Thursday, November 22, 2007

Digital Immigrants

At the recent IAB Engage conference, there was a lot of talk about whether digital consumers are different from other consumers, and views came from both ends of the spectrum.

One view, put forcefully by Roisin Donnelly from P&G, is that the digital consumer is not a different species that needs to be treated in isolation – “online people are exactly the same as offline people”.  She went on to say “we must adopt a consistent approach focusing on the consumer”.

There are others who think that digital changes the game.  Josh Spear from Undercurrent believes “Marketers are playing by an entirely new set of rules in the web 2.0 landscape”.

So does the fact that internet users also watch TV and read newspapers make them the same as people who don’t use the internet?  And have the rules really changed, or just the place we apply them?

Back in 2001, a US educational software designer called Mark Prensky wrote an influential paper called “Digital Natives, DigitalImmigrants”.  His thesis was that people growing up today are immersed from an early age in a digital way of life, based around the internet, video games, mobile phones and instant messaging, and that this was changing the way they thought – and more than this, the way their brains were wired.

To Prensky, people who didn’t grow up in this environment see the world differently – and when they become immigrants to the digital world, their newcomer’s accent shows.

Printing out email, needing to print a document to edit it, bringing people over to show them a website instead of sending a link – these are all examples where a digital immigrant’s accent is a giveaway. 

I recognise this myself - as the sole digital person at a big agency some years ago, I was asked by a creative team to make tapes of a website – and despite protestations that this was missing the point, I had to sit there surfing whilst a technician transferred the site to videotape.

Prensky’s concern was as an educationalist – that a generation of people with heavy immigrant accents were teaching a generation of digital natives, and that their worlds are incompatible – natives with their non-linear, multitasking, instant gratification culture faced with immigrants from a linear, focused and longer-term world.

A variety of studies have demonstrated that kids multitask in a way that their parents simply can’t understand.  The Kids’ Leisure Time 2 report found that 2-12s spend a quarter of their leisure time doing two or more activities at the same time.  In 2006, a large-scale media consumption study by KFF found that 21% of young people’s media time was spent multitasking, whilst if they were doing their homework on a computer, 65% were doing something else at the same time.

But it isn’t just the ability to manipulate information that marks a digital native out as different.  A Gallup poll shows that only 15% of 13-17s think downloading music (breaching copyright) is morally wrong.  Rushworth Kidder, at the Institute for Global Ethics believes kids think “It's not like stealing, because nothing is missing.”

So there’s lots of evidence that there are differences between those who were ‘born digital’ and those who weren’t. 

But they all eat Pringles and watch TV don’t they?

Perhaps so.  But whilst on the surface some behaviours might look similar, their motivations and expectations of brands can be quite different.

They are less tolerant of being sold to, expect us to be ethically upstanding (whilst not expecting the same of themselves), and to have their voice heard when they want to express themselves.  They consume information differently – faster, non-linear and multitasking, and driven by instant and frequent reward.

So whilst it remains that a brand can only remain ‘true’ if it has a consistently communicated proposition, what’s got harder now is that we have to execute that communication in ways that are different at a fairly fundamental level.  And for that, you need to speak like a native.