What Comes After Generation Z?

We’re running out of alphabet.

The latest generation is Generation Z. They were born between 1995 and 2012 – according to one demographic primer. So, what do we call the generation born from 2013 on? Z+One? Do we go with an Excel naming scheme and call it Generation AA? Or should we just go back to all those unused letters of the alphabet. After all, we haven’t touched A to W yet. Thinking along those lines, Australian social researcher and author Mark McCrindle is lobbying for Generation Alpha. It’s a nice twist – we get to recycle the alphabet and give it a Greek flavor all at the same time.

Maybe the reason we short-sightedly started with the last three letters of the alphabet is that we’re pretty new at this. Before the twentieth century, we didn’t worry much about labeling every generation. And, to be honest, much of that labeling has happened retroactively. The Silent Generation (1925 – 1942) didn’t call themselves that right off that bat. Being Silent, they didn’t call themselves anything. The label wasn’t coined until 1951. And the G.I. Generation, who preceded them ((1901 – 1924), didn’t receive their label until demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe affixed it in 1991.

But starting around the middle of the last century, we developed the need to pigeonhole our cohorts. Maybe it’s because things started moving so quickly about that time. In the first half of the century we had the twin demographical tent poles of the two World Wars. In between we had the Great Depression. After WWII we had the mother of all generational events: the Baby Boom. Each of these eras brought a very different environment, which would naturally affect those growing up in them. Since then, we’ve been scrambling madly to keep up with appropriate labels for each generation.

The standard approach up to now has been to wait for someone to write a book about a generation, which bestows the label, and then we all jump on the bandwagon. But this seems reactive and short sighted. It also means that we get caught in our current situation, where we have a generation that remains unnamed while we’re waiting for the book to be written.

We seem hooked on these generation labels. I don’t think they’re going to go anywhere any time soon. Based on our current fascination with Millennials, we in the media are going to continue to lump every single sociological and technological trend into convenient generationally labeled behavioral buckets. So we should give this naming thing some thought.

Maybe we could take a page from the World Meteorological Organization’s book when it comes to naming hurricanes and tropical storms. They started doing this so the media would have a quick and commonly understood reference point when referring to a particular meteorological event. Don’t generations deserve the same foresight?

The World Meteorological Organization has a strict procedure: “For Atlantic hurricanes, there is a list of male and female names which are used on a six-year rotation. The only time that there is a change is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate. In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in a season, any additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.”

I like the idea of using male and female names. This got me thinking. Maybe we combine the WMO’s approach and that of the wisdom of crowds. Perhaps the male and female names should be the most popular baby names of that generation. In case you’re wondering, here’s how that would work out:

Silent Generation (1925 – 1942): The Robert and Mary Generation
Baby Boomers I (1946 – 1954): The James and Mary Generation
Baby Boomers II (1955 – 1965): The Michael and Lisa Generation
Generation X (1966 – 1976): The Michael and Jennifer Generation
Millennials (1977 – 1994): The Michael and Jessica Generation
Generation Z (1995 – 2012): The Jacob and Emily Generation
Generation ??? (2013 – Today) – The Emma and Noah Generation

The sharp sighted amongst you will have noticed two problems with this. First, some names are stubbornly popular (I’m talking about you Michael and Mary) and span multiple generations. Secondly, this is a very US-Centric approach. Maybe we need to mix it up globally. For instance, if we tap into the naming zeitgeist of South Korea, that would make the current generation the Seo-yeon and Min-jun Generation.

Of course, all this could be needless worrying. Perhaps those that affixed the Generation Z label knew something we didn’t.

Why Millennials are so Fascinating

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Generation Gap. This referred to the ideological gap between my generation – the Baby Boomers, and our parent’s generation – The Silent Generation (1923 – 1944).

But in terms of behavior, there was a significant gap even amongst early Baby Boomers and those that came at the tail end of the boom – like myself. Generations are products of their environment and there was a significant change in our environment in the 20-year run of the Baby Boomers – from 1945 to 1964. During that time, TV came into most of our homes. For the later boomers, like myself, we were raised with TV. And I believe the adoption of that one technology created an unbridgeable ideological gap that is still impacting our society.

The adoption of ubiquitous technologies – like TV and, more recently, connective platforms like mobile phones and the Internet – inevitable trigger massive environmental shifts. This is especially true for generations that grow up with this technology. Our brain goes through two phases where it literally rewires itself to adapt to its environment. One of those phases happens from birth to about 2 to 3 years of age and the other happens during puberty – from 14 to 20 years of age. A generation that goes through both of those phases while exposed to a new technology will inevitably be quite different from the generation that preceded it.

