My kids are digital natives. Unlike me, they have never waited for the postman to deliver letters. They have never used a fax machine. They don’t know what a memo means. They never fought over the phone. Their closest pen pal experience is through Minecraft or YouTube. They may not trust strangers but are comfortable gaming with them. They don’t need to pore through A-Z encyclopedias, dictionaries, reference books or look at an atlas.

By definition, digital natives are those born during or grew up during the time when digital technologies were first introduced. Most teenagers and children are digital natives, born with an intuitive understanding of the web and innately familiar with mobile technology.


Coined first by Marc Prensky in his work, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, he writes about a different approach to reach this audience. “Our students have changed radically. They are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. They have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a ‘singularity’ — an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called ‘singularity’ is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.

Students, kindergarten through college, represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, videocams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives.” He concludes that today’s students think and process information in a fundamentally different way than their predecessors.

Cross the chasm

Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research, breaks it up into five categories. In his post, he advocates that companies need to market to their audience by segmenting them according to their digital engagement.

  • Digital natives — people who grew up with the internet, comfortable in engaging in all digital channels.
  • Digital immigrants — people who have crossed the chasm to the digital world, forced into engagement in digital channels.
  • Digital voyeurs — people who recognise the shift to digital, observing from an arms’ length distance.
  • Digital holdouts — people who resist the shift to digital, ignoring the impact.
  • Digital disengaged —people who give up on digital, obsessed with erasing digital exhaust.

Social revenge

With various ways to get even, a new study from NewVoice Media uncovered that a whopping 93 per cent of people will take action following a poor experience with a company.

“With consumers increasingly turning online to read about others’ experiences before choosing a product or supplier, this can cause considerable damage to a company’s reputation. When it came to conflict resolution, taking complaints online was much easier for digital natives. 25-34 year-olds are most likely to head online, with 59 per cent saying they would turn to social media or posting an online review. This figure was also high for the 16-24 year-olds, with 43 per cent saying they would take complaints online. Social media is far more popular than email with the younger generation (16-34 year-olds), who are five times more likely to use it than over 55s. 47 per cent of the 55+ age-group consider calling to be the most effective way to resolve a problem.”

Digital rules

So throw away that old marketing textbook and turn to text, images and video. According to the Zur Institute, digital natives prefer sequential communication. They cannot relate to manuals, as they tend to be intuitive learners and are engaged in rapid “trial and error”. Think gaming. Think of environments where they are discovering via actions, experimentation and interaction rather than by reflection. Think instant gratification and rewards. They are not patient and don’t see value in waiting. They prefer receiving information quickly and simultaneously from multiple media and other sources. They are good at parallel processing, multitasking or task switching. They prefer interacting with pictures, graphics, sounds and video before text.

Digital hires

Planning to hire some digital natives? Flatten the organisation. They view the workplace in more egalitarian terms and less in hierarchical terms. There are no work life boundaries for them. They prefer to work intermittently seven days a week rather than clock in and clock out. Remember, they are always on. Get ready for the move-in and move-out as they will shift careers and jobs with more ease than their parents. Stability, security and pension are not high on their list as variety, experience and experimentation.

And stop with the usual cross generational comparison. When I was your age, blah, blah, blah or you will be met with the dreaded shrug, smirk and eye roll.

Let go of the arrogance. Find ways to mentor them and find ways to learn from them.

It is a two way street.

My article originally appeared in the Financial Chronicle, January 31, 2014