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OPINION: The rise of the Net-Generation

By Published on .

The Net-Generation has arrived.

The new digital media, particularly the Internet, are at the heart of a new youth culture and a new generation who, in profound and fundamental ways, learn, work, play, communicate, shop and create communities very differently than their parents. There is no issue more important to marketers than understanding this new generation.

The oldest members of the N-Generation are 29 and pioneering the new media. The youngest are 2 and taking the mouse out of their parents' hands to manipulate it through colorful CD-ROM programs. For all the ages in between, videogames, computers and the Internet are such strong elements of their youth that they don't really view the new technology as technology at all. Unlike their baby boomer parents, they have no fear.

MORE THAN A DEMOGRAPHIC

The N-Gen is in fact a new generation--the children of the boomers. But unlike their parents, they are not defined by demographics alone, but rather by a combination of their demographic cohort, life experiences and behavior.

And unlike the so-called Generation X that came before them, they are defined not by their cynicism, alienation and rejection of things. Rather they are crystallizing around something positive--a new communications medium.

The Alliance for Converging Technologies estimates there are more than 7 million North American children under the age of 18 on the Internet. Internationally, this is doubling every six months.

Among older members of N-Gen, over 90% of students at public universities and community colleges have the potential to access the Internet either through remote access at home or through the school library. ACT estimates this number will reach close to 100% by the 1998 school year.

MISSING OUT

Old-economy marketers who claim that the I-Way is no way to reach consumers are missing out on the opportunity to market to a generation whose tastes for videogames have made both Sega and Nintendo bigger than Hollywood, and whose preference for the interactive rather than the passive is turning them away from the television.

The shift from broadcast to interactive is the cornerstone of the N-Generation.

Time on the computer is time taken directly from television. Children watch between 17.5 and 17.8 hours of TV a week, 4 hours less than their parents and over 1 hour less than they watched just five years ago, a trend sure to continue as the I-Way becomes even easier and more inexpensive to access.

CONTROLLING `PROGRAMMING'

If you separate out N-Geners from these data, their time in front of the TV is cratering. For them prime time is anytime. They control their "programming" agenda. The emphasis is no longer on the delivery of information and entertainment, but on the search-- which they control.

The marketer's mantra as far as N-Gen is concerned should be "Give them options to buy their loyalty." Having grown up in an free and interactive world, nothing is more foreign to the members of N-Gen than censorship. The availability of choice is a deeply held value in the N-Gen culture. N-Geners thrive on their immediate access to the world, and it is indicative of their culture's tolerance and reluctance to reject anything outright.

They are as used to having options as they are to breathing oxygen. Although they inhabit an atmosphere of choice, they feel the occasional need to re-ground themselves in the familiar.

Teen-age members of N-Gen in particular have developed strong attachments to the products of their childhood. They will sit down to e-mail friends on all continents before breakfast, but breakfast is still Count Chocula.

Imagine the scenario faced by many modern parents: You just haven't put in the time on the Net, or Mortal Kombat and Super Mario workouts, and now your child is smarter about many things than you are and no one knows it better than the kids themselves.

A York University researcher discovered that it takes less than 5 minutes to teach a 4-year-old how to use a mouse (compared to several hours for an older person.) But the need to teach these kids is seldom required, since only 36% of junior kindergarten students have never used a computer.

PARENTS LAGGING

We're shifting from generation gap to generation lap--as kids flash by their parents on the track, lapping them in many areas of daily life. This generation of Net-savvy kids, quite frankly, doesn't trust its parents' ability to drive fast enough in the wired world.

Marketers must learn to harness the interactivity of the Net if they expect to attract the attention of young people who are reaching higher levels of technological confidence earlier in life than ever before.

An example: Craig Walker, 11, of Oshawa, Ontario, and his 12-year-old brother Andrew recently spent the $1,200 they'd saved from the proceeds of their paper routes on their family's first computer, but they were already shrewd consumers when they walked their dad and his share of the purchase price into the showroom.

"My dad asked about the prices, but I kind of hinted around about what kind of capability it has," Andrew said of the sales negotiations. "Most companies will also try to rip you off by telling you Windows is pre-loaded and stuff like that, but they won't actually give you the disks. I wanted to make sure about that in case it ever crashes."

NO AWE OF TECHNOLOGY

Unlike the baby boomers who witnessed the technological revolution, N-Geners have no awe of the new technology.

They have no fear. They have grown up with computers and treat them like any other household appliance. To members of N-Gen, it takes no more expertise to go online or install software than it does to open a box of crayons or write in a notebook.

Attempting to market something based on its high-tech, futuristic qualities may have worked on the children of the '50s, but it won't fly with N-Geners, who are concerned with what they can do immediately, not with what they can do in the future.

EXTENT OF N-GEN INFLUENCE

It isn't only computers, videogames and high-tech purchases that children influence. They have come to influence and direct their parents' dollars toward everyday grocery and clothing purchases and they expect to be consulted about major household purchases like cars and appliances.

Imagine the power these children wield when they can access data their parents don't even know exists. Imagine a 13-year-old girl influencing her parents to buy a Volvo based on safety statistics she has downloaded from the Web.

Videogames and the Net are environments in which mistakes can be immediately corrected and situations can be re-created--worlds of no regret. When your Sonic Hedgehog or Mario Brother runs out of life because of a motor skill mistake, you can just flip the reset button. A link to a Web site, even the wrong Web site, is easily corrected with a click of the cursor.

But not only do N-Geners expect to have the opportunity to correct their mistakes, they expect to be able to change their minds. On the Web there are always more options than there is time to explore them.

The first few seconds after a Web site is contacted are crucial. If an introductory graphic is too slow or blocks of text look unexciting, the mouse will move toward the back button and the former list of options.

CHANGING THEIR MINDS

In the marketplace N-Geners want to be able to, as country singer Shania Twain says, "Change my mind a thousand times." Marketers should say, "Hey, I like it that way."

N-Geners are not viewers or listeners or readers. They are users. They reject the notion of expertise as they sift through information at the speed of light by themselves for themselves. It is difficult to convince them that they must have anything.

Here other industries can learn what the software and videogame industry has already adopted. Make your product free for use for a limited time. If its use becomes integrated into the N-Gen routine, making activities faster, brighter, easier, then the product becomes indispensable and companies can begin to charge, not so much for the product itself, but for what the product provides.

The importance of brand names is the catch-22 of N-Gen culture. The contradiction is formed in the gradual shift from broadcast dictatorship to interactive democracy.

The brand appears important for now as they still have the need to belong to the familiar, but the axis of belonging is shifting. In sales, as it is in education, increased interactivity equals increased individualization.

NET JEANS

In the future you won't be cool because you wear Gap jeans. You'll be cool if you wear jeans I've never heard of.

Thirteen-year-old Niki Tapscott says she'll send her agent onto the Net to do her shopping, try on clothes and check out new products. Cyber-Niki won't know the Gap from Guess, but it'll know what the real Niki likes in jeans--style, materials, fit. With the help of her cyberfriend, Niki will custom manufacture the jeans on the Net.

Ditto for chocolate chip cookies, badminton shoes and bicycles.

An atmosphere of choice, personal control, the inability to mass market and constant change spells trouble for brands that won't adapt.


What does the Net-Gen mean for marketers? Join the discussion on Ad Age's Digital Media discussion board. Also, check out the Net-Gen Internet usage survey at http://www.mtnlake.com/paradigm/survey.html.

Copyright October 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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