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MARKETING 101: Communicating with Today's Digital Citizens

January 2011
By: Jerry Thacker

If you were born before 1992, you'll want to read this article. In fact, you need to read this article. Why? Because you may be using communication tools that make no sense to your current clients. They may look the same as people born before that year, but in reality they are much, much different. Here are a few things to ponder as you think about your communication program:

First, technology is seeping into almost every life venue and is changing the way people communicate with each other in both delivery system philosophy and reality. Teachers are finding there is an 'understanding gap' in the way students experience the world compared to the way they experienced the world growing up. This manifests itself in students 'turning off and tuning out' and the belief that adults who control education have outdated knowledge and a different experience than what it is like to grow up in the 21st century.

Second, today's young people spend large quantities of time in the digital world —a world that is adapting, growing, innovating, and changing at the speed of light. The inundation of our children in media for 7 to 10 hours per day continues at a rapid pace (Rideout, 2010). Some see increasing digital media use a severe problem—even an addiction—that is changing the chemical balance and flow within the brain (Barna, 2010). Some studies suggest that the way today's children acquire knowledge and information is also altering brain structure (Jukes, 2010).

Third, children born after 1992 were "born digital" and have always had access to instantaneous communication and the integration of digital media into their daily lives (Pape, 2005). This 'digital generation' is learning and thinking in new ways fostered by a digital life context. Students recognize they speak digital as a first language; their parents and teachers speak it as a second language and are viewed as not being up-to-date on technology (Palfrey, 2008).

Fourth, because the world's knowledge is exploding exponentially, schools cannot teach everything a student needs to know later in life. The 'just in case' learning philosophy is giving way to a 'just in time' learning philosophy that incorporates continuous and immediate access to current digital data as a part of the student's life through the use of the latest digital devices (Collins, 2009). Young people pay "continuous partial attention" to what's going on around them. You have to make sure you have their focused attention before you'll be able to communicate successfully with them.

Finally, studies show that the period of time that our children spend with an adolescent mindset may extend from age 13 to 30. They do not necessarily aspire to adulthood with its myriad responsibilities including the need for jobs, the responsibility of taking care of children, and the conduct that would make them a good role model for citizenship. They are stuck in a "me-centered" lifestyle that looks for personal pleasure and aggrandizement more than one that is characterized by responsibility.

When we understand these phenomena, it can help us better understand the needs of the digital generation and the way in which we should minister to its members. Ponder these thoughts for a while. In future columns, we'll flesh out concepts to help you reach these folks.

Jerry Thacker, B.A., M.A., is President of Right Ideas, Inc., and Publisher of At the Center. He can be reached at

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