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Marketing to Millennials: We aren’t all Digital Natives

We aren't all digital nativesMillennials are Digital Natives they say…

Read a “Marketing to Millennials” article and I can almost guarantee that somewhere in that article is “Millennials are digital natives.”

From that claim, marketing recommendations are made. Welp, I’m here to burst your bubble: We aren’t all digital natives. In fact, I’m not sure many of us are.

What is a Digital Native?

The term digital native was coined by Marc Prensky, who defined it as “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” To be native speakers, Prensky clarifies they must “have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.”

Therefore, assuming Millennials are digital natives means each and every one has been both surrounded by and using all technology. You see where I’m going with this, right?

That is a massive assumption to make. 

Assuming someone is a digital native implies an intrinsic knowledge of what a piece of technology is and how to effectively use it. Considering many Millennials I know have deleted their Facebook accounts due to a previous posting of condemning photos… I see serious flaws in this assumption. The assumption is all Millennials use all technology, and they’re all highly proficient at using said technology.

Most of us know this “all or nothing” mentality is dangerous. I’m arguing it’s not the only issue. Instead, very few Millennials actually fit these assumptions.

Why wouldn’t a Millennial be a Digital Native?

Income inequality is still on the rise in the United States, with “the wealthiest 160,000 families owning as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families, and that wealth is about 10 times as unequal as income.” Sure, nearly two-thirds of Americans have smartphones, and about 19% of Americans rely on those smartphones for Internet. But that does not mean they’re so comfortable with digital to be Native. It also doesn’t mean they have the money to pay for the data required to use a lot of the features on their smartphone.

Even with access to digital technologies, a lack of education means a lack of skill. In fact, according to a Time Magazine article, only seven out of thirty college students knew how to conduct a “well-executed” Google search. Not even a third! And that’s college students, Millennials who generally use technology more often than non-college students.

Consider how these numbers could change if we ask less educated, generally less affluent Millennials. This lack of knowledge is indicative of a lack of education. As teachers bring digital literacy programs into their classrooms, this integration is moving in after Millennials have graduated. Many of us, therefore, are self-taught about new technologies.

IMG_20140826_082510~2Technological advancement is exponential. Compare the time between the introduction of the telephone to television (1876 to 1947, 71 years); to the time between the development of the cellphone and the smartphone (1973 to 1995, 22 years) or the explosion of social media in just the last 10 years. There is a significant decrease in the amount of time it takes to introduce new technology.

This exponential rate of development is fantastic… Unless you’re an average Jane trying to keep up. Even for those of us who work with technology daily it’s tough to keep up! I do the majority of my work online. But there are still unexplored areas of my computer, nuances of Google search I don’t understand, software I don’t use. The list goes on.

A technology hating Millennial

I want to tell you about my friend. Let’s call her Nostalgia Nancy (yes identity protection, just in case you all go creeping on me to find the friends I speak of). Nostalgia Nancy is 27 (a Millennial). She was born into a middle class family and is well-educated (has a Master’s degree).

Nostalgia Nancy hates technology… With a passion. She is not what Rodgers would deem an early adopter. Suggest the adoption of new technology to Nostalgia Nancy and you’ll get a look of concern, disgust, and finally a firm shake of the head “no.” I once spoke with her about artificial intelligence. As I explained articles I’d read about the intelligence of Google’s computer and where it’s headed, I saw fear, real fear in her eyes.

“What’s the point? Why do we need artificial intelligence? Why can’t we just talk to those around us?!”

Though a recent master’s school graduate, Nostalgia Nancy is still unsure of the proper way to share a Google Document, recently learned what a “Wearable” is (and has no interest in purchasing one) and couldn’t honestly tell you how much information a megabyte holds. And she sees no reason to learn. Sure, learning a few of the nuances of Google Drive will be helpful. But the rest of it? Nostalgia Nancy never plans to use that information. So why learn it?

The technology obsessed Millennial

We’ll refer to him lovingly as Tech Ted. He’s 22 years old, lives in the Chicago, IL area and of course, works in technology. He’s a coder (the people who work with the back-end of a website to make what we see make sense to the computer). He’s also a Google Glass Explorer, has attended Google I/O the last two years, and develops apps in his free time. Sound a bit more like the “typical” Millennial? When I run into any tech problems, he’s the first person I ask for help. Tech Ted is the closest I’ve ever come to meeting the “digital native.”

Tech Ted is definitely an early adopter. I mean, he attends Google I/O to find out as soon as possible what the new technology is! But to assume that Tech Ted is the average Millennial … We can see how that may be a bit inaccurate. And there are certain technologies that even Tech Ted has no interest in.

For example, he’s an Android developer. He may read up on developments in Apple products, but he isn’t very well versed in them. And he isn’t very social, unless it’s in communities of other developers who speak his language. Therefore, his knowledge of most social media platforms is limited.

What does this mean for your marketing?

Let’s go back to the basics of marketing. Who is your target audience? If your answer is Millennials then you aren’t thinking hard enough. That would be like Sports Authority saying their target audience includes anyone who does outdoor activities.

The more specifically you have defined your audience, the more success you’ll find. Rather than saying Millennials are your target audience, consider specific age ranges, sex, occupation, family background. More importantly, what problem are you solving for that target audience? If you haven’t done that yet, use our positioning worksheet!
Download the positioning worksheet

I’m not saying you don’t have to adapt to new technology

But how you adapt and which pieces of technology you choose are going to depend on your audience. If Nostalgia Nancy is in your target audience, don’t focus on using a lot of technology. Rather, work on building trust with those around her. You’re going to take a more traditional marketing route.

If Tech Ted is your target audience, highlight the “new age” features of your brand and product. You’ll reach him by being an early adopter of newer technology.

If I’m in your target audience, engage in social media. You’ll be innovative but not excessive experimental. In all three cases, focus on the problem you’re solving. Only after you’ve identified that “why?” can you find the right places to reach your audience.

Have you reached a particular Millennial audience?

Care to share how? How many digital natives do you really know? Do you find the assumption true?

Catch up on the rest of the series:

About the author

Alexandra Riecke-Gonzales

As a millennial who has also worked in social media marketing and management for the last 2 years, Alex really has the best of both worlds: As a millennial she knows what they want and how they communicate and as a social media marketer she is able to take that knowledge and put it to use for businesses. Of course, finishing up a Master's Degree in Communication doesn't hurt either, helping her understand the significance of context, channel, and messaging. She writes to encourage conversations that help others develop actionable branding strategies but more importantly, encourage conversations about the social media landscape today and how to best navigate it.

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