Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Marketers Beware the Age Wave


92, 62 and 78.
These three numbers promise to have a major impact on marketing over the next five to 10 years. Why? The numbers highlight an on-going radical change in demographics in the United States. Seventy-eight is the number of Baby Boomers that were born between the years of 1946 and 1964. Sixty-two million is the number of Gen X-ers that were born between the years 1965 and 1979. And ninety-two million is the number of Gen Y-ers born—or ‘Millennials’ as they are often dubbed—between 1980 and 2001.*

Ken Dychtwald, psychologist, gerontologist, public speaker, and author, calls this an "Age Wave", a significant shift in demographics that replaces the “60 and 70 somethings” with “20 and 30 somethings.” Affecting not only the workforce but also consumers, marketers need to take into account the changing needs and desires of this emerging demographic.

Implications for You, the Marketer

It's obvious that Gen Y-ers spend a lot more time on the computer (and their 3G-enabled phones) than the older generations do, but what's more important to consider is the philosophical shift in mindset that is taking place.

For one, Gen Y-ers are more skeptical of advertising and rely more heavily on their peers for information and recommendations than the older crowd, who turn to more mainstream sources, like newspapers, for information.

They also expect you as a company to be more fully accessible online and to engage with them where they are most comfortable i.e. Facebook, Twitter, sites like GetSatisfaction and on Youtube.

Oh yeah, you better be on Facebook, because that's where they hang out with peers. And your Facebook page better not be full of corporate speak otherwise they'll not only not come back but they'll tell their friends that you simply "don't get it."

One needs only to look at the hemorrhaging of newspapers around the United States to see what happens when an industry doesn't change with the times. The Post Intelligencer is gone, Chicago Tribune in receivership, the Boston Globe may have the plug pulled by their New York Times Co. bosses and the hundred year old Christian Science Monitor has moved to online only with only a weekly digest coming out in paper. It's only a matter of time before other industries follow suit.

So what do marketers need to do to keep up? Here are a few simple steps that John and I have come up with to help you get started:
  • Listen: There's a better-than-average chance that your Gen Y customers are already talking about you online. Finding out what they're saying is a great place to start. Good, bad or indifferent, this information will help shape an approach to your audience. At the simplest, this can be accomplished by setting up Google alerts. There are also online monitoring services available from companies such as Radian6, Techrigy, BuzzStream, Nielsen, Visible Technologies, Meltwater News and Cymfony (more on this topic in a post that John and I did on ReadWriteWeb).
  • Converse: If your customers are talking about you on micro-blogging sites, like Twitter, set up a corporate account (but get some training/help first). Companies like New Marketing Labs and Digital Voodoo focus on advising companies in this capacity.
  • Engage: Show your customers you care by creating funny, creative and engaging content. A good B2B company that's leading by example in this regard is Boston-based Hubspot In the B2C realm, take a look at BlendTec and the approach they take to selling blenders.

Community Building with Gen Y

Gen Y’ers have embraced the concept of online communities and made it one of the hallmarks of their generation. Yes, places like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn fall into this category, but don't limit yourself to the pool of public social networking sites.

As Aaron and I mentioned above, engaging your key audience is critical, especially as the majority of users become younger and savvier. Develop social networks that connect people locally, but also let the wider community through their friends see the benefits of your community. Connect on Facebook and other popular culture social media technologies, and create your own social network.

Demonstrate You Understand What's Important To Gen Y
  • Community marketing: Sponsor and work with nonprofits in your marketing efforts. Green marketing can also be effective in demonstrating your company is taking steps to do something about the environment.
  • Community Evangelism: Give people positions of authority in the community you will cultivate the next generation of leaders and give people more reasons to join and stay in your community if you empower them to help you build the community.
  • Virtual Worlds: Gen Y is overloaded with advertising, cynical to an extent and tougher to make an impression on. Provide an experience that is rich and interactive the greater the chance of making an impression. Consider setting up a virtual world for your community like some of those that exist on SecondLife.

Key Take Aways

The boomer demographic dominated the American scene for decades. As this group moves into their golden years, other age groups will fill this gap in employment and culture. Gen X’ers don’t have nearly the numbers that the boomers have, but as Gen Y matures, filling the employment gap and becoming the dominant target demographic, American culture will undergo a great change.