The two phases of our brain’s restructuring – also called neuroplasticity – are quite different in their goals. The first period – right after birth – rewires the brain to adapt to its physical environment. We learn to adapt to external stimuli and to interact with our surroundings. The second phase is perhaps even more influential in terms of who we will eventually be. This is when our brain creates its social connections. It’s also when we set our ideological compasses. Technologies we spend a huge amount of time with will inevitably impact both those processes.

That’s what makes Millennials so fascinating. It’s probably the first generation since my own that bridges that adoption of a massively influential technological change. Most definitions of this generation have it starting in the early 80’s and extend it to 1996 or 97.   This means the early Millennials grew up in an environment that was not all that different than the generation that preceded it. The technologies that were undergoing massive adoption in the early 80’s were VCRs and microwaves – hardly earth shaking in terms of environmental change. But late Millennials, like my daughters, grew up during the rapid adoption of three massively disruptive technologies: mobile phones, computers and the Internet. So we have a completely different environment for which the brain must adapt not only from generation to generation, but within the generation itself. This makes Millennials a very complex generation to pin down.

In terms of trying to understand this, let’s go back to my generation – the Baby Boomers – to see how environment adaptation can alter the face of society. Boomers that grew up in the late 40’s and early 50’s were much different than boomers that grew up just a few years later. Early boomers probably didn’t have a TV. Only the wealthiest families would have been able to afford them. In 1951, only 24% of American homes had a TV. But by 1960, almost 90% of Americans had a TV.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the values of my generation where shaped by TV. But this was not a universal process. The impact of TV was dependent on household income, which would have been correlated with education. So TV impacted the societal elite first and then trickled down. This elite segment would have also been those most likely to attend college. So, in the mid-60’s, you had a segment of a generation who’s values and world view were at least partially shaped by TV – and it’s creation of a “global village” – and who suddenly came together during a time and place (college) when we build the persona foundations we will inhabit for the rest of our lives. You had another segment of a generation that didn’t have this same exposure and who didn’t pursue a post-secondary education. The Vietnam War didn’t create the Counter-Cultural revolution. It just gave it a handy focal point that highlighted the ideological rift not only between two generations but also within the Baby Boomers themselves. At that point in history, part of our society turned right and part turned left.

Is the same thing happening with Millennials now? Certainly the worldview of at least the younger Millennials has been shaped through exposure to connected media. When polled, they inevitably have dramatically different opinions about things like religion, politics, science – well – pretty much everything. But even within the Millennial camp, their views often seem incoherent and confusing. Perhaps another intra-generational divide is forming. The fact is it’s probably too early to tell. These things take time to play out. But if it plays out like it did last time this happened, the impact will still be felt a half century from now.

Chatting Up a Storm

I’ve been talking about a “meta-app” for ages. It looks like China may have found it in WeChat. We in the Western World have been monitoring the success of TenCent’s WeChat with growing interest. Who would have thought that a simple chat interface could be the killer app of the future?

Chat interfaces seem so old school. They appear to be clunky and inefficient. But the beauty of chat is that it’s completely flexible. As Wired.com’s David Pierce said, “You can, for all intents and purposes, live your entire life within WeChat.” That’s exactly the type of universal functionality you need to become a meta-app.

We’ve always envisioned having conversations with our computers, even going back to Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But we didn’t think out conversations would be carried out in text bubbles on a hand held device. A PEW study found that texting is the single most common activity on a Smartphone. 97% of us do it. So if messaging is the new UI, none of us have to learn anything new.

Graphic interfaces are necessarily tied to a particular task. The interface is designed for a specific intent. But messaging interfaces can adapt as intents change. They can quickly switch from social messaging to purchasing online to searching for an address to – well – you get the idea.

But where texting really shines is when it’s combined with artificially intelligent chatbots. A simple, universally understood interface that’s merged with powerful intelligent agents – either human and machine – allows the user to quickly request or do anything they wish. The functionality of intent specific apps can be called on as required and easily introduced into the chat interface.

In effect, text messaging is doing exactly what Apple hoped Siri would do – become the universal interface to the digital world. Given that speaking would appear to be easier than texting, one has to wonder why Siri never really gained the traction that Apple hoped it would. I think this can be attributed to three reasons:

  • The difficulties of spoken interpretation still restricts the functionality of Siri. The success rate isn’t high enough to completely gain our confidence
  • The use case of Siri is still primarily when we need to keep our hands free. It’s not that easy to switch to interactions where tactile input is required
  • We look like idiots speaking to a machine

All of these are avoided in a chat-based interface. We still have the flexibility of a conversational interface but we still have all the power of our device at our fingertips. Plus, we don’t infringe on any social taboos.

