A new status quo for students, streaming, and social – and how brands can adapt

Thursday 12 October 2023, Money


A new status quo for students, streaming, and social – and how brands can adapt

There are few things more universal in the student downtime toolkit than streaming and using social media – so when the way students use them starts to change, we need to understand why.

Let’s start with the stalling student uptake in streaming

It seems to have reached a saturation point that, at first glance, doesn’t make much sense. The market leaders, Netflix and Amazon Prime, have risen in student subscriptions each year without fail. But last year, they both dropped. Why?

Yes, 2022 was the first year of ‘normality’ post-COVID, and also the year where the cost-of-living crisis started to tighten its grip. Students were able to indulge in other activities, while having less disposable income to spend on subscriptions. Price increases for both Netflix and Prime also played a part. 

But there’s another reason that has nothing to do with socioeconomic issues. UGC, or user generated content, may also be responsible for widespread changing media preferences in Gen Z. UGC is the collective term for any content created by people, rather than brands or businesses. The two market leaders in UGC video (YouTube and TikTok) both rose in 2022 and in 2023 – the same time Netflix and Prime fell. YouTube now has 2.5 billion active monthly users1, and TikTok has 1.1 billion.

In a pure popularity contest, there’s no contest. Only four Netflix shows have been streamed for more than 1 billion hours, whereas the entire top 50 YouTube channels all have more than 25 billion views each2 – and that’s individual views, not total hours. The real comparison would be even more monumental.

UGC itself is nothing new of course – it’s partly the reason why influencers and ‘authentic’ marketing have become so popular. And it’s not the same as streaming – we’re a long way from a UGC-created comparison for Top Boy or Sex Education. But if we look at student sentiment, there’s a lot of distrust towards the more traditional forms of brand and business-led media. UGC outranks mainstream streaming at blinding rates of popularity. 

Something similar is happening in social media too

Almost 75% of all freshers gave up one of their major platforms last year, with the survivors being the ones which offered more privacy, control, and freedom from advertising. 

WhatsApp and Discord have both grown, which are both private/P2P, and even newer niche channels like Vero pride themselves on 'ad-free and algorithm-free' operating models. Instagram, whilst very much not ad-free or algorithm-free, is aware of the way the winds are blowing – look at its experiments in hiding the number of likes in pursuit of a more authentic, less metric-driven, experience. It’s also the social media app that most students would choose if they could only keep using one (followed by Snapchat, YouTube, and WhatsApp – which all meet that private/UGC criteria).

To those of us in our 30s, 40s, and 50s, UGC can look amateur. But all those product reviews, filmed on smartphones in bedrooms, by regular users rather than experts, are fast becoming the preferred method of recommendation. For Gen Z, they’re not amateur, they’re real.

So what does all this mean for brands?

Changing Gen Z preferences are only part of the story. It would be remiss to ignore the financial circumstances in a year like 2023, or to underestimate the role that the rising cost of living is having. UCAS research shows that most students are relying on third parties (like parents or siblings) to cover the costs of at least one of their streaming services. And with the rising cost of living affecting parents and students alike, at the same time as streaming subscriptions getting more expensive, how long can students feasibly continue paying for all this entertainment media?

If those big platforms aren’t picking up new student customers like they have done in the past, their shining appeal as an easy advertising channel to reach the masses starts to become a little dimmer.

When we look at social media, it’s still a place of ubiquitous usage (just 1% of students don’t use any social media) but the story’s different to streaming.

For all the explosive growth in ‘lockdown social’ like BeReal and TikTok, very few would choose them as their sole channel. And we’re expecting X’s (formerly Twitter’s) popularity, which has long been stable in usage, to plummet in next year’s data given its controversy this year. (Plus, Threads doesn’t look to be the contender it might’ve been.)

When it comes to why students are giving up some of their channels, 38% state the ‘mental health burden’ that social media creates. Another 28% cited privacy, and 23% the projection of ‘unrealistic positive images.’ Gen Z are protective of their circles, their data, and their mental health – which could be why the growth of channels like WhatsApp and Discord is still going strong. There just isn’t the advertising, overt data sharing, or presence of influencers like there is on the more open platforms.

The urge to be free from advertising and exercise more control over their data extends beyond social media and into their wider online behaviour. Brands need to be aware of this – in their messaging, their campaigns, and their data use policies. More than a third of students now use a VPN, with 79% of those saying it’s for safety and another 55% for anonymity.

Both streaming and social are facing stiff challenges from a very different type of competition now. It’s not so much that rival platforms are stealing their users, it’s the different preferences of their users themselves (and for some, different levels of disposable income.) A new status quo is emerging as Gen Z takes on a more dominant role in market forces.

For the brands engaging with them – keeping track of student sentiment is more important than ever, as sentiments change quicker than we’re used to. The more private the media, the more difficult it is for advertisers – and the more creative marketers must now become.

How brands can keep up with students

For brands targeting Gen Z, understanding the motivations of students is essential – as is the ability to reach them. By working in partnership with UCAS, brands can take advantage of unparalleled insight and data to connect with youth audiences.

Learn more about how UCAS helps brands engage with students, or speak to the team directly to discuss your requirements in detail: commercialservices@ucas.ac.uk.