Gen Y is already influencing how American's live and work as they become an increasing portion of the American workforce. Boomers & Gen X’ers beat the path, but Gen Y’ers have grown up in a world of digital media. They may not have all the experience or knowledge, but they do know how to really work within this new culture. Everyone else will adopt to their cultural standard. If you want to succeed in marketing to Gen Y, the strategies are content marketing and social media engagement. Develop compelling content that people actually want to read. Use that content to engage your Gen Y audience. Oh, by the way, this is also how you can market to Gen X and Boomers as those generations increase the role of the web in their lives.

Marketing is all about understanding your audience to satisfy their wants and needs. If your audience is Gen Y, you have to understand them in order to market to them. Even if Gen Y is not your audience, their culture will become mainstream American culture. Spending time on getting to know Gen Y’ers is a business opportunity, as that knowledge will prepare you for the new realities of living and marketing in the 21st century.

*Based on US Census Data, November 2008

Photo Courtesy: http://paulthissen.com


  1. I think we saw with the last election that just because Gen Y'ers and even Gen X'ers don't physically march on Washington, doesn't mean we don't create change.

    When it comes to marketing, this doesn't mean the old ways are going completely away (although some will), we are simply layering in new ways of doing business. Radio didn't go away when TV came along. Networks didn't go away when Cable appeared. But this just means mass marketing isn't easy, and we have to move to niche marketing.

    To go along with your metaphor, I visualize those locked in the old way of marketing (paid ads/print/low customer engagement) as either (1) getting knocked down by the wave as it hits them unawares; or (2) standing there, knees locked, body braced for impact as they get pummeled. As for more me, I'd much rather grab a surfboard and try to ride it in ...

  2. Diane - great insights. And I love your extension of the "wave" metaphor. It's funny how many marketers I talk to that are like you're 2nd example except that they are turned around backward so that they don't have to see the wave coming as it rises up over their heads, just before pummeling them.

    As for the surfboard, that's a much better approach.

  3. Rock the segment marketing! Emerging, Engaged, Established...remember those?

  4. I think the key point is 'getting to know' Gen Y. Throughout so many of the blogs that I read about my generation, the biggest disappointment in big brands and corporations is the lack of 'building community' acknowledgement. Interestingly, a general characteristic about Gen Y is the concept of 'why' (. We want to know why you want to talk to us, why we should care, what makes you important for us to talk about you. I gave a small talk once to companies trying to decifer the Gen Y phenomena and the best advice that I gave them was to just go and talk and ask questions. We thrive off of learning new things and challenging new ideas. We don't bite either.

    To go off of your picture, look at what happened with big wave surfing. It started as a small group of friends, young in their day, who wanted to try something different and were all about building a community of passionate surfers. These few men revolutionized the surfing world.

    btw ~ love the picture!

  5. -Peter, wow! haven't been reminded of the three "E's" in a while. Nicely done. ;)

    -Olga, thanks for adding your $.02. As a member of GenY, your opinion here carries much weight!!!

  6. Dare I say it: I believe the premise of demographics/psychographics, etc. is deeply flawed and increasingly irrelevant.

    Strategy, plan, and design to individual action, because the individual action is the effect of motivational cause. If individuals act in common, it's a bonus.

    Most marketers market like the Soviets managed supply chain... a quantitative approach of input/output matrices that dehumanizes any willfully induced exchange, and often finds the marketer starving from their "effort." Human design will never kowtow to human action.

    "In reality, no food is valued solely for its nutritive power and no garment or house soley for the protection it afford against cold weather and rain...the demand for goods [and services] is widely influenced by metaphysical, religious, and ethical considerations, by aesthetic vaue judgments, by customs and habits, prejudice, tradition, changing fashions, and many other things." - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (my personal vote for the greatest marketing book (aside from the Bible,) ever written.)

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond.


  7. As a Gen-Y'er, perhaps I just don't want to be told who or what I am; but as a marketer, I have to say I'm more comfortable basing my decision-making and campaign planning on behavior over strict age brackets / traditional demographics.

