Gen Z is a dynamic and diverse—and often misunderstood—demographic that exhibits complex and seemingly contradictory behaviors that defy traditional categorization, according to a new study from the Acceleration Community of Companies and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The study, which was fielded by the USC Annenberg x ACC Think Tank, a research program comprised of USC public relations graduate students, underscores the importance of avoiding engaging Gen Z members in a one-size-fits-all way, and how understanding their unique social behaviors and interests is key in crafting messages that resonate with this demographic, which comprises 40 percent of the consumer market.

According to the report, one salient habit Gen Z exhibits is they take pride in knowing a great deal about topics considered obscure to the mainstream. As a result, they tend to participate in multiple niche sub-communities online that relate to specific interests, hobbies or extracurricular activities, which allows them to express themselves and achieve a sense of belonging. A majority (78 percent) of Gen Z respondents said they belong to one or more of these sub-communities, 41 percent belong to more than two, 18 percent belong to more than three and 10 percent belong to more than five.

USC Annenberg study: Unveiling Gen Z: What They Want You to Know in Their Own Words

Perhaps as a result of these layered, context-dependent identities, more than half (54 percent) of Gen Z respondents said they think social media is less about simply connecting with friends or sharing one’s life online and more about finding and engaging with communities and/or content tailored to their interests.

Gen Z is open to brands interacting with them in these online communities, but their involvement comes with several conditions. More than half (52 percent) reported being comfortable with influencer marketing, 49 percent said they’re fine with brand-owned channel trend participation, 43 percent don’t mind brands commenting on user-generated content and 38 percent approve of sponsored content.

As it turns out, misconceptions abound when it comes to how many view this demographic. In fact, a few of Gen Z’s online habits reveal more in common with older Gen X than their younger Millennial counterparts. In a twist that few marketers probably saw coming, Gen Z respondents said Facebook is the social media platform where they can feel like their “true self” (31 percent), followed by TikTok and X (both at 11 percent). This isn’t to say that Facebook is Gen Z’s preferred social media outlet or the one they use most often—it’s not—but simply that it’s the place where they feel most comfortable.

That isn’t all. While Millennials famously buck a mainstay marketing trend by preferring experiences over material things, Gen Z is decidedly old school in this regard. More than half (58 percent) of Gen Z respondents said they would rather purchase an item they’ve had their eye on than go on a vacation.

Humor also seems to go a long way with this cohort: 41 percent of respondents said they pay more attention to brands that utilize over-the-top humor in their marketing efforts and 35 percent say humorous marketing makes them appreciate a brand more.

Finally—and despite the widespread perception that this cohort spends all of its time online—Gen Z spends nearly as much time socializing with people in IRL: half (50 percent) said they go out with friends at least once a week.

When asked what types of experiences they prefer, 53 percent of Gen Zers cited intimate experiences that enable them to easily connect and interact with friends, 21 percent listed “traditional” experiences like going to a bar or concert, 15 percent named “Instagram-worthy” experiences they can share on social media and 11 percent cited immersive experiences that leverage technology.

Of course, this generation also exhibits consumer behaviors that fall well within the bounds of what you might expect. Three-quarters (74 percent) of Gen Zers expressed a desire for brands to cater to their identities in a way that makes them feel special. And more than half (52 percent) said they were motivated to purchase something because it was validated by either a peer, an influencer or an online community. Finally, nearly half (45 percent) admitted that missing out on a popular trend has social consequences, but nearly two-thirds (65 percent) reported that staying on top of popular trends has become more difficult in recent years.

The study, “Unveiling Gen Z: What They Want You to Know in Their Own Words,” surveyed 150 Gen Z adults (ranging in age from 18 to 27) in addition to utilizing a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults online in April conducted in partnership with YouGov.