The Net Generation and the future of social media marketing

social media innovation

I saw Don Tapscott speak at SXSW and was inspired to read his excellent book Grown Up Digital.  Through extensive research, he identified the new norms and expectations of the “Net Gens,” the first generation to grow up entirely digital. How has this changed their outlook, their lifestyle, and their expectations of society?

It’s a fascinating perspective and I began to think through the implications for marketing. Clearly, understanding these norms is essential to the future success of our organizations.  So here are the trends he identified with a few of my thoughts on the impact this might have on social media marketing.


customized iPhoneThe Baby Boomers take technology for what it is and hope it works. Net Geners make the technology theirs. They want options.  They love to customize, and even the option to customize makes a product more attractive.

  • Impact – Have you noticed how people decorate their iPhones?  What would it look like if your readers could customize their experience with your blog? Customize exactly what they see from your RSS feed?  Why would they want your news stream when they can create their own? Ho do we enable our content consumers to determine HOW, WHEN and WHAT they receive from us?


While there is an unprecedented amount of content on the web, there is also an unprecedented amount of unreliable content — spam, phishers, photo shopping, inaccuracies, hoaxes and scams. Net Geners have a high awareness of the world around them and accept few claims at face value.

  • Impact – The irony is that the web is not as faceless and anonymous as we thought. The rising generation can sniff out a fake. There is little room for error.  However Net Geners also are apt to forgive companies who apologize and try to make up for mistakes.


Net Geners care about being honest, considerate, transparent, and living up to commitments. There may be some truth in pegging them as a narcissistic generation but they also care about community, close relationships, and security. The one exception here is an entitlement mentality when it comes to content. Next Geners do not want to pay for music, books and movies, even when they know it is wrong to go around the system.

  • Impact – Net Geners live a double standard. While valuing honesty, they have been conditioned to steal content and think it is OK. This is the gathering storm — content publishers who depend on copyright protection for their livelihoods versus an entire generation who will not pay for it. The implications for the future of the arts and all content creators is vast.


Working together comes natural for a generation accustomed to chat groups, multi-user video games, and file sharing. They bring a culture of collaboration to work and the marketplace. Ubiquitous access to the web via mobile technology makes them feel they have a constant friend in their pocket. They value contributing to product design, and feedback unless they feel a company might misuse it.

  • Impact — To win loyalists to our content marketing efforts, how do we involve this generation in the process?  What does open-sourced company content plan look like beyond one-off contests and promotions?  Collaboration is an opportunity for creativity, engagement and unprecedented loyalty.


Net Gener’s expect work to be play. At Microsoft’s campus, employees can play baseball, volleyball or soccer. There is a private lake, a gym, and 25 cafeterias.  Xbox consoles are everywhere. They even sponsor whale-watching excursions.  There is also an expectation of constant connection to web entertainment, even on the job.

  • Impact — “Entertainment” is a value I have been talking a lot about in my classes. How do we institutionalize “fun” as a content strategy?  How many of our companies even think about being “more entertaining?”  Three quarters of Net Geners agreed with this statement: “Having fun with a product is just as important as the product doing what it is supposed to do.”


marketing speedGrowing up wired means this generation is used to instant response.  They have an expectation that their lives and careers will progress at the same fast pace as their online lives.

  • Impact — To this group, delays of any kind result in irritation, creating an overwhelming expectation of service providers. If your typical service response to a complaint on Twitter is more than an hour, you’re going to lose customers.


This generation has been raised in a culture of real-time innovation. Favorite mobile devices and apps improve — sometimes dramatically — every few weeks. Net Geners live to stay current. Owning the newest device contributes to social status. To stay cool, you need “new.”  They are addicted to ideas and contributing to the latest innovations. Anything short of the leading technology is considered passe. Many teens I know will not even watch a movie if it is more than a year old.

  • Impact — You can already see the impact on consumer electronics where product life is measured in months or even weeks. If you are in an industry that is slow to innovate, is this an opportunity for differentiation and competitive advantage?

These trends are coming at us fast and are probably already showing up in your marketplace. What ideas do you have to capitalize on this information and re-invent yourself and your company?

Illustrations courtesy of BigStock photo and Microsoft.

The link to Grown Up Digital is an affiliate link.

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  • Gettysburg Gerry

    Good Morning Mark,
    I would have to say that I feel that your Integrity and Speed paragraphs particularly hit the nail on the head. I have been saying both of those things for quite some time as well in my presentations. Watch a Net Gen’er pull up a Youtube vid, if it s over say 2 minutes, they don’t even open it, speed is everything behind free.

