Digital Natives – Myth, threat or opportunity?

Sitting down with digital natives, and reviewing the current thinking, Richard Waring of Catalyst Market Research provides insight.

The term ‘Digital Natives’ was coined by Marc Prensky of Harvard and Yale nearly 15 years ago to describe the emerging generation who have not had to adapt to digital. Supposedly it’s wired into their DNA from birth – the iGeneration. If that’s not you, then you’re classed as a digital immigrant, worrying whether you and your business is adapting fast enough. Darwin never said ‘the strongest survives’, what he said was ‘the most adaptable to change survives’.

A digital native is anyone born after 1985, so in reality they’re starting to hit their thirties. The digital revolution has not just hit in the past few years, but what has is the speed and impact of technology on all our lives predominantly due to smart phones and social media. But this revolution has in reality only just begun so you haven’t been left behind and can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed.

There is little or no empirical evidence to support the idea of native vs immigrant. In fact neither group is homogenous. Both groups are made up of technology enthusiasts, as well as minimalists and avoiders. My 13 year old nephew has no social media accounts and an old Blackberry that’s never turned on. While my 84 year old Aunt has a MacBook, mini iPad, iPhone 5 and uses Skype, Instagram, Whatsapp etc and shops on Amazon. She’s an extrovert and he’s an introvert, so it’s more a personality and behavioural thing. As a result many are now debunking this digital native idea and instead talking about the digital citizen.

There are two questions to ask yourself. 1) Digital is impacting all your customers, so how are you adapting? 2) Like every generation before it, the iGeneration has its own culture and language. Do you understand how to relate and communicate to them?

While the business world continues to adapt to the digital revolution, there are some core principles that have already been learnt.

  • Don’t see it as traditional vs digital or online vs offline. It’s about what is most appropriate for your brand and business to relate to and communicate with your customer.
  • Don’t ‘do’ social media for the sake of it. Some or all might not be appropriate for you. Building and maintaining a Facebook or Twitter account is a significant time and money investment. Done badly is far worse than not at all.
  • Don’t unnecessarily complicate. A website is a starting point for many customers but perhaps a fairly simple static site is all that they require from you e.g. a restaurant.
  • Don’t forget to ask your customers what they would like and find useful – it’s always a good starting point!

It’s also useful to understand some fundamentals that remain and are possibly even more important to the digital citizen and iGeneration.

  • In a world swamped by information, word of mouth carries a lot of weight and value e.g. rating, reviews, recommendations etc.
  • Transparency and trust are highly valued. Customers have always been good at sniffing out a fake and digital has made them a lot more savvy and attuned to dishonesty. If you have a hidden ulterior motive you will be punished severely, and rightly so.
  • The need to belong, to be part of a group, connect with and relate to brands and services is as strong as ever. There are just many more channels with which to do it, which is a challenge and also a great opportunity.

To understand the iGeneration you have to understand how they view the world. Rather than a hierarchical world respecting the authority of church, state and class, this generation has a more egalitarian and horizontal view of the world where there are less boundaries and they embrace sharing and ideas. There is distrust and intolerance of traditional institutions and greater focus on democracy, open access, transparency and trust.

They are not fixed by traditional boundaries or life stages, growing up in a world less inclined to be working nine to five or retiring in the traditional sense. Their world is always on or always available, where they can switch in and out as needed. They have also grown up in a world that is less linear where the media they receive and the channels though which they communicate are multiple and complex. More than just communicating at them, it’s more about how you can relate to them. Think social channels first.

The iGeneration places emphasis on convenience, speed and instant gratification. All this leads to a greater focus on the self and personal gratification. What’s in it for me and can I have it now? It’s a digital world with a five second attention span. This also means that they are less likely to write and are more visually focused.

There is a lot of debate about how digital is driving less verbal and social interaction, making the iGeneration less capable of some fundamental emotions like empathy, but this is still highly debatable and to be taken lightly. What is more interesting is that they prefer to learn through interaction rather than being ‘broadcast’ to like previous generations.

So if you are not of the iGeneration, but your customer is, your main challenge is possibly less about the digital change and more the generational one, which is strongly shaped by digital. Technology shouldn’t keep you awake at night, but not understanding or relating to your customer should.