Given the advantages, it’s small wonder that a number of players – primarily Facebook – are seriously plotting for the commercialization of chat based messaging services. There’s one other massive advantage that a stand-alone messaging interface has. The more activities we conduct through any particular interface, the greater the opportunity for personalization. I’ve always maintained that a truly useful “meta-app” should be able to anticipate our intent. That requires interactions across the broad spectrum of our activities. Previously only operating systems offered this type of breadth and because OS’s operate “under the hood,” there were some limitations on the degree of personalization – and through that, commercialization – that was possible. But an app we explicitly choose to use seems to be fair game for commercialization. It’s one of those unwritten social modality rules that advertisers are well advised to be aware of.

Between Messenger and WhatsApp, Facebook has a huge slice of the chat market. They just passed the 900 million user mark for Messenger alone. According to a recent study from the Global Web Index, over 36% of users have used Messenger in the past month, followed closely by WhatsApp at 34%, then Skype at 19%, Line at 10% and Viber and SnapChat at 7% each. These numbers exclude the Chinese market, which is dominated by WeChat, but it remains to be seen if WeChat can expand its base beyond Asia.

And leaked documents from earlier this year indicated that Messenger may soon introduce targeted ads. This hardly qualifies as a security breach. It’s more of a “Duh – ya think?” The rumor mill around the commercialization of Messenger has been going full steam in 2016. If chatting is the UI juggernaut it seems to be, of course we will soon see ads there. WeChat is well down this road, and it seems to be working like a charm, if the recent Smart Car promotion is any example.


Facebook at Work – Stroke of Genius or Act of Desperation?

facebookworkSo, with the launching of Facebook at Work, Facebook wants to become your professional networking platform of choice, does it? Well, speaking as a sample of one, I don’t think so. And it all comes down to one key reason that I’ve talked about in the past, but for some reason, Facebook doesn’t seem to get – social modality.

Social modality is not a tough concept to understand. I’m one person in my office, another on the couch. The things that interest me in the office have little overlap with the things that interest me when I’m “sofa-tose” (nodding into a state of minimal consciousness on overstuffed furniture). But it’s not just about interests. It’s about context. I think differently. I act differently. I react differently. And I want to keep those two states as separate as possible.

Facebook seems to understand the need for separation. They’re building out Facebook at Work as a separate entity. But it’s still Facebook, and when I’ve got my business persona on, I don’t even think of Facebook. Neither, apparently, does anyone else. In 2010, BranchOut tried to build a professional network layer on top of Facebook. Last summer, it changed its business model. The reason? A lack of users. When you think of work, you just don’t think of Facebook. If fact, there’s almost an instinctual revulsion to the idea. Mixing Facebook and work is a cultural taboo.

When we look at the technologies we use to mediate our social activities, different rules apply. It’s not just about features or functionality – it’s about what instinctively feels right. Facebook is trying to create a monolithic platform for social connecting and that doesn’t seem to be where we’re heading. Rather than consolidating our social activity, it’s splintering over different tools and platforms. One reason is functionality. The other is that socially; we’re much too complex to fit into any one particular technological mold. I wrote a few months ago about the maturity continuum of social media. The final stage was to become a platform, which is exactly what Facebook is trying to do. But perhaps becoming a social media platform – at least in the sense that Facebook is attempting – isn’t possible. It could be that our social media personalities are too fractured to fit comfortably in any single destination.

Facebook’s revenue model depends on advertising, which depends on eyeballs. It’s a real estate play. Maybe to be successful, social has to be less about location and more about functionality. In other words, to become a social media platform, you have to be a utility, not a destination. Facebook seems to be trying to do both. According to an article in the Financial Times (registration required) Facebook at work will offer functionality through chat, contact management and document collaboration, but it will do so on a site that “looks very much like Facebook,” including, one assumes, ads served from Facebook. By trying to attract eyeballs to drive revenue, Facebook won’t be able to avoid mixing modality, and therein lays the problem. I suspect Facebook at Work will join an ever-increasing string of Facebook failures.

LinkedIn isn’t perfect, but it has definitely established itself as the B-to-B platform of choice. It fits our sensibilities of what a professional social networking tool should be. And it doesn’t suffer from Facebook’s overly ambitious hubris. It hasn’t launched “LinkedIn at Home” – trying to become the social network platform for our non-work life. It knows what it is. We know what it is. Our social modality isn’t conflicted. Facebook is another matter. It wants to be all things social to all people. I suppose from a revenue point you can’t blame them, but there’s a reason I don’t invite my co-workers to my family reunion – or vice versa.

