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Marketing to digital natives: a completely new game?

Last week, I came across a report quoting Unilever’s Keith Weed, who pointed out that ‘a lost generation of marketers is bluffing about digital’. The report went on to substantiate why and how marketers needed to up their digital quotient, to successfully connect with digital natives (folks born between the late ‘70s and late ‘90s that have grown up almost entirely in a digitally connected world). While most of the report resonated with me, I was left wondering on several other ‘why’s and ‘how’s.

How are digital natives different? Are the differences mainly around the insatiable desire for instant gratification and the need to connect personally with brands? Or do they go beyond these? And, how does one successfully market to this generation. Most knowledge assets out there, scream ‘social’, ‘mobile’, ‘personalisation’ etc. Is that it? Or, are there other considerations?

There’s enough said about digital natives already. They are connected and they are accustomed to constant communication and sharing of their opinions and experiences. More importantly, they have influence, money and the power to make decisions. They make up a significant part of the market (as much as 25 per cent in some geos). There’s no doubt that they will wield more buying power than any other group by 2020 (in excess of USD 1.4 Trillion, going by a research report from Accenture).

Why do we keep hearing that traditional mass marketing tactics will not yield dividends with this population? Obviously, there’re experiences behind the statements. But why did the old methods not work? There are many possible reasons. The one that always stood out for me is a failure on the marketer’s part to understand what characterizes this generation. While there’s a universal acknowledgement of the differences, not everything is different or at the very least, the so-called gulf is not so wide in all aspects. Several reports that proclaim that baby boomers actually embrace consumer technology 20 times faster than digital natives. Now, you may want to take that fact with a pinch of salt, depending on your personal orientation but the truth is that digital natives are not so much about the technology they use. It is their values and expectations (of themselves, of the society they live in, among other things) that set them apart. There’s no success in engaging with this group without internalizing this key piece of information.

The critical point with digital natives is expectation. Having grown up in a world of instant gratification and instant communication/engagement, the expectation that they will be able to interact with every brand or organisation instantly, seems perfectly natural. Marketers need to realize that failure to provide them with this connection will ultimately be a reason to not choose a brand. As connected mobile devices have pervaded our lives, this expectation has only strengthened further. With smartphones, consumers expect to do everything from one single device and this possesses the main challenge for the marketer. One doesn’t know when the need to interact with a brand will surface because the interaction pattern no longer follows a path pre-determined by the marketer. Figuring out what that means for a brand would be a good starting point for creating a strategy for mobile marketing and it’s a much better starting point than thinking ‘we need an app’.

But it goes deeper than this, I think. The desire to have a 2-way relationship with brands, offer feedback on product and services and help create the next versions of such product and services through their feedback is but a manifestation of the need to co-create. Marketers that offer this opportunity are well-positioned to create some loyal followers. The ones who do not get this are likely to be ditched.

Although they have grown up in a much more connected world, life goals for digital natives may not have evolved as much as the technology that they have so come to depend on. The most definite changes are in the multiple means they use to obtain and share information.

So, what does all this mean for the marketer? I feel, all these differences in attitudes, values and expectations, still do not negate the relevance of older mass-market techniques. We are better off not confusing the message with the medium. Campaigns targeting digital natives may get executed on newer channels but there’s no evidence to suggest that all of the traditional messaging absolutely do not work with this group. Positive stories in marketing products is not a new concept and they attract the digital natives as much as they do the baby boomers.

In the end, with this group, it goes beyond the medium and the message. Empathy has got to be a key consideration. Marketers need to focus on ways they can help their businesses get into dialogues with digital natives. The opportunity is to assume the roles of Brand Experience Conductors. And, that has to start with immersions into the customer experiences. Marketers need to imagine themselves as consumers. That’s where it all should start.

Indranil Mukherjee

Indranil Mukherjee is the VP & Lead- Global Technology Transformation at SapientNitro. Mr Mukherjee leads a program aimed at transforming SapientNitro’s global technology organization, creating cutting edge capabilities, instilling a strong engineering culture and new ways of working with customers. Prior to taking this role, he used to lead SapientNitro’s Systems Integration Practice globally.