    I prefer to talk about Digital Natives rather than Gen-Y'ers when discussing the group that is most comfortable online. I am most definitely a Gen-Y'er and when Facebook launched I was in still in college. A good number of my friends REFUSED to create profiles and engage--they wanted to maintain their privacy and many of them are still not plugged in new media. We're seeing a societal shift to be sure, but I wouldn't say it's totally at the hands of my generation. On a society level, people are looking for more transparency in our interactions. Yes, there is a particular personality type that lends itself to living life in the open, engaged in these platforms--and these people that live life online, sharing information and engaged are the digital natives, the early adopters to the societal shift that we're now seeing.

    That said, join the wave! As marketers, as a Gen-Whatevers, grab a board and put your whole selves in! It is on.

  8. Building on what Sandy said, I too prefer to think about the Digital Natives. DN's are the ones who actually "get it". Gen-Y is full of bright minds as you well know Aaron, and I think you're right on in your observations of the generation.

    Sandy is spot-on. I was on FB when nobody knew how to post a profile picture, and everyone in my dorm thought I was an uber-geek. Now, those same dorm mates are all over Facebook - passing one too many drinks, throwing one too many snowballs and definitely posting too many pictures.

    While the 3 E's brings you back, the part that always rings clear to me is the Innovators, Early Adopters, whatever the other two categories are, and non-actives. That's the model that I always think of when I think of Gen-Y and social media. Those of us that are so thoroughly involved in this space now are on the cutting edge. In 5 years, instead of sticking out and employers praising us for "getting it", they'll be asking our counterparts that are slow to participate: "why DON'T you get it".

    Great post, as usual. Thanks for not bashing Gen-Y, too. I see enough of that. :)

  9. -Jason, Nice! You just compared marketers to the Soviet era supply chain managers. That's impressive.

    -Sandy/Sydney - excellent points. Really glad you both chimed in (as well as @OlgaLG) given your unique perspective i.e. you're the ones we're talking about. I like the concept of digital native vs. framing this as a generational thing. Good food for thought.

  10. Diane, Love the imagery of riding the surfboard.

    Olga, I think you've captured one of the opportunties of social media, you can ask and listen for responses. Through that process of interaction, people are much more likely to be interested in what you have to say organically.

    Sydney, I think you are right, the future will be a different place because of these dramatic shifts in population.

  11. Very thought provoking...

    I agree with the stats. I agree with the takeaways and advice.

    BUT... I think that marketers should be thinking more like publishers and socializers than advertising not just because of Gen Y. But, the older generations are changing and becoming more digital, more digitally-social, and more open to sharing and publishing publily. Our whole society is changing because of a technological and cultural shift, and to me this is a more important (and faster moving) force than the rise of Gen Y.

    Did Gen Y cause these changes? I'm not sure. Twitter did not start and is not driven by Gen Y. Remember LinkedIn? Started way before Gen Y and is still driven by people much older then Gen Y. I think a lot of the changes you are talking about have to do more with an overall cultural and technological change and less to do with a generational change.

  12. I'm going to swing the pendulum back from Mike and say yes it is a generational change. Cultural and technological change may not be sparked by the generation that embodies it, but they define and refine it.

    So we Boomers and Gen-Xers (I'm a 1968 baby, so I'm in a bit of, literally, gray area) brought the PC to the fore, made the Internet a household tool, and started many of the companies that have shaped the social Web. Gen-Y is going to own it, and that will only become more clear as they enter their 30s. The fact that many liked to be called "Digital Natives" illustrates the point. They grew up in this world, and will probably not miss some of the older media because it's not theirs (regardless of whether newspapers go away, which they won't- completely).

    As far as how we deal with Generation Y, I agree it is important to observe how they work, and how they consume content (and content is the consumption to observe, not products). If we understand them, then being able to relate to them had better follow.

    For sources, I recommend Don Tapscott's book "Grown Up Digital." It really shows how Gen Y-ers think and work.

    I would also pay attention to places like BrazenCareerist.com, which cater to Generation Y and lets them form groups and discuss what is important to them.
    (Disclosure-- Brazen Careerist is a client. So, for that matter, is Aaron Strout's employer, Powered Inc.).