Why I mislike the “digital native”
According to Wikipedia a digital native “is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts”.
Why do I mislike the ‘digital native’? Well, it’s less about the individual consumers that may or may not be represented by this so called segment – the existence of which is open to debate – rather it’s what the term represents and the lack of critical analysis behind its use.
To begin with, I take umbrage with what the ‘digital native’ tag signifies – it reinforces the flawed notion that young people are somehow more capable, creative and the sole users of the latest technology, whilst the older generation still fumbles around with their TV remotes.
When in reality there’s no research to back up this up, if anything there’s evidence to contradict these assumptions.
One only has to look at the stats in Ofcom’s latest Communication Market report to see how dated these assumptions are. Whilst admittedly there are still differences between older and younger people in terms of take-up and use of various services, the stats show an altogether more technologically sophisticated audience amongst the 55+ age-group (the age bracket many might describe as non-digital natives), than the definition would have us believe.
For example, 75% of 55-64 age groups now have access to the internet, 47% own digital video recorders and 91% own a mobile. Indeed, the 45-54 and £30k+ household incomes are two of the groups where tablet ownership is highest (assuming older age groups have higher disposable incomes). The days when technology – whether it’s the ownership of tablets or presence on social networks – was the sole preserve of the ‘digital native’ are well and truly over.
Technology today is embedded in all our lives in some way or another. When a new technology emerges, there will always be those early adopters, but importantly, early adopters doesn’t equate to digital natives. In other words you don’t necessarily have to have been ‘born during or after the general introduction of digital technology’ to be first in the queue, other factors such as disposable income, culture and interest have a far greater influence than age alone. It’s also worth remembering that currently, the majority (even those who would be deemed digital natives) still don’t habitually do things like check-in, use QR codes or NFC.
I think it’s fair to say that the marketing profession, more than most, enjoys categorising things and people. Whilst segmentation – when driven by insight and used in the right way – can be extremely valuable, the danger is that categorisation (without insight) can just become a lazy way of referring to groups without thinking too hard about why they were created in the first place or what they actually mean.
So as a marketer is it still useful to use the term ‘digital native’? I would argue that it traps you into a way of thinking that causes you to assume that the older generation don’t use the technology in exactly the same way as their younger counterparts. Likewise, it can easily allow you to discount perfectly suitable channels. Take social media or even experiential campaigns, for that matter – should they only be used to engage younger audiences? Of course not. 75% of the 55-64 audience are online, so why not use these channels to engage, spark conversations and influence?
A continual focus on the ‘youth’ market is also counter-productive when you consider that people over 50 years of age control 77% of financial assets and 50% of discretionary spending. Appealing to this segment can result in engagement that leads to revenue opportunities that would otherwise be ignored.
Consider Viking River Cruises, not a company one would automatically perceive to benefit from a presence across social media platforms, but it happily attracts an older demographic and has grown its Facebook page from 400 to almost 10,000 fans in just over six months. To me that clearly shows that the days of social media as a niche for younger digital natives is long gone. It is the experience – and having the desire to share that experience – that matters.
The key is to know and understand your audience, and approach every marketing challenge with an open mind – don’t be swayed by unfounded assumptions of behaviour, attitudes and motivations. Look closely at what will appeal to the target audience, anticipate their interests, needs and wants, and be original and creative when doing so.
Mark Higginson is head of social media, iCrossing.
Main image via Bigstockphoto.com