Friday, 14 January 2011

In search of the ‘real’ digital native

We live in a digital world, but are we natives or immigrants?

In the summer I wrote a blog post about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, explaining the theory and outlining some of the commonly held opinions and assumptions. Since then, I have performed primary research in the field and can now share some of my findings.

The intended outcome for the study was to discover the differences in generational use of digital technology, with the premise that the generation born before 1980 found it harder to adapt to new technology and therefore used it in less abundance.

To sum up all the questions asked by the study in one blog post is difficult, so I will concentrate on the main three:
1. Are the generational groupings correct and a valid demographic segmentation for marketers to use?
2. Are immigrants being undervalued by some businesses?
3. What is the role of attitude?

The findings
The research revealed ‘natives’ to be more active than ‘immigrants’ in a wide range of digital uses.

The ‘neo’ natives, those born after 1990, showed a wider range and more frequent use of digital media than the natives. With this in mind, the fundamental tenant of Prensky's theory appears to be correct.

Based purely on these facts, segmenting a market by digital domicile would appear to make sense to marketers.

Marketers must not, however, make the mistake of disregarding online marketing when targeting the immigrant generation.

The results showed that around 70% of immigrants use a range of digital technologies four times a week or more - not as often as the generations that follow them, but they were found to be the most frequent users of e-commerce. Online marketing therefore needs to be at the heart of any strategy that targets the older generations.

But how old is old? If Prensky’s age grouping is to be believed, the youngest immigrants will be in their early thirties and the oldest well past retirement. Further research is needed into the segmentation of the immigrant population, but they surely cannot all be banded together as one demographic.

The qualitative research offered up a form of segmentation other than age, ones' attitude and willingness to use digital technology. This is where we find the real difference between a digital native and an immigrant. We can all think of examples of keen adopters and staunch 'refuseniks' amongst our networks of friends and contacts, be it in the use of computers in general or particular applications, for example social media.

Natives have grown up with the technology, it has always been there, they don’t have to ‘try’ to use it, they just do. The research discovered that many immigrants were determined to use it, whether to talk to a family member on the other side of the world, or to order shopping and make life that little bit easier. These immigrants went out their way to learn.

Another interesting finding was that natives and neo-natives, having always had technology, do not appear to push their digital technology skills to their potential boundaries. Indeed the results indicated that only a handful of natives or neo-natives have knowledge of ‘advanced’ technology, such as writing HTML code or using applications such as Photoshop to a high standard. The immigrant is much more inclined to explore and discover new territories.

In conclusion, it still seems to makes sense to segment generational use of digital technology into immigrant and native as the academics suggest, but a level of sub-segmentation is needed too - both by age and attitude. Businesses and marketers need to take note of the immigrants' determination to use digital technology and also of the risks of assuming advanced skills in the native generation.

We would like to hear how people perceive themselves without the restriction of given age groupings. Do you think you are a native or an immigrant?

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