevo recently launched an In-Show Trivia feature on its Vevo Pop and Vevo Hip Hop FAST channels. This gamification feature allows audiences to engage with their favorite music videos by answering trivia questions that appear on the screen. The addition of gamified trivia transforms the normally passive experience of watching a music video into an interactive one. Knowing that audiences would be highly engaged, Vevo worked directly with sponsors and advertisers to craft trivia questions for each video and find innovative ways to insert brand messaging.

This interactive Modern Family game demonstrates ways to engage fans during and after the viewing experience.


4) In-Show Voting

Reality TV shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars have engaged audiences with in-show voting by allowing viewers at home to vote for their favorite acts to win the competition. We’d love to see content sellers and OTT distributors use surveys or a voting system in new ways that empower audiences to shape the outcomes of streaming content.

Not only does in-show voting provide valuable feedback for producers on which characters resonate best with audiences, it also keeps audiences engaged by giving them a sense of control over the outcome of the video.


5) Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) Media

The first CYOA film titled “I’m Your Man” was released in 1992 and had audiences role-playing to reveal an illegal money siphoning scam to the FBI. While the format never fully caught on, we’ve recently seen Netflix experiment with CYOA experiences, like the Black Mirror Bandersnatch episode (2018) and You vs. Wild (2019).

Netflix even capitalized on the buzz around its unique format for the Bandersnatch episode by integrating brand mentions into the decision-making and storyline.


6) Interactive Live Streaming

For video-on-demand streaming services, the most important capability that’s missing when it comes to delivering cutting-edge lean-forward experiences is live streaming. Twitch (acquired by Amazon in 2014) is leading the way here, with interactive features like live chat, real-time donations to streamers, contests and giveaways, surveys, and polls – all heavily facilitated by the interactive, live-streaming format.

Netflix is exploring how it can use live streaming to deliver more interactive content experiences and we expect other content sellers and VOD streaming providers to move in a similar direction.


Measuring the Impact of OTT Content with Revedia Digital

Revedia is an AI-driven data intelligence platform that helps content sellers aggregate and manage OTT platform data, measure content performance, and manage distribution agreements to maximize revenue from their video assets.

Our Revedia Digital platform can help both content sellers and OTT distributors measure the impact of lean-forward content and optimize their content creation, distribution, and marketing strategies for the next generation of OTT media consumers.

Ready to learn more?

Read our white paper Optimizing Video: Enhancing Content Performance for OTT Success to learn more about market trends driving audience engagement opportunities in the OTT space.

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