Living The Web Lifestyle

One of my favorite definitions is, “Technology is stuff that was invented after you were born.”

So true! “Technology” is stuff we obsess over, fetish-ize and have to figure out how to fit into our lives. Many technical things we grew up with, we just use and probably couldn’t imagine living without.

Take ATMs, for example. Anyone 30 or younger has probably never had to worry about having enough money to last a long weekend. You just sidle up to the ATM, whip out your card, and drive away with dough. But the parents of those people probably vividly remember the time when they had to stand in line for hours on a Friday to get cash for the weekend and God help you if you couldn’t get to the bank!

Older folks see ATMs as technology. Younger people take it for granted.

Right now, over 50 percent of people between 16 and 22 are regular online users according to the new Forrester report, “The Net-Powered Generation.” They represent 10 percent of the U.S. population and are rapidly growing up into consumers with $37 billion in spending power, with influence over an additional $62 billion of adult spending. These are the consumers of the future, and the way they’re using the web today foreshadows how people will be using the Net into the future and what they’ll expect from online marketers.

Those 16 to 22-year-olds don’t see the web as “technology” but as a fact of life. Computers aren’t mysterious pieces of machinery they need to become “literate” with; they’re just tools to get the job done. And it’s this “internalization” of the web that Forrester is focusing on when they describe the five “Net Rules” future consumers will be bringing to their online experience:

  1. Information is everywhere.

  2. Personal information has value.
  3. Choice is a human right.
  4. There is such a thing as a free lunch.
  5. Building trust doesn’t require face-to-face interaction.

(Source: Forrester “The Net-Powered Generation”)

None of these “rules” are news to anyone who’s been using the web long enough to make it a part of their life:

We expect to be able to find any information we need online (rule 1).

We expect our privacy to be respected and punish any company that doesn’t respect it (rule 2).

We want to be able to configure and customize our experience the way WE want to experience it (rule 3).

We expect to be able to demo software and music before we buy it, and we darn well don’t want to pay for the privilege (rule 4).

And we probably have people we call “friends” whom we’ve never actually met outside of email or ICQ (rule 5).

Tomorrow’s web consumers aren’t (for the most part) the major consumers of today. They can’t be marketed to in the same way that someone weaned on one-way broadcast marketing can be sold. They’ll be a lot more demanding and require a lot more contact. They’ll see non-customized generic advertising with an increasingly jaundiced eye.

When they look back at direct mail and Spam, they’ll laugh out loud that any of us were ever stupid enough to fall for such ham-fisted tricks. Through increased usage of online communications such as email, chat rooms, and instant messaging, the word of mouth “buzz” will build about a product in hours, not weeks.

We better be prepared. And here’s how we can operate in the context of the new Net rules:

  1. Information is everywhere.” Even more than today’s web consumer, tomorrow’s consumer will demand fast and easy access to all the information they need about your products and services. This information better be easy to find and complete, without the taint of “marketing speak.” Rather than holding information close to the vest, tomorrow’s successful online companies will have to respond with deep, easy-to-navigate hierarchies that represent a brand that is open and easy to use.

  2. Personal information has value.” Forget privacy policies – that’s just today’s band-aid on a bigger problem. Tomorrow’s consumer will want something of value for coughing up their personal data and they’ll want assurances that it won’t be sold to anyone without their permission. And this doesn’t mean giving access to basic information that you should be providing anyway like product data and tips. It means value-added services, personalized advice, and comparison shopping data. Just look to Free-PC for an example of how valuable personal information can be.
  3. Choice is a human right.” One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit anyone anymore. Tomorrow’s web consumer will expect to be able to select from a huge range of products and services to get exactly what they want. If they don’t find it on your site, they’ll surf until they find what they need. Unlike the analog world, one web site is as “close” as another is, and people used to existing in a global information space will assemble their buys from the total wealth of the web. Partnering, networking, and consolidating will all be ways to assemble a vast array of choices to keep your site “sticky” to the ultimate browsing consumer.
  4. There is such a thing as a free lunch.” One thing that any regular web user gets used to really fast is the ability to download software, music, movie trailers, and other materials without having to pay for the privilege. Additionally, those who live what Bill Gates calls “the web lifestyle” also quickly get used to free news, scores, stock quotes, and other information as a matter of course, not as a value-added service. While somebody who grew up before the ubiquitous web might be impressed by free news feeds, tomorrow’s consumer will expect them and will only be impressed by information they can’t get anywhere else. Look at what’s happening to the price of online trading and research if you want an example of how things are headed.
  5. Building trust doesn’t require face-to-face interaction.” Pre-Net folks often see email, instant messaging, and other forms of communication as “depersonalizing.” “People need to talk to each other face to face!” is the usual complaint. Anyone who’s spent five minutes watching a teenager navigate a dizzying array of emails and IM’s in an after-school frenzy of communication laughs when they hear about the “depersonalizing” aspects of the Internet. Today’s teens often have tens if not hundreds of “friends” they’ve never met outside of cyberspace, and they don’t think there’s anything weird or anti-social about it. They come to trust others online through shared interests, shared language, and shared online experiences. Tomorrow’s consumers will look to build the same types of relationships with those they buy from online, expecting greater access, more instantaneous communications, and more frequent informal communications.

The web really has changed the way we do business and we’ve only begun to see the first glimmer of change. Tomorrow’s consumers will demand a whole new way of marketing, and we’d better be ready.

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