As They Age, So Do Their Motivations for Going Online

I'd met the requirements for my major, but I still needed two credits to get my undergraduate degree. While there weren't many two-credit classed offered in the summer, I found one: "Introduction to the Internet."

Yes, I believed it would be important to learn about the Internet, but I had another motivation for learning to create Web pages, use email and Instant Messenger. I lived in California, I had a girlfriend in Texas, and I was a poor college student. Every extra cent I had was going to buy stamps to send letters and pay for long-distance phone calls -- since a cell phone was out of my financial grasp as well.

My initial motivation for going online was simple. I did it for a girl. I welcomed the opportunity to communicate long-distance, in real-time, for free.

But my motivations for using the Internet have changed since then. Now, I use it for everything from work to shopping and paying bills to staying in touch with old friends.

Earlier this year, I wrote "The Fluid Nature of Gen Y's Media Habits," which looked at how media habits change as Gen Y consumers move through different life stages. I've since conducted new research (to be published next month) that looks at how the motivations fueling online activity change over time.



Shopping (22%) and looking for deals (20%)

While women are more likely than men to be motivated to go online to shop and find deals, there are dramatic changes that occur over time.

Shopping is a driver for 19% of female high school students, while searching out deals is a much lower priority (only 4% indicate this is a primary driver). Once women enter college, searching for deals in the form or coupons, discounts, and freebies increases in importance, becoming a primary motivator for 27% of female college students to go online. Finding deals is an even higher motivation for women who don't complete college (39%).

Men are less likely than women to be driven online to shop or search for deals in their high school and college years. However, this changes substantially as they enter the workforce. Armed with disposable income, finding deals online becomes a primary motivation for 50% of Gen Y male college graduates to go online.

  • Application: Women are likely to start looking for deals when they enter college (e.g., maintaining a wardrobe on a budget), while men are more likely to start looking when they get out of college (e.g., they finally have money for techno-gadgets). Target deals to consumers as they enter these new life-stages.

Socializing with online friends (27%) and communicating with friends and family (55%)

Communicating with friends and family is the most common motivator for females to go online regardless of their life stage. Not so for the maintenance of "online friendships," which is a motivator for 42% of female high schoolers to go online compared to only 24% of female college students.

For men, socializing with online friends and communicating with friends and family becomes less prominent motivators as they age. For example, 59% of male high school students say communicating with friends and family is a primary reason for going online compared to only 28% of male college graduates who consider this a top motivation.

The importance of maintaining "online friendships" also decreases for men as the move from high school to college. However, after graduating college, the importance of maintaining online relationships surges as they shift their attention to building business contacts and keeping up with business trends.

  • Application: As Gen Y ages, women narrow their sphere of online communication while men change their sphere of online communication. Social networks of friends and family are more likely to have an influence on women, while business networks are more likely to have an influence on men.

Hunting for information (20%)

Some consumers are much more interested in getting information online than in interacting with others online. On average, Gen Y men are more likely to fit into this group, but this is because high school age females (7%) and women who don't graduate from college (18%) are unlikely to fit in this group.

In contrast, 18% of high school males consider themselves information consumers, and this trend increases steadily regardless of whether they attend college or not. 36% of men graduating from college and moving only professional careers are motivated to go online in order to "consume information." Only professional women with college degrees are more likely to go online primarily to find information (41%).

  • Application: Men's quest for data increases as they age. For women, this quest is more likely to depend on their level of education. If your audience is college-educated women, providing valuable information should be a key part of your communication strategy. If your female audience hasn't attended college, you are much better off focusing on offering deals.

Earlier today, a friend told me, "It's much less important to look at a person's finger than where the finger is pointing." In short, it's not about what, but why. We are just scratching the surface, and we will be looking at even more motivators in the days ahead. I'm convinced that understanding why people go online, and how that changes over time, will open up many new and exciting opportunities.

4 comments about "As They Age, So Do Their Motivations for Going Online".
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  1. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc., May 21, 2010 at 12:19 p.m.

    Thanks for the article! I can sympathize with what it takes to put your ideas out into the public view.

    Appreciation aside, there may be some generational differences that will confound your findings and impair some of your recommendations. Someone who is 17 years old today will not act the same in 20 years as the person who is 37 years old today, so assuming that GenY will morph to act like GenX as they age may lead marketers down the wrong path.

    GenX is practical and laser focused on getting ahead, hence their interest in acquiring information and obtaining bargains. Since they grew up at a time when they were allowed to physically hang out with in malls and in neighborhoods without their parents stressing about pedophiles and drug dealers, they'll always tend to hang in person rather than connect with friends online.

    Conversely, the inherent characteristics of GenY lead them to use technology in ways that reflect what drives and motivates them as a generation: they use the internet to connect with their broad and diverse constellation of friends online because they have been denied the ability to physically 'hang' on an unsupervised basis. They aren't as motivated by bargain hunting and information gathering because that's simply not who they are.

    I'd hazard a guess that even though technology will change a lot over the next two decades, we'll still see major differences between 37 year old GenX's in 2010 and 37 year old GenY's in 2030 in terms of what they do and why.

  2. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, May 21, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

    @ Daniel - I appreciate the feedback and welcome the constructive criticism. Hopefully we can continue the dialogue.

    In response, I agree there are inherent generational differences. Clearly the appeal of maintaining friendships online is a generational thing that will carry with consumers as they age. This is simply less appealing to older consumers since they didn’t grow up that way.

    An important point is that all of this information is based on people age 15 to 24. I should have made special note of that. In this analysis I’m comparing high school students to people that just finished high school and people in college to those that just graduated college.

    The key here is that the shifts are so drastic between lifestages (i.e., from HS to college to post-college) that generational factors simply fail to provide a satisfactory explanation.

    As people get older, they have different responsibilities and different priorities. As such, their motivations for being online change--and they change drastically. As you point out, teens may be motivated to socialize online because they are denied the ability to hang out in person. Once the 'denial of access' ceases to exist, the appeal of hanging out online decreases relative to other motivations like paying bills, finding deals, caring for children, or building one’s career.

  3. Chris Vinson from Vinson Advertising, May 21, 2010 at 9 p.m.

    Great article Morgan! I think a cross expansion of online use is what is happening. So snapshot trend information like you provide here is very welcome and very insightful. Young folks as they grow will do what older people did but with help from the internet (Coupons etc) and older folks are learning to socialize on the internet. Another interesting change is that we will be able to stay in touch with friends throughout life much better than the older generations could have. Their cost of time, long distance and phone number search was prohibitive. Lets just hope the electricity doesn't go off.

  4. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc., May 22, 2010 at 7:22 p.m.

    Oh, gee. They were ALL Millennials ... my statements are off base then - sorry.

    One simple question could have sidestepped a ton of commentary ;-)

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