Advertising to Digital Natives

An interesting phenomenon occurs in many immigrant families: the children take charge. Certainly the adults bring the family to the new location, get jobs, and make money. But when it comes to getting things done — completing paperwork, setting up bank accounts, paying rent — the children frequently take over.

The reason is clear: The adults are generally in the process of adapting to the new culture and learning the new language. It’s hard. The kids, however, are growing up within their new culture so tend to pick things up quickly and easily. Suddenly, it just makes sense for them to be the ones on the phone ordering the pizza.

We’re seeing a similar trend online, and this recent report shows that kids are increasingly helping their parents do things online. Kids aged 8-14 are sitting down at the computer to help their parents share photos, plan travel, and even file taxes.

They are the digital natives, an important new category for us advertisers to consider as we use the Internet. The study, fielded by research and development agency Stars for Kidz, raises a key question: are marketers prepared to keep up with a generation that didn’t immigrate to the online space, that are natives?

Coming to Online

I immigrated to online, although I think I was one of the first ones off the boat. My first job out of school had me creating ads that ran on some proto-online services, such as CompuServe and a series of bulletin boards. This was 1993, and I remember the IT guy coming over and installing NCSA Mosaic on my computer and showing me how it worked. I even recall the first thing I saw on the Internet: a satellite weather map taken 15 minutes previously.

On the day I saw that map, about 10,800 screaming little tots were born, just in the U.S. Today, I’m marketing soft drinks and video games to those people. Those teenagers are native to online and understand its language and culture in a way that I don’t. At least not naturally. I have to learn and figure it out.

Maybe more important, on that same day, some kid turned 8. Today, he’s about to enter the workforce and start actually creating the media that surrounds him. Shoot, he’s probably already begun, posting blogs, videos, podcasts, and mashups. The point is, he comes to these things as a native does, not as a permanent alien.

Yes, I’ve Got a Birthday Coming Up

I’m about to inch closer to 40 in the coming month, but I swear that’s not what’s motivating me to think about this generational shift. Rather, I’ve been looking more closely at how some next-generation online products and services are being developed and marketed. A few themes have emerged: right stuff and wrong stuff.

The differences between digital natives and permanent aliens become extremely clear when you look beyond how they use computers and the Internet at how they think about them. This thought process is most important for advertisers because we must consider the nature of the medium when we talk through it.

Consider cell phones and other mobile technology. My peers and I think about cell phones essentially as home phones we carry around. We think about mobile devices as small laptops. We connect them to technology we’ve become comfortable with and use them accordingly. That’s why most people use only about 10 percent of the features on their cell phones.

Not digital natives. They think about the cell phone as a unique device, capable of its own style of communication and different uses. Helio‘s advertising campaign has best captured that sense on some of its outdoor work: “Don’t call it a phone.” Apple’s forthcoming iPhone seems to be leading in this direction as well, though it’s priced and positioned away from this audience. But it may spark innovation down the line.

Gaming is another example. Permanent aliens connect games to Pong and the genre of playable/winnable games. Digital natives don’t think that way, and it’s a good thing. Pushing the boundaries of what a game is has led us to Second Life, “The Sims,” and a ton of new, indie games that are springing up all over the Internet. This has been a boon to advertisers, as we can now get messages within that environment.

These are just two examples, and there are many more to come. How do we get to a place where we understand and uncover the possibilities? We need empathy. We have to get closer to digital natives’ mindset. We don’t need to tell them how to use the digital medium. We must listen very closely to how they think it should be used. We must let them file our taxes, so we don’t think about the Internet as an online accountant but as something totally new and different.

Join us for the ClickZ Specifics: Advertising in Social Media seminar on May 21 in New York.

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