To be young is to “have the world at your feet” and this has never been so true as it is today. But for Generation Z and millennials, this figure of speech could be better phrased as “to have the world at your fingertips”, and really the youth of today have both. They’ve got that once in a lifetime, wide-eyed optimism of having their destinies unfurling at their own command, coupled with ready access to a world of information and a connection to most of humanity. It means young people in 2017 have more knowledge and power than ever before. Just under 20% of the Australian population is aged between 12 and 25 — over 4 million of them — and their experiences are a world apart from those of their Gen X parents.

Teens and twenty-somethings are global, social, visual and technological and they want their voices heard. If you want their attention then you need to find them at their level. Central to this interaction between you and them, with talking with them not at them, is to make a meaningful connection which can win you a ‘friend’ and an ambassador, not just a customer, for life, in a way a giant billboard could never hope to. This generation will typically work for 17 different companies over 5 separate career paths. Their lives won’t be the linear progression which has been the default of history up until this point. Needless to say, their lives could be seen as complicated, but there’s also a goldmine of opportunities for those that can help them. So you don’t get lost as you navigate this winding, hilly road into the consciousness of youth, here are the 5 most critical insights into engaging them today.

Be grounded in youth

Walking the walk and talking the talk of the schoolyard and uni bar is easier said than done but it is an investment which can reap massive dividends. You need to be in the spaces that youth hang out, communicating in the language they speak with a message made for them in a way which comes off as real and relatable, not like a dad in a midlife crisis. The social media platforms of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr are the doorway to the club, but when you’re stepping through it, you’ve got to know the trends and be wearing the right clothes or you’ll look like that daggy father joining his son for a night out. That could get awkward. Having someone young and clued-up and able to leverage all the cultural points of youth today in this position guiding your social and online strategy is a must.

Grab their attention

Youth have been wrapped up in the internet and bombarded with its never-ending churn of digital noise from the time they came into the world. Microsoft research from 2015 showed that the average human attention span has dropped to 8 seconds down from 12 seconds since 2000, while a goldfish can hold a thought for 9 seconds. This was due in no small part to the nearly limitless access to media and distraction where teens can be found watching TV with their laptops open and their smartphones in their hands. In other words, you need to cut through the noise. Youth today can be complete strangers and have totally different life experiences but more often that not they will share this way of looking at the world. In the same study, three-quarters of 18 to 24-year-olds said the first thing they do when nothing is occupying their attention is reach for their phones, while just 10% of over 65s answered the same, showing the gulf between the mindsets of today’s young and old. These factors represent the different ways they need to be treated, and more importantly, where you can find them.

Use visuals, video and quality content

Attention grabbing, cutting edge, engaging content is the way to meet their demands and boost your results. Companies have to act fast and smart, like how online video ads have 5 seconds to get your interest before you click ‘skip’, this is the same way youth need to be engaged. Hard-hitting visuals and videos and glossy written content have become the frontline of this quest for attention and it’s only getting more fierce as more brands cotton onto this. Whether you look at it as shorter attention spans or merely having better options to distract themselves with, like a good opening movie scene, beginning line of a story or the first note in a song, you need a catchy hook because you don’t want to lose them before you’ve gotten your message across. Turning tradition on its head, a good punchline can’t come quick enough. This doesn’t mean the message has to be dumbed down or simplified, it just needs to be presented in an engaging way.

Treat them as equals

When selling youth your message, interaction and collaboration are key and treating them as equals and valuing their insights is a simple and powerful way to create a strong relationship. This isn’t about token gestures and words, it’s about putting your experience to the side, asking questions and listening. Just because something is done one way doesn’t mean it’s the answer for today’s young people and the way they should do it. If they are at the centre of your interest then they are the heart of what you’re doing and their outlook should count for something, and by something, we mean a lot. On many things in life, old and wise heads can teach a lot to their more inexperienced counterparts, and if it’s of value and communicated effectively then more often than not they will listen. But the wants and issues central to the lives of young people, the ones they live with day to day, give them a pretty good insight and they are quite often the experts. This needs to be acknowledged. Listen, research, find out their problems and don’t treat them as trivial. This leads to the powerful next step.

Go the extra mile

With the unique challenges and opportunities of youth understood, your own approaches for helping make their lives better can be brought to the table. While being marketed to, youth will expect businesses, organisations and education providers to be taking action, being leaders and solving problems, rather than services merely designed to build profits. If two brands are offering something much the same then it’s the extras that will set one of them apart. A satisfying experience from start to finish, from before a sale to after the money has been laid down, are the one percenters that brands need to be conscious of at all times with their young audience. It could be life advice, some humour or attacking a social issue that’s close to their hearts. Whatever it is, it’s more than what was previously expected.

Customer service is an old concept but it’s being reinvented everyday by companies going the extra mile online. But with over 70% of people thinking brands don’t make an effort to keep their business and 60% saying they will ditch a brand for a new one if they feel the customer service is better, it’s clear that there is still a lot of work that can be done and huge opportunities to be exploited. If you can take these extra steps on top of the platform laid out in the previous points then you won’t just have a one-off customer, but a loyal follower and advocate who can advertise your efforts without you lifting a finger. All of a sudden that little bit of extra interest you showed in them has earned you a walking, talking, living and breathing advertisement, and with youth there’s often nothing more potent than the good word and influence of a friend.