Social Relationships: Why You Want Old Friends And Not Only Digital Natives

A report from Pew Internet: Generations 2010 is full of fascinating facts and insights regarding web usage demographics. In fact, the analysis is going to fill more than one post to be sure. Let’s start off with some figures which caught my eye right away.

The percentage of those Americans who do go online has remained relatively constant since 2006 at 79%. While most generation demos have an adoption rate of at least 70%, the report finds that this drops off after 65. Only 58% of adults between 65 and 73 and 30% of adults 74 and older go online. So, younger generations sill have a disproportionate representation on the web right now.

Social Network Adoption Rate Of ‘Older’ Generations Grows Faster

It won’t come as any surprise that younger generations are still more likely to use social network sites, but here’s an interesting tidbit for you: the fastest growth in this regard has come from internet users 74 and older (aka G.I Generation).  Their usage of social networking sites has quadrupled since 2008, from 4% to 16%. Other ‘older generations’ such as the boomers are doing well too.

16% may not sound like much, but that number is just going to increase. Not hard to predict that trend since we all age and social network usage is becoming mainstream. However, do we really get it? The fact that this is just going to grow with time is not really the main concern here. Are we considering the value of seniors online and relating to and engaging with them right now? I would say that in general the answer is no.

How readable are your email campaigns? Do you use tiny text or text/background combinations which make it harder for seniors to read? What about your messaging? Do you include seniors by seeking content relevant to them? When you get a complaint or comment from a senior (assuming you know they are a senior of course) do you make assumptions of how web savvy they are or their technical comfort level based on their age?

Pew and the use of internet by different generations

Old Friends Know Where You Have Been

Look, depending on what you sell, there may not be a need for you to have much focus where older generations are concerned, but if you are making assumptions that they are not potential influencers via social media and other channels, you are making a mistake.

Perhaps I am generalizing, but older people tend to know the value of relationships better than many younger people do. They understand the importance of communicating with their family and friends. They’ve had a lifetime to understand that there is nothing more important in this world than the relationships you build.

Is it any wonder that they would see the value of social media, when it is so effective at keeping them in touch?

To quote Stephen Chapin: “Old friends, they mean much more to me than a new friend. Because they can see where you are and they know where you’ve been.” I would say that any company or brand would be lucky to have such old friends.

The Digital Natives And Label Risk

In the mean time many agencies and marketers are looking mainly to younger generations when it comes to social media adoption. The ‘Digital Natives’ are key in their approach. In Belgium, where I live, there is even a 360° interactive agency that started to position itself as the Digital Native Agency. Risky if you ask me, knowing that the budgets they win are certainly not approved by those same natives. Recently I read a column by one of its founders claiming that the era of physical consumption is ending with the arrival of the natives. Come again?

Anyway, many people seem to forget that, Digital Native or not, every generation is different and every individual as well, whether we label them as Gen Y, Millennials, Boomers, Digital Natives or whatever. People evolve and are not defined by technology alone. We are still a more primitive species than we like to think and, again in response to the mentioned column, we don’t control our world and life from behind computers and dashboards. That’s the wishful thinking of people who confuse the possibilities technological innovations with narcissist divine control.

People have basic needs beyond their more ‘spiritual ones’, they also still experience basic emotions (they often tend to focus on the “good ones” and suppress the “bad ones”), they need to eat and drink and, yes, they need to have a sanitary break now and then.

All sarcasm apart, there are also facts and figures.

Another recent survey, this one by the Nielsen Norman Group, found that “marketers are misguided in assuming that social media is the best way to reach the college-age audience”, as MediaPost puts it.

Sure they use social a lot and many of them know and understand digital technology but they don’t want everything to be social and online. As MediaPost writes: “college students don’t necessarily live up to the stereotype of an especially tech-savvy, social media-obsessed segment of society”.

You can read more about what they really want here. And what will the “Facebook Natives, Mobile Natives, RFID Natives or Whatever Natives” want? We’ll know in a few years. But putting all your eggs in one basket has never been the wisest business strategy.

So, look beyond the obvious and think. There are more people out there than the stereotypes…

You can find the free Pew report here (PDF opens) and order the report from the Norman Nielsen Group here.

Changes in social networking site use by generation