Someday Facebook will learn that lesson. I suspect it will probably be the hard way.

Rethinking the Channelization of Advertising

Anybody who has been a regular reader of my column knows I very seldom write a column exclusively about search, even though it runs every Thursday under the masthead of “Search Insider.” I’ve been fortunate in that Ken Fadner and the editorial staff of Mediapost has never restricted my choice of subject matter. But the eclecticism of my column isn’t simply because I’m attention deficit. It’s because the subject that interests me most is the intersection between human behavior and technology. Although that often involves search, it also includes mobile, social, email and a number of other channels. I simply couldn’t write about what interests me if I was restricted to a single channel.

So why is Mediapost divided into the subject areas it is? Why, when you go to navigate the site, do you choose from email marketing, search marketing, mobile marketing, real time marketing, video marketing or social media marketing? Mediapost is structured this way because it’s a reflection of the industry it serves. Online marketing is divvied up in exactly the same way. We are an industry of channels.

the_rhine_color_coverThe problem here is one of perspective – the industry perspective vs. the customer perspective. Let me use another example to make my point. One of the best things about cruising the Rhine is that there is a stunning medieval castle or fortress around every bend. From Rüdesheim to Koblenz (the Middle Rhine) there are over 40 of these fortifications sprinkled along 40 miles of the river. As picturesque as they are, they were not put there to enhance the views for generations of sightseers yet to come. They were put there because the river was one of the major thoroughfares of Europe and anyone who owned land along the river had the opportunity to make some money. They exacted tolls from travellers to guarantee safe passage.

While this build up along the Rhine probably made sense for the German land barons, it did nothing to make life easier for the poor souls who had to get up the Rhine to reach their eventual destination. Unfortunately, they had few alternatives. They were stuck with paying the tolls.

The advertising business is divided up into channels for exactly the same reason the Rhine has a castle every mile. Channels are there to show ownership of property. Advertising is a way to generate revenue from that ownership. It is a toll that customers have to pay. Mediapost is divided up the way it is because its readers are the modern day equivalent of medieval land barons and that’s they way they think. If it were published in 1224 its sections may have been labeled Pfalzgrafenstein, Sterrenberg and Reichenstein (3 of the Rhine castles).

But if you’re like me, you’re not as interested in the castles as in the journey itself. And, in this way, I think we have built our industry in exactly the wrong way. We should all be more interested in the journey than in ownership of individual destinations along that journey. If you asked a traveller from Rüdesheim to Koblenz in 1205 which they would prefer; paying 40 separate tolls or paying one guide to safely escort them to the destination, I’m pretty sure they would chose the later. That is what our industry should aspire to.

The reason our industry is channel obsessive is because we had no option previously. In a pre-digital world, all we could do is own or control a channel. But technology is rapidly allowing us an option. Today, it is possible for us to map a customer’s journey and act as a guide along the way. All that is required is a change of perspective.

I believe it’s time to consider it.

Social Media: Matching Maturity to the Right Business Model

socialmediaLast week, I talked about the maturity continuum of social media. This week, I’d like to recap and look at the business model implications of each phase

Phase One – It’s a Fad. Here, we use a new social media tool simply because it is new. This is a classic early adopter model. The business goal here is to drive adoption as fast and far as possible, hoping that acceptance will go viral. There is no revenue opportunity at this point, as you don’t want to do anything to slow adoption. It’s all about getting it into as many hands as possible.

Phase Two – It’s a statement. You use the tool because it says something about who you are. Revenue opportunities are still limited, but this is the time for cross-promotion with brands that make a similar statement. Messaging and branding become essential at this point. You have to carve a unique niche for yourself and hope that it resonates with segments of your market. The goal is to create an emotional connection with your audience to help shore up loyalty in the next phase. This is the time to start laying the foundations of an user community.

