Prepare for the Net generation

Increasingly, advertisers and their agencies are attempting to separate the genuine commercial benefits of the Internet from the hyperbole with which it is so often described.

If the Internet is indeed the medium of the future it is to the future generation of consumers that agencies should turn for enlightenment. These are the people for whom computers, the Internet and digital technology are not something new and unfamiliar but an integral part of daily life.

In his study of the so-called Net-Generation, Growing up Digital (McGraw Hill, October 1997), Don Tapscott estimates there to be some 88 million members of this new generation in the US, the youngest of whom are now babies and the oldest around 20. This is a bigger group even than the post-war baby-boomers.

Having interviewed and worked with more than 300 “N-geners”, Tapscott delivers a number of insights which may be of value to the development of the Internet as a commercially viable platform.

The book’s accompanying Website (www.growingupdigital.com), itself designed and built by N-geners, highlights the fundamental difference between traditional electronic media and the Internet: “TV is controlled by adults. Kids are passive observers. In contrast, children control much of their world on the Net. They do not just observe, they participate. This makes the Internet fundamentally different from previous communications innovations such as the introduction of radio and television. These are hierarchical technologies, inflexible and centralised. By contrast new media is interactive and malleable. New media will do what we command of them. And tens of millions of N-geners are taking over the steering wheel.”

If the language is typical of much new media evangelism emanating from the US, it does nevertheless contain an important message for Europe’s advertisers: the consumers of the future will think and behave in a very different way to those of today. They are growing up with access to almost limitless sources of information and channels of communication. Through their familiarity with new technology and interactive communication, they can no longer be expected to be passive recipients of commercial messages.

The extent to which they, in the future, will differ from the mature consumers of today remains impossible to quantify.What is clear is that their development, thought-processes and expectations will have been shaped by experiences unimagined by their parents’ generation.

The ability to adapt to change is a key element in the long-term success of any business. For the commercial communications industry, understanding how the Net generation communicates, how it assimilates information and ultimately how it relates to brands and makes choices between them is now of great significance. The divide between the generation of mass, one-way communication and its interactive children is wide. Only by bridging this gap will advertisers ensure that the brands of today remain relevant in the future.

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