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Generational theory’s influence on digital marketing

nerational Theory is a topic that has been bantered around in marketing circles for, well, for generations now. Never has technology, though, moved at such a blistering pace as now. Even those belonging to Gen X are feeling a little bewildered at times. From the music each generation identifies with to the clothing styles and even value systems, generations are different.

Jonathan Houston
Jonathan Houston is passionate about digital marketing and digital strategy. During the day, Jonathan is the Head of Digital Marketing for HKLM. Jonathan's work at HKLM includes... More

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Let’s break down the generations

Marketing texts usually break the generations down in to 6 major categories:

  • Lost Generation: 1883 – 1900
  • The GI Generation: 1901 – 1924
  • The Silent Generation: 1925 – 1942
  • The Boomers: 1943 – 1960
  • Generation X: 1961 – 1981
  • The Millennial (Gen Y): 1982 – 2000

The Lost Generation is the generation that gave the 1920s their real power and drive and includes some great names like Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman.

The GI Generation is arguably the “greatest generation”. They fought in WWII and rebuilt the world after the post-war boom.

The Silent Generation is also often referred to as the “Baby boomer” generation. It was post war and husbands and wives had been away from each other for a long time.

The Boomers caused the 1960s to be remembered for what they were. An era of free love and rock and roll. This generation coined the term “generation gap”.

Generation X was born as the latch key kids of the late 1970s and fared well in an era of economic growth and plenty.

The Millennial or Gen Y is the generation of tomorrow having to cope with world recessions, economic crises and many other issues each and every day.

Going through each of these generations in brief, it is self evident that each generation is going to think differently and respond differently to various marketing messages.

This translates to the fact that each generation (as they fit in to your target market) needs messages that speak to them in their language and on a platform that they are comfortable with.

Does this mean technology is only for Gen X & Y?

According to research by Forrester, four percent of all the smartphones in the United States of America are owned by those 66 years old and up (that makes them part of the Silent Generation). Incidentally, of that four percent, 37 percent of them are rocking an Apple iPhone.

When looking at eReaders and tablets, the Nielsen research below reads in a similar fashion. The “55+” sector of the market has experienced the greatest level of growth over the last few quarters.

Does this mean generational theory is out the window?

Quite the opposite. Generational theory puts into even sharper focus the fact that you as a marketer need to understand two things.

1.You need to understand the needs, wants, social influences and dynamics of your “ideal” target audience. This includes the generation that they currently fall into.

2.The fact that your “ideal” audience is going to grow, mature and develop along with your brand does not mean that they are going to be your “ideal” audience forever. Your brand and product needs to be relevant to those who are entering the market and have a vastly different frame of reference from what you are used to marketing to.
Understanding your audience demographic in terms of generational awareness means that you can make your ads smarter and far more targeted to how your market is thinking and judging what messages are being thrown at them.

An example of who is getting it right

Swedish car manufacturer Volvo is hitting the nail on the head with a marketing strategy focusing on transparency and openness aimed at Generation X (30 – 46 year old) car buyers. The company’s strategy, according to an interview given to eMarketer by Linda Gangeri, manager of national advertising for Volvo cars, made note of the fact that this generation was the first to be hit by mass media marketing. As a result of this fact, members of Generation X can very quickly filter out messaging that is not sincere and credible. Volvo employed a strategy that focused on social media and peer-to-peer word of mouth marketing to ensure that when its campaign was integrated with more mainstream marketing it would not be lost in the clutter.

Making the most of generational theory

A possible learning from generational theory could be that it is Generation X’s aversion to mass media that has helped fuel the boom of social media. Social Media is peer-to-peer marketing that the user can tune in to and out of whenever they want. This is exactly what Gen X demands after being brainwashed by mass media for most of their lives.

In recognising and understanding the clues that generational theory gives us about the different members of any given target audience; marketers can better craft their messaging to meet their audience’s needs.

Image: ChrisK4u