Meet Your New Boss, The Digital Native

Over the past month, I've met a number of people whom we all need to understand better. Right now they call themselves members of the class of 2011 or 2012 or 2013. Pretty soon we'll be calling them "boss."

Throughout several events and guest lectures, I met students at Yale's School of Management, New York University, and my alma mater Binghamton University. I was supposedly there as a hybrid of a professional and professor, sharing my personal experience working in digital media and the latest social media trends. Each time though, I felt like a student. As my homework assignment, here's what I learned about our future colleagues from going back to school.

1) They are constantly asking questions. How many conferences do you go to where the presenters finish and the only sounds from the audience are the nearly inaudible taps of fingers against the glass of iPhone screens? Students tend to be far more appreciative of the time they have with guest speakers, and once someone starts asking questions, most others can't wait to take part. There's little I enjoy more when presenting than having a ton of material that I can't get to because the audience is too engaged. It goes back to advice I've heard from others that I heartily endorse: no one will leave your presentation thinking, "It would have been great if only there were more slides."

2) They appreciate candid discussion. When I'm speaking at a conference, I may not adhere to a strict list of talking points, but I'm always envisioning that there are three people sitting in my front row: my boss, my head of marketing, and any one of my clients. Many others will add a fourth: their lawyer. In a classroom, the discussion can be a lot more open, from discussing the stories about how a marketing program comes together from start to finish, to dissecting the results and what they really mean. That leads to far more meaningful dialogue.

3) They're all digital natives. I like talking with groups of executives who don't use social media because it reminds me how low social media ranks for many of them on their priority lists. It also makes me feel needed. In class though, there's never any explanation required  on what the current platforms are and how to use them. Granted, they might not know of every last startup that got some fawning write-up in Mashable, and they might not use a lot of the sites or apps everyone's buzzing about that given week, but there's a sense of fluency when you get in the room. It's like the difference between learning a language at a level where every word must be translated versus being able to have flowing conversations. It elevates the nature of the discussion as soon as it starts.

4) They ask the uncomfortable questions, usually about measurement. If you tell a class a Facebook page has 10 million fans, students will keep grilling you about why that matters. No matter how far you take it, they're always asking, "So what?" To me, this is the most amazing thing. While it's a given that these students use social media, they don't think it's a given for brands to participate. Only once you make a strong case for a program will they buy into the rationale for brands, which varies depending on a given brand's goals. This mentality will force marketers and their agencies to use social media in even smarter ways as these students enter the workforce and wind up in management's ranks not too far from now.

5) There's a passion among some students that will inspire anyone working in digital media. My mom had one of the best jobs ever when she was in high school: working in the mail room of "American Bandstand." For some kids today, the equivalent might be working behind the scenes of "American Idol," but they really light up when talking about digital opportunities. I can tell within moments of meeting these students which ones I hope to work with, and I can't wait for them to start making contributions to our field.

I know these students will do plenty well for themselves, but did my assignment get a passing grade? I'm hoping you're grading on a curve, so I have the chance to keep on learning. These students are already some of the best teachers out there.

3 comments about "Meet Your New Boss, The Digital Native".
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  1. Grant Crowell from, April 19, 2011 at 8:24 p.m.

    David, I recently attended a speaking engagement with the NY Times Best selling author Rob Bell (Of the book "Love Wins"), and he immediately started off his own engagement by asking the entire audience, "Does anyone have any questions?" (I was the first to ask one.) His entire presentation time was peppering stories from each individual questions, so it would have a smooth flow of the audience and himself being heard equally. Sometimes it got dull with a few people's questions, and other times it was interesting.

    Now these weren't students, but they came just to hear him speak. I guess what they weren't expecting was how open he was to hearing THEM speak, and overall I found it refreshing.

    I've debated if I've wanted to start my own individual marketing presentations by just starting with asking the audience if anyone has any questions. I do let people know that the full presentation is already available online (sometimes as a video, or a SlideShare audio recording), and that we should just relax, enjoy ourselves, and have fun – everyone's question will get answered. Sometimes it seems that some questions inspire others, which is a good thing, right?

  2. Matthew Smyers from RedShift, April 20, 2011 at 9:20 a.m.

    I completely agree with your appoint about this generation's ability to ask the uncomfortable questions, especially when it comes to social media. I think those of us who weren't raised on SM as digital natives, are more easily impressed by the seemingly limitless marketing potential of the medium while the young natives see SM platforms as their domain that is not to be intruded upon by any marketing messages. They've learned how to migrate from platform to platform to get ad free content while our generation grew up on TV without DVR and TiVo so advertising was just part of the deal. Reaching this audience will continue to be a huge challenge, until they takeover and have to answer the tough questions of the next generation.

  3. Keith Trivitt from MediaWhiz, April 20, 2011 at 9:31 a.m.

    Some spot-on, insightful points, David. I, too, often find myself asking "Why does that matter?" whenever a marketer or brand says they want to have XX number of Facebook page fans or Twitter followers. Asking those questions, in my estimation, is what we should be doing to ensure clients and our organizations get as much value as they can out of social media campaigns and strategies. It's the same we would do with more traditional practices, and good measurement shouldn't take a backseat to navel-gazing efforts to build large social networking fan bases.

    I would hope that this inquisitiveness that you find in digital natives is a common trait among all generations of marketers. That, to me, is what helps us add value to clients and the public.

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