Tony Perkins, founder of the AlwaysOn Network and Red Herring magazine, wrote a passionate and insightful three-part post on the "IM Generation" (i.e. IM as in the "Instant Messaging" Generation). IMers were born between 1980 and 2000, and they follow the "PC Generation", which was led by entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell.
While I believe that many Web 2.0 businesses are misguided by focusing on too small of an audience, Tony's post contains quite a bit of research that I found very interesting. This is the largest and most influential generation of consumers to embrace the Web, and it would pay to think about how to reach them. As Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley said at Stanford Graduate School of Business last November, "Watch what the kids are doing – that is the future…" [this link is also chock full of great research that I often refer to].
Here are my favorite excerpts from Tony's post. The implications the IM Generation will have on word-of-mouth marketing and multichannel retailing will be far reaching and disruptive:
- Looking at the big picture, it's easy to see that the IM Generation has taken the baton from the geeks. The PC Generation made the PC into a tool commonly used to create and process documents and spreadsheets, the IMers added digital media sharing and communications to its core functions. Today, the entrepreneurs who create the devices, digital content, and Web publishing and communication services for this generation can win big. This is the bull's eye of the current market opportunity.
- IMers have an active lifestyle; they use multiple means of connectivity at any given time. Their means of digital communication have expanded beyond the e-mail and Usenet messages of the PC Generation, and include text messaging and IM, group messaging on e-mail lists, conversing in chat rooms, posting blogs, Internet telephony, and using webcams to videochat. The Internet—and the mobile phone—also mean that communication between IMers has been transformed from "house-to-house" to the new "person-to-person" paradigm. While most phone calls are still between two people, e-mail and IM make it easy for many persons to communicate at once.
- According to the Pew researchers, more than 57% of U.S. teens have created content for the Internet. This includes creating blogs, personal webpages, and sharing original artwork, photos, stories, or videos. Remixing existing online content into new "mashup" creations is also very popular. Content remixing is equally prevalent across genders, ages, and socioeconomic groups. And surprisingly enough, Pew researchers found that teens with dial-up and teens with broadband remix at comparable levels.
- Teens also tend to blog and read blogs more than adults. Approximately four million kids between 12 and 17 years old, or 19%, have created their own blog, compared to 9% of 30-somethings. Nearly 40% of IMers report regularly visiting blogs, compared to just 27% of those aged 29 to 40. As a result, the IMers are more in the habit of relying on and trusting non-traditional (that is, non-Big Media, non-Big Entertainment) sources. About 62% of blog-reading teens say they only read blogs written by people they know.
- IMers are more conditioned to tap into their network of friends for knowledge, insight, and opinion on products and entertainment and major life decisions. Peer-network influence is now the dominant factor in the lives of these young folks, which makes it challenging to market to this demographic.
- According to the Energy BBDO's report "GenWorld: The new Generation of Global Teens", today's wired teens are resistant to traditional advertising messages, and more likely to be influenced by the people in their online networks. The report does identify ways to speak to them without alienating them, but advises that marketers' potential strategies should include contacting these teens on their terms, in ways that let them communicate with each other and personalize what they receive. Open communication empowers this group and encourages optimism. This is why Rupert Murdoch's move to target 21-year-olds by building MySpace into a major portal seems viable. Over time, it's likely that any brand that does not allow IMers to be openly interactive simply won't be trusted. Yet the consensus among marketing professionals is that popular brands are staying extremely relevant. If executed well, fashionable brands like Adidas and iPod can have the same connecting power with teens as a social network.
- Kids not only taught us how to instant-message and how to program our mobile phones (and VCRs), but they're demonstrating that the "mobile PC" is the new client/server model. Of the teens Pew surveyed, 45% have mobile phones. A third of them have text-message access and use their mobile phones to access websites and services. They also use their mobile phones to take and send photos, record and send messages complemented by graphics and video clips, and serve up other multimedia content.
- The IMers benefit from today's technology being cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use than that of the PC Generation. Of those surveyed by Pew at the end of 2004, 51% of online teens said they downloaded music, compared to 25% of adults. Nearly one-third of online teens (versus just 18% of adults) said they downloaded videos. As for playing games online, 81% of U.S. teens do. That's about 17 million people, up an impressive 50% since 2000.
- Psycho-graphically, many studies, including Energy BBDO's "GenWorld" study, find that teens aged 13–18 are very concerned about the world and their own future. These concerns have made them self-activists, creative, and highly adaptable to emerging technologies. These kids are also bound by common ethics and values, and they're incredibly loyal to each other. Some researchers are worried, however, that these new behavior patterns might encourage group-think, and are uneasy about to what extent this "wisdom of the crowd"-driven culture might suppress individuality.
- Another encouraging observation is that, according to Pew researchers, IMers' most popular online activities include sharing self-authored content and working on webpages for others. They also regularly help adults do things online, which all reflects the open/sharing and loyal nature of the new generation.
- One pervasive concern has been that the Internet robs people of in-person contact, leading to a disconnect with the real world. The assumption is that time spent online is at the expense of time with friends and family. But for today's teens, the opposite is true. Their time online is largely focused on maintaining, strengthening and creating relationships. It appears that Internet-time is almost exclusively drawing kids away from the relatively unsocial activities of watching TV and sleeping, instead of reducing their in-person time with friends and family.
- IMers are comfortable using a variety of devices to search all forms of media and create and share content in ways that just weren't possible for their PC Generation predecessors. Today's online teens live in a world filled with user-generated, customized, and on-demand content, much of which is easily replicated, manipulated, and redistributed. The Internet and digital publishing technologies have given them the tools to create, remix, and share content on a scale previously only accessible to the conglomerate gatekeepers in broadcast, print, and music.