PR World: Meet the Digital Naturals

Once upon a time, Marc Prensky announced the arrival of Digital Natives. He was describing a new generation of students, young people who had grown up with the internet and understood it in a way that older people never would. These Natives lived and learnt in ways that demanded a new approach, and this would be quite a challenge for the Digital Immigrants who would struggle to learn a new language and would never be quite fluent.

Prensky was writing in 2001, and his warning struck a chord, so much so that his terminology still retains an appeal for communicators. Maybe we are moving on now, but many a PR agency has worked hard to recruit recent undergraduates who are expected to be “fluent” in social media. As the irrepressible Brian Solis wrote in 2013, ”Gen Y and Z were born with digital in their DNA”.

He went on, “While that may seem like a given, it is the very detail that separates them from their parents, teachers, businesses, governments, and any organisation other than those already run by Gen Y and Z. As a result, our society splits into two camps, those who “get” these connected generations and those who do not or will not.” – New Digital Influencers: The coming Youthquake

There is a lot of truth in what he says. Every generation discovers new values, and new technologies can drive social change. But at the same this handy natives-and-immigrants split brings many problems. Firstly, it is not fair to young people. Having fast fingers and understanding Snapchat may come naturally, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these young people have mature critical faculties. An Ofcom report found that more than half of 12- to 15-year-olds believe most of what they find on the internet is true; indeed 17% believe everything they read on homework websites is true. Granted the four-year trend was towards greater skepticism, but these figures suggest serious risks in relying too heavily on native fluency.

And what about the “immigrants”? For a start, immigrant is not an entirely appropriate term. It has implications of not belonging, being a (not necessarily welcome) outsider, someone who has to work hard to understand customs and practices and most likely can never be completely assimilated.

It is also particularly unhelpful for communicators who are trying to engage with a significant portion of the UK population. The reality is that the vast majority of people in the UK use online platforms every day for banking, booking travel, buying food, for work, for chatting with friends and generally for getting by. Maybe they do it in different ways, in part according to their age, but then most people today live most aspects of their lives differently, according to age. Teenagers have different views of their own privacy, their own space, and often their own importance, than their parents and grandparents do. They are trying to establish an identity, and care deeply about what their ever shifting circle of friends think. They constantly juggle the conflicting appeals of trying to conform to peer group social norms and trying to be different.

So a 15-year-old using Facebook is doing different things than a 50-year-old. Surprise, surprise.

For all these – usually negative – reasons my Lund University colleague Marja Åkerström and I coined the term Digital Naturals. We describe Digital Naturals as, “Individuals who are comfortable in an online environment, are equipped through experience and exposure to its cultural norms, and have the technological competencies required to operate effectively.”

It follows that to a great extent anyone reading this online article is a Digital Natural. But this comes with a qualification. A key word in the definition is comfortable. Being able to do something doesn’t mean you are unaware of risk, even danger. Anyone who is completely comfortable online is as naïve as the teenager who believes everything Google tells them.

For practical purposes,the communicator who wants to understand Digital Naturals needs to understand our individual propensities Click To Tweet Here, propensities refers to likely behaviours and values, and it involves feelings that can be placed on a continuum such as:

  1. Sharing or privacy,
  2. Searching (push vs pull),
  3. Peer respect or peer pressure,
  4. Authority or independence,
  5. Engagement or influence,
  6. Acceptance or rejection,
  7. Aptitude or access,
  8. Literacy (comprehension) or expression.

Try it on yourself, then try it with the target demographic of a campaign you are planning. What do you think their propensities might be? What research could you do to support and strengthen your conclusions?

In some ways, I am hard to reach – a middle-aged man who can get very interested in some things (books, maps and cycling, seeing as you asked), but who also is very selective in what he shares socially, barely watches TV, and wouldn’t dream of discussing, say, health issues even within a tight social circle.

To reach this Digital Natural with, say, a health campaign, you might identify certain propensities, and then try to map them against various media platforms and channels. It would take time, effort and imagination, but the days when we could find anything approaching a one size fits all media campaign are long gone.

To make your job even harder, the more natural being online feels, the more natural it gets, and the more we act like ourselves. I have never met you, but I know with absolute certainty that my information and opinion web is different to yours. I read different things, for different reasons, and I use different platforms configured in different ways to you.

Maybe by dispensing with any notion of an age driven split between natives and immigrants, by thinking carefully abut propensities, communicators can focus the ways in which they engage with Digital Naturals.

Philip Young (@mediations) is senior lecturer in Public Relations at Birmingham City University and co-editor with Timothy Coombs, Jesper Falkheimer and Mats Heide, of Strategic Communications, Social Media and Democracy: The Challenge of the Digital Naturals