By any measure, digital devices and platforms have been adopted widely by Americans. According to an in-depth survey by Pew, some 88 percent of adults in the US use the internet, 77 percent own a smartphone, 73 percent have broadband at home, and 69 percent use social media.
While this ubiquity is great news for digital marketers — the more internet-connected consumers the better — it should not be taken to mean that all Americans now engage online in the same ways.
There remain key differences in the Internet habits of various demographic segments, especially in how various age groups access and use the Web. Understanding these nuances is essential for brands: they can influence everything from which platforms to engage on to which content types to invest in.
So, what specifically varies between Baby Boomers (roughly defined as born between 1946 – 1964), Generation X (1965 – 1980), Millennials (1981 – 1997), and Generation Z (1998 – 2010)? Here are a three of the essential differences every marketer should keep in mind.
Devices: Younger consumers are often smartphone-first
The use of electronic devices is sometimes reduced to the simple idea that young people use them more than older people. This is true to some extent — Baby Boomers are the least likely generation to own almost every type of device — but the full picture is more complex.
For example, according to Nielsen data ownership of tablets is higher with Generation X than Millennials and ownership of DVD players is higher with Generation Z than with Millennials.
However, one area where ownership trends match perception is with smartphones: The younger a consumer is the more likely he or she is to own a smartphone.
What’s important to note is that this doesn’t hold true for desktop computers: ownership levels actually dip with Millennials compared with older consumers.
In other words, smartphones are very popular with younger consumers and they are often the primary device used by these generations to access the Internet. That’s important because mobile-first online access impacts all sorts of behavior, from which programs people use to how they communicate and purchase.
Social Media: Facebook’s grip is still strong, but loosening
When it comes to social media use, the starting point is the same for all ages: Facebook.
Pew Research estimates 68 percent of American adults are members of the network. Some 76 percent of these users access the platform at least once a day and 15 percent access it at least once a week.
Moreover, contrary to what’s sometimes said, Facebook remains popular with younger generations. Some 81 percent of college students surveyed say they use the network.
However, for younger consumers Facebook is just one of many social networks accessed, whereas for older consumers it is the primary — and sometime sole — network used.
A survey conducted by Sprout Social found that Facebook is the clear favorite social network among Generation X and Baby Boomers. In contrast, Millennials split their loyalties among various platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.
This trend is even more pronounced with Generation Z: 78 percent say they use Snapchat daily and 76 percent use Instagram daily. This compares with 66 percent who use Facebook daily.
So, what does that all mean for marketers? Essentially that if you want to reach older consumers starting with Facebook is pretty safe bet, but if you want to reach younger consumers it’s likely you’ll have to engage across multiple platforms.
Content: Visuals are increasingly as important as text
Finally, the popularity of certain social networks — specifically Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube — with younger consumers hints at a larger issue: the content preferences of generations now differ significantly.
In her annual internet trends report, Mary Meeker devotes an entire section to this idea. Specifically, she highlights the fact that while previous generations (Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and even Millennials) default to text communication, the youngest generation of consumers (Generation Z) defaults to visuals.
Meeker argues that the primary cause of this shift has been the proliferation of smartphones: because younger consumers are growing up with constantly connected devices that have powerful cameras, they naturally embrace images/video more.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that text content is no longer important: an analysis by BuzzStream and Fractl found that blog posts remain the most popular type of business-created content with consumers. What it does indicate, though, is that the primacy of text should no longer be assumed.
Ultimately, the two key themes that emerge from generational research on digital habits are mobile and variety. Compared with older consumers, younger consumers are more likely to be mobile-first. This reliance and familiarity with smartphones leads to a more diverse set of social media and content preferences. For marketers, that means investing in mobile experiences, engaging across multiple platforms, and producing visual pieces should all increasingly be areas of focus going forward.