Many media owners, online commerce companies, and brands have been frustrated by their inability to gain real traction on the mobile web. Well-crafted products languish in the lower depths of the app store. And the people who invested their time and budget in them search for explanations in frustration. The answer may lie in the emerging sociology of media consumers.
Ask a group of people where to go for dinner and you will uncover more than who likes Chinese and who prefers French. Within the simple act of evaluating restaurants lies important clues about consumer behavior across media types. An older person might reference a restaurant recommended by a New York Times critic. Another, perhaps in their late 30s, might cite a high score on Zagat. The younger members in the group might mention a place that their friends rated highly on Yelp.
Within this simple discussion is the foundation of a cross-generational media strategy. There are effectively three generations of media consumers in the market today: people over 55 years old; people 30-55 years old; and the millennial generation under 30 years old. While these generational boundaries are not absolute, this segmentation works well as an aid to thinking about serving the spectrum of consumers. I will acknowledge in advance that senior citizens are on Facebook and that people in their 30s are inhaling iPhones and iPods. These three generations differ not only by age but also by their preferred method of accessing media and their chosen source of authority.
The oldest generation may be online, but it remains the backbone of the offline media brands. It is overwhelmingly represented by the people sitting on the couch, watching the evening news, reading the morning paper, and subscribing to most magazines. These people look for a voice of trusted authority. They respect media brands and identify experts that merit their trust.
The middle generation is the web generation. Its members' devices of choice are laptops and desktop computers. They are the group that has made Google a powerhouse. When they have a question, they enter it into the search box on their browser and trust that Google will instantly present the most authoritative sources. Brand equity and trust have been transferred from media and retail to Google.
The youngest generation is the virtuoso of the cell phone. These individuals treat their phones as the remote controls for their lives and expect that anything and everything should be accessible on the mobile web. This group places the highest value on the opinions of their friends and real people. They believe that Wikipedia is more trustworthy than the Encyclopedia Britannica because articles are accountable to the public rather than a nameless, faceless editor. At its extreme, this group believes that "the truth is what we agree it is."
Understanding these three generations of media consumers is more than an exercise in pop ethnography. It should be one of the major drivers of your cross-platform development strategy. It's not enough to simply port your site to a new platform. To be successful, you need to re-imagine your service or website and adapt it for both the platform and the audience.
Many brands are still stuck in the thinking that their real business is offline and that their websites are the "e" versions of that real business. Their mobile presences, if they have one, exist to drive consumers to their websites. Each step in the chain is weaker and dumber than the previous one. This is also why incumbents are typically blind-sided by upstarts and startups that create products and services on the new platform without having to worry about an installed base or a legacy business.
Re-imagining your brand for a new platform and a new generation is the key to ensuring long-term brand success. Without a re-imagining, your audience will get a little bit older every year and die off a little bit every year.
Peter C. Horan is an experienced entrepreneur with a history of building successful media and internet businesses.
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