The digital ageing process

New research highlights a growing disparity between the generations in the way they consume ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, and has important lessons for the future of the marketing communications sector

The digital environment is changing fast. Carphone Warehouse has stirred things up with its “free” broadband offering, while Sky is continually shoring up its digital presence (MW last week) and the likes of BT are striking deals with entertainment providers such as Universal Pictures to allow broadband users to download movies the same day they are released on DVD.

How is this ever-changing environment affecting consumer attitudes and habits, and how are different age groups reacting? A survey by ICM Research, carried out on behalf of marketing services group Creston, highlights some key differences.

There are clear attitudinal trends and behaviours across age groups: for example, the younger consumers are, the more “digitally influenced” they are. Assuming these youngsters maintain their digital habits as they grow older, they give us a glimpse of the marketing communications environment of the future – today.

One much-discussed development is “multi-tasking” media consumption: switching minute by minute between media channels. The degrees of (self-reported) switching activity vary by age group: 87% of 16- to 24-year-olds say they switch between media, compared to 30% of over-65s. Media multi-tasking and attention switching is now the norm among younger age groups – and definitely not the norm among older people.

Another much discussed issue is how much time people are devoting to internet usage, as opposed to television, with fears that TV is losing out. However, the Creston research shows that, across all age groups, TV is the most consumed medium. The heaviest consumers of TV are those over 65, who watch 21 hours a week compared to spending just two-and-a-half hours online. They are followed by 55- to 64-year-olds, who watch less than 21 hours of TV a week versus nearly four hours online. The age group that spends the most time online is, perhaps not surprisingly, 16- to 24-year-olds.

The data highlights two things. First, 16- to 24-year-olds are the most voracious of all media consumers, with the the total time spent on TV and online exceeding the total spent by the retired. Will this trend continue, or does the precipitous drop in total screen-time among 25- to 34-year-olds simply reflect the time demands of work and family?

Secondly, the relative balance of time spent is 44% online versus 56% watching TV among 16- to 24-year- olds, compared to 16% online versus 84% TV among 55- to 64-year-olds.

An increasing bias towards digital media consumption emerges, showing that the younger consumers are, the more “digital” they are. Is the unquestioned dominance of traditional media dying out with the older generation?

Another pointer to the growing influence of digital media is to what degree different uses become habits. Two-thirds of all those under 44 now regard Web-based pre-purchase research as the norm – compared to less than a quarter of those over 65. The implications for what type of information consumers look for, when and where, are far-reaching: what will marcomms become in a world where third-party brand validation moves centre stage?

When asked about attitudes to TV advertising, a similar trend emerges. Two-thirds (64%) of 16- to 24-year-olds agree with the statement: “I largely ignore TV ads. If I am interested in buying something I would search the internet for what I want.” This figure drops to just 24% of over-65s. Of course, this may be as much to do with attitudes to internet search as to TV advertising itself. And, as we know, self-reported data about “ignoring TV ads” tells us very little about the actual effectiveness of TV ads. Nevertheless, as an indicator of changing attitudes, these figures are telling.

Closely connected to this is the power of word of mouth. In the Creston research, the majority of consumers across all age groups agree with the statement: “Before I make a major purchase I will ask friends what they think.” Response rates hover between 50% and 60% among those aged over 34, but rises to 75% among 16- to 24-year-olds. This fits with other observations about teen behaviour: the enormous emphasis on chat (whether via mobile phone or the internet) and the huge popularity of social websites such as MySpace.

Technology is boosting the power of the peer group, which is now always available – even when we are alone – via the internet. If today’s youngsters take this networking habit with them into adulthood, once again, the implications for marcomms are far-reaching.

Simon Williams, synergy and strategy director at Creston Group, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight


Sandy Livingstone, director of BRMB: Online marketing is a double-edged sword. It can relay a message, brand experience and develop a sense of community. But the Web is also a short-cut to price and value comparison and shared (often negative) reviews. Longer-established middlemen, be they Tesco, ITV or a local estate agent, must examine what value they add to the marketing process – as this is what consumers are doing. If the answer is “not enough”, the middlemen will be eliminated from the buying process by consumers craving efficiency on their own terms. The internet feeds consumers’ emotional requirement of knowing they have got “the best deal” and contributes towards the need to attain peer group approval for a deal well done. The high street will change, as will many aspects of social interaction. We will all become marketers, if only of our own, now unwanted possessions, such as our car.

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