Phase Three – It’s a tool. You use it because it offers the best functionality for a particular task. Here, things have to get more practical. This is where user testing and new feature development has to move as quickly as possible. Revenue opportunities at this point are possible, depending on the usage profile of your app. If there’s high frequency of usage, advertising sponsorship is a possibility. But be aware that this will bring inevitable push back from your users, especially if there has been no advertising up to this point. This shakes the loyalty of the “Statement” users, as they feel you’re selling out. The functionality will have to be rock solid to prevent attrition of your user base during this phase. Essentially, it will have to be good enough to “lock out” the competition. But there’s another goal here as well. Introducing new functionality allows you to move beyond being a one-trick pony. This is where you have to start moving from being a tool to the next phase…

Phase Four – It’s a Platform. If you’ve successfully transitioned to being a social media platform, you should have the opportunity to finally turn a profit. The stability of the revenue model will be wholly dependent on how high you’ve been able to raise the cost of switching. The more “sticky” your platform is, the more stable your revenue will be. But, be aware that using advertising as your revenue channel is fraught with issues in the world of social media. Unlike search, where we are used to dealing with a crystal clear indication of consumer interest, social media usage seldom comes tied to clear buyer intent. You have to worry about modality and social norms, along with the erosion of your “cool” factor.

In the last two phases, the best revenue opportunities should be directly tied to functionality and intent. The closer you can align your advertising message to the intent of the users “in the moment” the more stable your revenue model will be. In fact, if you can introduce tools that are focused on users when they are in social modes where commercial messaging is appropriate, you will find revenue opportunities dropping into your lap. For example, if users use LinkedIn to crowdsource opinions on B2B purchases, you have a natural monetization opportunity. If they’re using your app to post pictures of their cat playing a xylophone, you’re going to find it much harder to make a buck. Not impossible, but pretty damned difficult.

So, Six Seconds is the Secret, Huh?

First published February 13, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

oreo-superbowl-blackout-adApparently, the new official time limit for customer engagement is 6 seconds, according to a recent post on Real Time Marketing. How did we come up with 6? Well, in the world of social media engagement it seemed like a good number and no one has called bull shit on it yet, so 6 it is

Marketers love to talk about time – just in time, real time, right time. At the root of all this “time talk” is the realization that customers really don’t have any time for us, so we have to somehow jam our messages into the tiny little cracks that may appear in the wall of willful ignorance they carefully build against marketing. The marketer’s goal is to erode their defenses by looking for any weakness that may appear.

Look at the supposed poster child for Real Time Marketing – the Oreo coup staged during the black out in the 2013 Super Bowl. Because the messaging was surprising and clever, and because, let’s face it, we weren’t doing much of anything else anyway, Oreo managed to gain a foothold in our collective consciousness for a few precious seconds. So, marketers being marketers, we all stumbled over ourselves to proclaim a new channel and launch a series of new micro-attacks on consumers. That’s where the 6 seconds came from. Apparently, that’s the secret to storming the walls. Five seconds and you’re golden. Seven seconds and you’re dead.

Oreo surprised us, and it wasn’t because the message was 6 seconds long. It was because we weren’t expecting a highly relevant, highly timely message. Humans are built to respond to things that don’t fit within our expected patterns. The whole approach of marketing is to constantly blanket us with untimely, irrelevant messages. Marketers, to be fair, try to deliver the right message at the right time to the right person, but it’s really hard to do that. So, we overcompensate by delivering lots of messages all the time to everyone, hoping to get lucky. Not to take anything away from the cleverness and nimbleness of the Oreo campaign, but they got lucky. We were surprised and we let our defenses down long enough to be amused and entertained. Real time marketing wasn’t a brilliant new channel; it was a shot in the dark – literally.

And there’s no six-second gold standard of engagement. If you can deliver the right message at the right time to the right person, you can spend hours talking to your prospective customer.  It’s only when you’re trying to interrupt someone with something irrelevant that you have to hopefully shoehorn it into their consciousness. Think of it like a Maslow’s hierarchy of advertising effectiveness.  At it’s best advertising should be useful. This sits at the top of the pyramid. After usefulness comes relevance – even if I don’t find the ad useful to me right now, at least you’re talking to the right person. After relevance comes entertainment – I’ll willingly give you a few seconds of my time if I find your message amusing or emotionally engaging.  I may not buy, but I’ll spend some time with you. After entertainment comes the category the majority of advertising falls into – a total waste of my time.  Not useful, irrelevant, not emotionally engaging. And making an ad that falls into this category 5 seconds long, no matter what channel it’s delivered through, won’t change that. You may fool me once, but next time, I’m still going to ignore you.

There was something important happening during the Oreo campaign at the 2013 Super Bowl, but it had nothing to do with some new magic formula, some recently discovered loophole in our cognitive defenses. It was a sign of what may, hopefully, emerge as trend in advertising – nimble, responsive marketing that establishes a true feedback loop with prospects. What may have happened when the lights went out in New Orleans is that we may have found a new, very potent way to make sense of our market and establish a truly interactive, responsive dialogue with them. If this is the case, we may have just found a way climb a rung or two on the Advertising Effectiveness Hierarchy.