In 2001, an article called “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" by Marc Prensky discussed the educational needs for a new type of student. It talked about people who were raised with the internet, personal computers, computer games, email, and cell phones and because of that, viewed the world differently than their teachers who weren’t raised with such technology at their fingertips.
Coining these new terms, Prensky explained that if technology were a language, children of the internet era didn't so much learn it as absorb it. Meanwhile, other generations may struggle to lose their “accent” or discomfort when performing tech-based tasks, like sending an email.
Applying the digital native/digital immigrant model to consumers can help us take a different approach to the way we examine, classify, and predict their behavior. Where can you reach the consumers you’re targeting? Does it make sense for you to invest more in technology? Figuring out the answers to these questions starts with understanding today’s consumers.
Are generations the best way to categorize consumer behavior?
In past articles, we’ve talked a lot about the differences between Baby Boomers, Gen Y, Millennials, and Gen Z (like here, also here, oh, and here) and what they’re looking for in a financial institution.
Knowing generational trends is still important, as they can unveil similar attitudes and behaviors among consumers who experienced world events at the same life stage as their cohorts. And it doesn’t hurt to understand these age groups since marketing tools and audience segmentations generally include age as a factor. But the generations don’t tell the whole story and their behaviors can be hard to lock down. After all, every generation grows up.
Basing consumer ideas on generations alone might lead you to believe that you won’t reach a Baby Boomer on social media, yet 90% of people in the 55-75 year-old age range have a Facebook account that they actively use. And 48% of consumers born after the mid-90s — whose childhood pen pal letters were written through AOL Instant Messenger — prefer to conduct most of their banking face-to-face.
“Consumers are more disruptive than technology could ever be,” says Tiffani Bova, Chief Growth Evangelist at Salesforce. People don’t play by the rules according to which generation they’re classified in. Their desires and mindsets are a lot more nuanced than that.
What are the differences between digital natives and digital immigrants?
Prensky’s digital native and digital immigrant model centers around the popularization of the internet and the subsequent technology and devices enabled by it (email, social media, smartphones, laptops, etc.).
The switch from digital immigrant to digital native began with kids born in the 1980s.
If we were talking generations, that would mean Millennials and Gen Z fall into the digital native category with Boomers and Gen X in the digital immigrant category. But, again, within these broad categories are more nuanced groups determined by a person’s comfort level with technology and desire to use it in their lives (more on that later), so we can’t rely on the age ranges alone.
Photo courtesy of Broadband Search
Prensky reasoned that the internet reshaped the way people think and search for information. A pre-internet approach to learning was slow and methodical with a clear hierarchy. Thanks to the internet age, kids raised on the worldwide web began processing information faster, enjoying gamification and multi-tasking, and viewing the world “horizontally.”
Michael Litt, CEO of Vidyard, laid out this characteristic when discussing how to engage Gen Z, the youngest generation, in the workplace: “...when I take the time to explain why my company operates the way it does and how their roles contribute to that, they’re excellent team players. Command and control don’t work with them. Sharing the bigger picture — and being transparent about motives and outcomes — does.”
Avoiders, participants, and adopters, oh my!
None of us live in a bubble. Whether you were born pre- or post-internet, you’ve likely adopted technology into your life in some way. The digital native/digital immigrant model accounts for this by showing the different lifestyle categories people fall into based on their desire and comfort level using technology.
In each group, there is a subgroup that attempts to reject technology altogether, another that uses it only as necessary, and finally, generally the largest set, one that embraces it as a way of life. Here’s how that breaks down with specific characteristics for each:
As you can see from this model, assigning broad behaviors to a group can be difficult. You can't take for granted that a digital immigrant won’t want a smooth digital experience. Or that a digital native will be eagerly awaiting your ad on social media.
Drilling down to a more nuanced view can provide a clearer path to serving your current consumer base. For example, if you have a large audience of digital immigrants who don’t understand your mobile app, it may help to provide step-by-step, logical instructions.
The model can also help you attract your ideal consumer and enhance your brand. If you’re wanting to become a tech innovator, you’ll want to attract enthusiastic participants and adopters through social media campaigns that show off the digital capabilities you have to offer.
Have all consumers gone digital native (or at least adoptive) by now?
To a degree. Prensky wrote his article in 2001, when the popularization of the internet was still in its early years. Now, it’s safe to say that most Americans are adopters of technology and use it in some way to maintain their lifestyle. When was the last time you met someone without a cell phone?
However, up to 42 million people in the U.S. still don’t have access to high-speed internet. So, assuming an all-digital approach in your marketing or services would be leaving out more than a few people.
At the end of the day, we live in a digital world — especially in the wake of COVID-19 and sheltering in place. So viewing generations as digital-averse or digital-lovers is missing the bigger picture. Understanding the nuances of how different groups interact with and accept technology into their lives can fill in the gaps left by viewing consumer behaviors based on generation alone.