OPINION: Meet your future--Generation I

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You have just hired your next superstar in waiting.

Arriving bright and early Monday morning, the 26-year-old begins settling into her double-wide pseudo-private, pre-packaged workstation. One of the first things she unpacks is a cellular battery charger, which she places next to the PowerPC.

She amazes you as she learns the company voice mail system at the same time she enters her mother's maiden name as her e-mail password. The world is a good place, and you have a warm, fuzzy feeling about it.

But that was Monday. Now, Wednesday, something's amiss. It's her third day on the job, and she doesn't seem quite as happy as you might hope. "Nothing's wrong," she says, somewhat distracted. You sense otherwise.

Then it comes: Friday morning, you're folding The New York Times. The fax of an interesting article from the San Jose Mercury News hasn't quite made its way up from the mailroom yet.

She comes into your office and plops down on your sofa.

"I don't get it," she says.

"What don't you get?"

"You hired me because I'm smart, right?" she accuses.

"Yeah. Of course," you respond.

"And you like the way I think, right? I mean you told me so when you hired me," she says, moving her Sony CD-ROM Discman from one pocket to another. "So how come you won't let me do my job?"

"What, uh, I mean . . . What are you talking about?" you respond in your best fluster.

"Well, where's the Internet hookup around this place?" she asks. "I mean, how do you think I got here, just by knowing stuff?"

This conversation is happening in every corporation every day. A new generation is taking over business. It is a generation for whom interactivity is not something new. Rather, it is a generation for whom interactivity is a way of life.

Meet Generation I--the first fully interactive generation. Computers are part of their everyday lives. CDs aren't their primary bank investment product. VCRs actually tell the time in these households. Cellular phones and beepers have turned their wired world into a wireless universe.

Indeed, for them, interactive TV has arrived. No. Really. They just call it videogames. To them, your confusion is, well, confusing.

Who is Generation I? Well, on a broad basis, figure everyone under the age of 34, male and female. While most user numbers skew notably male, for example, that shift actually comes later in the interactive lifespan than many people realize--generally when hyper-active, blood-letting, win-at-all-costs products make their way into young, raging testosterone lives.

Clearly, we have incubated our first interactive generation. It is also clear that the younger the target the greater their IQ--Interactive Quotient. Thirty-four is the common-sense age break. Half of Americans are 34 or younger. It is also the top age that was exposed to computers during a habit-forming time of life--ranging from college for the older ones to preschool now.

The same can also be said for videotape and videogames: The rise and fall of the Betamax and Atari occurred for the older group in their earliest teens--and the prominence of their replacements arrived during the same period in the lives of the younger members.

The mass marketing and exploitation of cultural assets exploded during this time, as well, ultimately playing a key role in the advance of many technologies as marketers adopted a derivative, if-you-liked-it-that-way-you'll-love-it-like-this approach to the marketplace (movies to videotapes; LPs to CDs).

Cultural definer MTV helped to recreate the career of Tom Jones after the Welchman's Generation I son/manager got involved in the process. That, in turn, begat the generation's discovery of Tony Bennett--shepherded, in part, by the singer's twentysomething fan-club president/girlfriend. Both events, in many ways, helped youth-magnet David Letterman decide to invest in the network reclamation of Tom Snyder, an opportunity that old-line network CBS initially opposed.

So, what's the message? It is about understanding the shifting generational tide and acknowledging that new needs, new markets and new challenges are not bad things--they simply open new doors and afford new opportunities. While you may dabble with a commercial online service, thrilled that it's about to offer you access to the Internet--even if you don't understand that you will be charged on a yellow-cab-like metered approach that could bankrupt the Gates family if left unchecked--this generation has had direct access since an hour after they were college freshman.

Some hints on what you need to know in working with this fully functional, touch-button audience:

Interactive is not just about some new marketing vehicles. For many segments we're talking about a fundamental shift in how business is done. To paraphrase academia: Prepare or perish.

Choice leads to opportunity. Exploit the explosion of media properties by leveraging--or establishing--relationships directly with the interactive generation. That starts with "traditional" analog media and extends to the newer worlds. But it also spreads well beyond the traditional notion of "media." Are videogames a distraction or your next marketing opportunity?

Learn a new language. Talk with them. Not at them. Not to them.

Don't over-reach or try too hard. In the words of that classic marketing message: "Never let 'em see you sweat."

Brand is more valuable than ever. There is a perception of strength in the known. Credibility, however tenuous, and relationships can be created--or destroyed--with every brand contact.

Altruism is profitable. Be "of service" to the communities populated by members of Generation I. Sometimes, everything old is new again.

Look, no one questions your need to mitigate the risks associated with change. I will gladly lead the congregation as it recites the Commandments of Marketing Communications: Thou shall avoid, at all costs, putting your brands and customer relationships at risk.

But the time has come to measure the traditional, measured response that takes over when change rears its unsettling head--particularly when it comes to understanding and reaching the interactive generation.

Barry Layne is VP-director of Ketchum Interactive, Los Angeles. E-mail him at BarryL@earthlink.net.

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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