    The content should be free concept mixed with the speed element is scary for businesses. “I want it all, and I want it now” The kicker is that whether I personally agree or not, is not important, my challenge is to get my clients to understand that is the expectation of the consumer these days. You don’t have to like, but you better accept it.

    Thanks again for a great blog Mark.

  • nice post Mark. Two have been coming up in my readings for the past few weeks: Contextual and Transactional social media in the future. Both of these themes are tied to mobility which is still being figured out by all the players.

  • Rob Kravitz

    Great insights as usual. The integrity piece is one that I’ve had numerous arguments with my kids with regard to video and music downloading and file sharing. As you said, it’s the norm and artists are going to have to deal with that reality. Doesn’t make it right.

  • Well said. It is what it is, so let’s adjust!

  • Thanks for the addition to the discussion Abdallah!

  • A very strange dynamic indeed. I had a shocking exchange on the blog a few months ago where some young folks were claiming that the protection of intellectual property is “old thinking.” Basically, that is the foundation of our economy folks! Thanks Rob.

  • Having many Net Gens in my personal, and professional life I look forward to their view of, and their contributions to life, and living Mark!

    At times, we agree to disagree — the conversation continues, and we find ourselves adapting to each others’ passion, and purpose…

    After all isn’t the ability, and choice to adapt to what is — the key to life, and living?

  • This is what I fight constantly — not sounding like MY parents!!! You’re right Dr. Rae, it’s all about change and adapting!

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  • Indeed Mark… At times “change and adaping” are difficult lessons to learn!

  • Great list Mark! I think you really hit the nail on the head with the generational differences and their business impact.

    As a side-note, I’m curious about the generational differences when it comes to privacy. In my personal experience, people my age are a lot more ok with putting up pictures of themselves, revealing personal information publicly, etc. Baby Boomers are a lot more wary of it and prefer to share as little as possible. I’ve been having a back-and-forth about privacy on G+, and it seems to me that the older generations, more often than the younger ones, distrust the Internet or view it maliciously. I think it stems from the fact that the Next Geners have grown up with the technology, and like you said, are better able to sniff out fakes. If you lack that ability, then you would distrust the whole thing. Again, that’s only my experience and would love to hear your take on it.

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  • radiojaja

    I’m particularly interested in how these guy themselves change as they age. If its true that you move more to the right politically as you age, do you also become more tolerant of the things listed in the blog?
    More tolerant of things like delay or perhaps less likely to ‘waste’ precious time on customisation for example, as other aspects of their lives become more pressing?
    What were we like without the ubiquitousness of the net granted, when we were teens? I’d be interested to see how much we really differ generation to generation and how that is also changing given the power we are putting into our childrens hands.
    Great though provoking stuff as always! Thanks

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  • Mark,

    I love this topic because it’s something I bring up to insurance professionals every time I do a presentation on Digital Marketing…

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a Baby Boomer insurance agent tell me, “The younger generation doesn’t care about service or quality or coverage… All they care about is ease of buying and price… They’re lazy.”

    Which infuriates me (on the inside) because of how small minded this view is… Being of the Net Generation or at least the front edge of it… We’re not lazy and we care about quality and service… But we want these things on OUR terms.

    The chasm between Boomers and the Generation coming up now is that Boomers were part of a machine, a growing country in a prosperous time and everyone had their place…

    The Net Gen does not want to be dictated to. They want what they want and finding their own path is part of that journey.

    Great topic… Great piece.



  • This is one area of the book that doesn’t feel right to me. He defends Net Gen and their awareness of privacy but it just does not sync with my life experience. In my job, I see tons and tons of people who use the social web and most are only vaguely aware of the issues. My take any way.

  • I think they are being hard-wired this way. The way we think and precess information is largely set by the time we are 15 so I look for these to be long-lasting trends Tony.

  • Thanks Ryan. I can see how you would get a lot of resistance in that entrenched and conservative industry. Keep fighting the good fight!

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  • So you’ve noticed that same conditioning to steal content? It is surprising at how easy it is for people to burn CDs of other people’s music selections. I was at a get together this weekend where someone was talking about burning their VHS tapes to DVD…selling the VHS tapes and keeping the DVD. That still is not right, folks!

    The speed of collaboration is impressive in this generation, and their ability to multi-task with multiple devices and other input. Of course, the challenge is to still be able to focus on the person sitting right in front of you (hey, I have teen daughters, so this is a constant battle if that phone is in their hands). I do think this natural tendency towards collaboration creates great opportunity for crowd-sourced innovation within a company as well as between a company and its consumers. This generation may produce ideal facilitators for that approach.

  • Very interesting points Brian! Thanks.

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