The generational media divide

I was at a meeting this week that drove home the big generational divide in online and offline media consumption. At the podium was a 20-something CEO of a new venture that is trying to work with new college grads. In the audience were people mostly twice his age of captains of industry. The young CEO was asked what he thought about using content that was similar to the way Consumer Reports rates and compares products. After a pause and a blank look, he said, “I don’t know what you mean, I never heard of that publication.” That got a big laugh from the audience, but his ignorance was genuine. The Q&A continued, and he mentioned a few moments later how he gets a lot of his information from the Web site Now it was the moment of being perplexed for the gentlemen sitting next to me, who leaned over to ask me if I have ever heard of such a publication. His ignorance was also the real deal.

So where do you stand on the Consumer Reports/HuffingtonPost axis? And more importantly, where do your readers stand as well? How savvy are they with using online media to get their information?

There is a growing divide in how we consume media, and it is mostly age-related. But it isn’t as simple as everyone older is using this technology and younger is using that technology – there are a lot more subtle sub-groups. For example, 20-somethings that have never been to college aren’t using email – they went right to texting and if they don’t need email for their jobs they don’t use it in their personal communications, and probably will remain away from email for a long time to come. And 50-somethings don’t have much experience with social media, unless their kids are on Facebook and they signed up for defensive parental reasons, or they heard about it from a younger work colleague, for example. Almost no one is really using RSS feeds to keep track of Web content, except a few nerds and PR people. Instant Messaging has all sorts of twisted demographics, depending not just on age but also on how distributed the work team is and whether it is blessed or cursed by the corporate IT department. And so forth. 

What does this mean for professional communicators? Several things. First, you have to become a master of multiple media channels and methods. Writing, speaking, podcasting, blogging, creating social network groups, filming videos, and more. You have to become omnivorous in what you consume and what you create.

Second, bylines aren’t enough. So while I do write for the New York Times several times a year, that isn’t enough. I should also post comments on various newspaper blogs (if it is relevant), and participate in various discussion forums.

Third, it isn’t just about you but whom you know and who forwards your emails and links to your content. Is it better for the CEO of a potential client to just get a single email from me about a particular subject? Or to have five of his direct reports send the same link to something that I have posted? Or to have the post appear somewhere else that results in three new clients hiring me? You get the idea. Everything has the potential to be viral these days.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. The rules aren’t set in stone, and while there are differences in the generations in media consumption, no one really knows how this is all going to shake out. One of the great opportunities of the Web – the ability to measure everything – is also its biggest challenge, because you don’t necessarily have the ability to link cause and effect. I realized this as I was posting a new screencast video of mine last month to 15 different Web sites. Some of the sites have no traffic, some videos are rising stars. It is the same video on each site. What makes one more viewed is impossible to explain. (And by the way, if you haven’t checked out my videos yet, go over to and watch one or two and let me know what you think.)

0 thoughts on “The generational media divide

  1. David,

    Great points. I actually am on Huffington Post and Consumer Reports quite often, but that’s another story. The bottom line here is things are changing rapidly and we all need to keep moving along and trying new ways to communicate. The good news is it’s no longer about money but it is about time.

  2. Dale Hobart writes:
    When I was in the classroom I saw this dichotomy all the time. The problem is not that any of the differing groups are stupid, they are just ignorant of the other tools. That ignorance stems from many causes as you note very well. Age is just one factor, intermix of communication with the many different groups and the need to communicate with them I think tends to broaden the horizons of all groups. Those individuals who do not wish to listen or are unable to interpret what they hear are in the groups at either end who go “what?” Listening to others, paying attention to both the direct and indirect communication and then understanding/absorbing the message(s) is what sets off the cross group enabled communicators.

    I’m turning 63 in a couple of days, and I think that I fall into your nerd group because I use Google reader to track several RSS feeds. That include Lifehacker, MetaFilter, The Big Picture (Boston Globe), The Blog(Huffington Post), PostSecret, Woot, APOD(NASA Photo), and tuque links(My son’s blog that operates more like a listserve of web pages. My homepage on my browser is iGoogle with links to the New York Times, CNN, Wired, and sports scores.

    I am aware of both Consumer Reports(although I look at it on-line) and the Huffington Post. I also subscribe to an Email issue of the New York Times. I know what twitter is and cell phone messaging, however, small type and getting older do not work well together so that option is mostly out for me.

    You asked where we are on the communication scale. That was probably a rhetorical question this will teach you to put such an open question in your newsletter. I think that I would shrivel up from information deprival if I was disconnected from these resources for very long.

  3. Thanks for your Comment on my blog post, David, and the link to your blog. As co-owner of a small software company in the behavioral health community, I have found that our users tend to fall at the two extremes of the Consumer Reports/HuffingtonPost continuum. Age is one of the factors that divides; I would venture to guess that gender and role within the organization are two other contributors. Then there is the nerd factor; within the mental health community there are early adopters who are nerd/geek-like in their behaviors no matter their age.

    I have also found that, the longer we are around, the more our customer base changes. Some of our earliest customers (we have been around since 1985) are retiring or their staff people are doing so and are being replaced by younger folks who are very comfortable with all things Internet and electronic. I am sure that movement will continue. Finally, since we are providers of the primary software products that some of our customers use, we educate them about the world of technology. It is possible that they will explore more readily if they are exposed to more information and opportunities to do so.

    Kathy Peres

  4. ‘Growing divide’ is the wrong term, as the exact opposite is what’s happening. Different age groups start off with different priorities and different requirements. People under the age of 30 have much more free time, a greater social bent, and much less of a stake in the world, while older people tend to be wrapped up in families and mortgages and saving for college tuitions. As a result, older Internet users tend to want more solid information and have less time to wade through, for example, dozens of Youtube videos looking for the most reliable product reviews — it doesn’t mean they haven’t looked, it means they’ve found more value in commercial reviews than in individual ones. As online culture improves, and people become better at producing their own content, all demographics of users will find less value in one-sided, commercially produced content, and more value in Youtube, and similar. This is true across all aspects of Internet and computer culture. People who’s time is less valuable find it easier to sacrifice it in looking for new ways of doing things, while people who’s time has become valuable, will generally wait for new ideas to mature — things have ALWAYS been this way.

    People need to stop looking for absolutes when comparing “generations” and start remembering what it means to be human. Culturally, the Internet has very solid roots in BBSs, Usenet and other online communities of the past — 25 years ago kids (myself included) downloaded video games from their local BBS, while adults preferred to buy their software in plastic wrapped boxes with manuals and phone-in product support. Today, those same kids who once had huge collections of pirated software in general have no problem paying full retail for Photoshop (even if it makes them cringe). Time changes our values, technology improves, and somewhere in the middle is where we make our lifestyle choices.

    • Roger, you make some interesting points about time and its value to different people. You might notice that this original post and conversation occurred almost three years ago. In that time, there has been such rapid change related to social media and who is adopting it that the original comments certainly do not apply to today. The rate of change in the social media arena and in which people are using social media is astounding! In five years, this conversation will be meaningless….like talking about IBM Selectric typewriters and black-and-white TV to those born since 1980.

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