As the first boot camp for the web obsessed opens in South Korea, Ben Butler discusses the importance of online to the ‘born digital’ generation and what this means for marketers.
South Korea has long been the place the west has looked to gain an idea of how technological advancements will impact on society. A heady mix of cutting edge internet applications and high levels of broadband penetration has made the country a crystal ball for our own digital future.
It was with a mixture of high fives and alarm, therefore, that the IAB office greeted a recent New York Times article that reported the growing popularity of a boot camp that aims to cure the web-obsessed of South Korea. Our happiness stemmed from the fact that if people are having to go to digital rehab because they are so dependent on online then the internet advertising industry will continue to thrive. The trepidation, however, came from the obsessives amongst us who perhaps saw an uncomfortable amount of themselves in those going cold turkey at the world’s first retreat for online addicts.
Compulsive use of the internet is not an issue just afflicting South Korea. A number of other countries including the United States have identified over-dependence on the web as a mental health issue. Thankfully this is a problem restricted to a very small minority of global internet users, but it does serve as a great example as to how essential digital technology has become in the lives of the next generation of consumers.
The born digital generation
At our third annual conference, IAB Engage 2007, Josh Spear the founder of media think tank, Undercurrent described the children and teenagers born since the inception of internet technology as the “born digital” generation. This demographic - growing ever more important – are light users of traditional media and for them the internet is fundamental.
To successfully reach the born digital generation Spear believes that advertisers; "have to operate within the rules of their universe and play by the same rules as the audience." He also noted that there was a "new paradigm" of what advertising should be and that marketers needed to turn their traditional approach "180 degrees". For the born digital generation, "things that seek out are bad, things that we seek are good".
So are there any signs of this “new paradigm” already working? A recent Media Guardian article discussing the original content appearing on social networking such as MySpace and Bebo, especially, seems to offer a clue.
Bebo’s TV-style content
The Gap Year, a reality series following six young travelers, has just been commissioned by Bebo – the third piece of TV-style content commissioned by the social networking site in the last six months. Bebo have cottoned on to the internet-focussed consumption habits of its 10.7 million regular users, the majority of whom are aged 15-24. The Media Guardian report how the site is; “transforming itself from ‘just’ a networking site into a social media platform,” one that uses original content to “promote self-expression.”
Mini-programmes such as Kate Modern and Sophia’s Diary are the leading examples of broadcast video content on social networking profile pages that also incorporate a variety of interactive elements. Users of social networking sites are actively involved in decisions effecting the show, such as casting and plot developments. For example with Sophia's Diary, emails and texts are sent to the audience to help advise on dilemmas featured in the storyline of the show.
As many as 25 million people have watched the four-minute long, daily episodes of Kate Modern. Audience figures of this magnitude do not go unnoticed by brands. Kate Modern currently has six advertising partners that pay as much as £250,000 to get their names integrated into the storyline. With each episode costing just £6,000 it’s clear why Bebo are looking to commission similar shows.
Brands including Orange, Procter and Gamble are already benefiting from being involved in what Mark Boyd head of content at BBH told the Media Guardian; “could be the future of broadcasting – for the younger audience at least.” As we found when we surveyed the UK gaming community with GameSpot UK early this year, many younger consumers (76% of gamers surveyed were under the age of 24) don’t perceive the presence of brand names within games and as ‘advertising’ in the traditional sense. Contextual and relevant brands were said by 40% of those surveyed to add realism to games and there is no reason to believe that when handled sensitively, the huge audiences enjoying the original content offered by social networking sites, should not feel the same.
What can brands do?
Brands do have an opportunity to create a meaningful dialogue with this generation beyond name-checks in other people’s content. Whilst advertisers will find it hard to match the level of engagement that the social networking sites are enjoying with their original content, the Bebo example does highlight what the born digital generation are responding to. If advertisers are able to create campaigns and content that offer value, a sense of involvement and that enables the expression of individuality, there is a strong chance this audience will respond.
These campaigns will of course require a method of measurement beyond the now tried and tested response metrics such as click-throughs, acquisitions and views. The born digital generation are the masters of multi-tasking, but because of the extent of their internet immersion they are unlikely to click away from what they are doing to visit a brand’s site. They know they can get product information from numerous places across the web, so why click-through? The brand website will always have a role to play, but will ultimately be much less important. Advertisers need to focus more on encouraging personal recommendations amongst the born digital generation and less on trying to divert their online experience.
The born digital generation should not be dismissed as too young to matter. In a matter of years these will be the consumers that advertisers will be looking to target in earnest – presupposing they are not all in digital rehab by then. If advertisers can get to grips with what this audience will respond to now then they will ultimately benefit in the long run.
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