Staring Into a Digital Divide

Culture (Not Income) Is Splitting the Population Along a High-Tech Fault Line

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- New Yorkers may be intrigued by Nike's new iPod-enabled sneakers, but there's plenty of snickering in Paducah.
Don't expect to see white wires dangling from ears and hordes of BlackBerry-thumbing executives when strolling by the Main Street lunch counter -- even though those diners may well afford those same devices.
Don't expect to see white wires dangling from ears and hordes of BlackBerry-thumbing executives when strolling by the Main Street lunch counter -- even though those diners may well afford those same devices. Credit: Fraser Hall/Neil Emmerson

Conventional wisdom holds that high-tech haves and have-nots are separated by disposable income, but the chasm is yawning ever-wider between people living in metropolitan areas and those in micropolitan areas -- the federal government's name for what used to be called "small towns." Even as broadband penetration narrows the much-discussed digital divide of Internet access in cities vs. rural areas, it's being replaced by a broadening technology product gap.

Visit any big city to witness white wires dangling from ears and hordes of BlackBerry-thumbing executives in restaurants at midday. But don't expect a similar scenario when strolling by the Main Street lunch counter -- even though those diners may well afford those same devices.

'Slang and jargon'
"There is an increasing gap between metropolitan areas and more sparsely populated areas in terms of technology adoption," said analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. "At some point the slang and jargon used could become a communication problem."

Tech companies are in part at fault. Looking to reach the most people with the least dollars, they concentrate their marketing spending in consumer-dense metropolitan ones, giving city dwellers an information heads-up.

But if hip tech consumers live mainly in metro areas, why shouldn't marketers concentrate efforts there? At least two top consumer electronics marketers declined to comment for this story because that's exactly what they do -- put their marketing firepower behind larger cities and metropolitan areas. Still, others say doing so alienates potentially millions in dollars in sales from small-town consumers with money to burn.

"Especially when you're looking at technology adoption, small markets have more opportunity [at retail] to have a conversation and explanation about technology versus larger metros with huge volumes of consumers," said Mike Fasulo, chief marketing officer, Sony Electronics.

Sony does not market by geography, he said, but by behavior (Sony categorizes consumers as techno-socialites, quality of lifers and performance seekers). However, it does have SonyStyle retail locations in a wide variety of metropolitan and rural locations. Another important factor is simply the cultural difference between big-city and small-town life. In cities, cutting edge can be cultural coin. In smaller towns, indifference to technology can be more the norm, especially in the 18-plus demographic.

No social pressure
"Early adoption of trends -- whether it's lifestyle, music or technology- tend to begin in more urban areas and trickle out from there," said Catherine Stellin, VP at the Intelligence Group. "In smaller cities, [the reason for slower adoption] is partly money and partly priorities. ... There's also that social pressure you get when 'everyone has one' that's missing." She cited her own parents who live in a small Midwestern town. It's not that they couldn't afford a TiVo or MP3 player for themselves or grandchildren, she said, but "it just wouldn't cross their minds to buy it."

While many agree anecdotally that the metro-micro tech gap is there, it's difficult to get an empirical read on just how big it might be. The Pew Internet & American Life Project tracks a variety of technology adoptions, but only separates Internet access by rural vs. urban ("nothing else-yet," said a spokeswoman.)

In 2005, 62% of rural American adults had Internet access vs. 70% of urban adults; that 8 percentage point gap is half what it was just two years ago. However, broadband adoption in rural vs. urban areas has maintained roughly same gap over the past few years. About 24% of rural American adults had high-speed connections in 2005, compared with 39% of urban and suburbanites in 2005. That's progress from 2003, when rural users made up just 9% of broadband households vs. 22% of urban and suburban dwellers.

Widespread Internet access will actually help close the tech gap. "The more Web-centric we all are, the more technology-product connected we are -- at least as far as information, if not [product] ownership," Mr. Enderle said.

Focus on local marketing
Marketers looking to reach micropolitan consumers might want to consider local or community marketing. Pop-up stores, or targeted educational or sales efforts within already-established mass-merchant retailers could be effective, Ms. Stellin said.

Regardless of medium, though, the message for the tech-gadget-bereft outside urban centers should be clear. When dealing with anyone unfamiliar with technology, she said, "Focus on the utility of the product, how will it support their life, simplify it, or entertain them. Not everyone, and in fact a significant number of people, are not impressed with technology."

Jim Nail, chief marketing officer of media and marketing consultancy Cymfony, pointed to Apple as a prime example of a company that "gets" how to market to the tech-sophisticated as well as the newbies. "So much tech product marketing is about features," he said. "But Apple's message is simply 'you get to enjoy your music.' They're talking about a higher order benefit, and that's what works."
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