Is Gen Y Sick of Tech?

GenYSurprise: The evidence is building that the majority of consumers — especially Millennials — want less technologically-enhanced digital “connectedness.” Euro RSCG’s Tom Morton explains the trend  

They are not happy about where the world is going, and they are suspicious of digital technology. More than half of them think everyone should stop sharing personal thoughts and experiences online; they believe society needs to reestablish its privacy boundaries.

No, these aren’t members of the William Gibson fan club. Nor are they the rumblings of some militia hunkering down in the woods of Idaho. Rather, these sentiments reflect the view of the mainstream, a broad group from around the world polled by Euro RSCG Worldwide. The firm has completed a major global study — a first — with Market Probe International, polling 7,213 adults in 19 countries about their opinion of technology and the future.

Millennials might be the most cynical of all demographics, with 70 percent of them believing today’s youth have less privacy. The study found that a third of Millennials, versus a quarter of everyone polled, assert social networking is making them less satisfied with their own lives. They also said that they are jealous of the lives they’re seeing others lead via Facebook and other sites. Forty percent sometimes feel they’re wasting their lives.

While only 10 percent said they believe digital technology will have a negative effect overall on the world, a much bigger percentage said they felt the jury is still out: 42 percent believe it’s too soon to tell. Half the sample worries that digital technology and multitasking are impairing our ability to think deeply and to concentrate on one task at a time. Around two-thirds believe society has become too shallow, focusing too much on things that don’t really matter.

Tom Morton, chief strategic officer of Euro RSCG New York and co-chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG North America, says respondents are articulating first a fear that social media and online data collection are chiseling away at one’s right to privacy; and second, that hyperconnectivity is actually making us feel less connected. He says over half worry that digital communication is weakening human-to-human bonds.

A majority of those polled said they are tired of over-consuming and are looking to scale back and live more simply. Forty percent said they would be happier if they owned less stuff. Nearly three-quarters of respondents around the world are moderately to extremely worried about the growing gap between rich and poor. Euro RSCG’s comments after the study was published last month were that people will find a balanced life, where the “Web consciousness” (my term, I think) doesn’t efface one’s involvement with planet Earth. Morton speaks to MediaPost about the study and offers some not-so-dour insights.

Who are the respondents? Were they a socioeconomic cross section? 

Working with research partner Market Probe International, we fielded the online quantitative survey among 7,000 respondents in 19 countries around the world. The overall sample is 51 percent male, 49 percent female. The median age is 34, with 51 percent between the ages of 18 and 34, 34 percent ages 35-54, and 15 percent age 55+.

I’m guessing advertisers might not be terribly happy to hear this kind of news. But what should advertisers do besides wring their hands and wish they had gotten into the jazz scene or become actors? After all, every marketer on earth, whether they are selling cars or flapjacks, are after data, and want to turn citizens into “brand advocates.”  

Clearly, you haven’t seen our jazz hands; that’s going to be our Act II. There are two things we know about social media users: They’re anxious about the possibility of privacy breaches and unhappy about ceding so much control to absolute strangers. And yet most of them have absolutely no intention of staying off social networking and other online sites.

Some may shut down their Facebook pages from time to time — but the draw of communication, connection and self-expression is powerful. In any case, it doesn’t actually appear to be advertisers that they’re scared of. People have little reason not to like targeted communications when they’re genuinely helpful — when they’re steering the person toward a product or brand or site that is of interest or of use to them, when the algorithm doesn’t spew out some clumsy piece of over-targeting. 

That’s actually quite a change from the early days of the Internet, when an advertising banner was considered a sacrilege — an incursion into what many considered their personal space. That was before the Internet became one big shopping mall, before people began to figure out how handy it is to compare notes with other shoppers online, and before social media became integral to our everyday living. It was also before brand communications became a two-way street, with consumers playing an infinitely greater role in brand building.

The message advertisers need to take from our study is that we’d be stupid to take this level of (oftentimes begrudging) acceptance for granted. Lurking underneath all this casual transference of information are feelings of uncertainty and doubt. Virtually everyone we know is sharing information online. We’ve shared tons of information ourselves without anything bad happening. But we all know there’s potential for something to go awry.

That’s what we need to pay heed to. We need to respect the information in our archives — first and foremost, by keeping it safe. We need to be transparent about who we are and how and why we’re using information. We need to give people reasons to want to connect with us online. And we also need to give people reasons to want that connection to be public — to be happy to be associated with our clients’ companies and brands because there is something in that connection to be proud of.

Aren’t the results of this study likely to be deeply troubling to agency creatives and marketers paid to fashion language for, say, tech companies? Some of these results suggest people are getting cynical about terms like “empowerment,” “freedom,” “personalization” and “community” as applied to the Web and Web-connected and mobile devices. At some point, aren’t the Apples, Samsungs, etc., of the world going to have to get a bit more nuanced?

I don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that Web devices are responsible for curtailing freedom or crushing community life. There are all sorts of factors that have had an effect on community over the past few decades, ranging from longer commutes to work and increased mobility to more women in the workforce. What Web technologies have done is further increase an already faster pace of living and make it easier to create a “human interaction lite” way of living.

The truth is, digital technologies are empowering, they do increase personal freedom, they do afford greater personalization, and they can enhance people’s sense of community. It’s all in how you use them. The findings from the Digital Life study suggest that it will be in marketers’ interests to find way to help consumers use these technologies in a way that creates these sorts of advantages rather than detracting from them.

While I understand the hybrid lifestyle argument, and have read about it elsewhere — that people will find a happy medium — I’m wondering if part of the study results suggest a big backlash against the joys of social media: that citizens who manage to get free of the screens will also become a lot less likely to want anything to do with brands trying to employ them as “fans,” “friends” and whatnot online. 

There may well be some born-again Luddites who take offense at advertising that tries to lure them back into the clutches of modern technology. But, really, how many are there going to be? Fifteen years ago, it took a bit of effort to get online and become a part of this nascent world. Today, it would require a huge effort to stay away from it. Think how many of us have jobs that would be impossible to do today without digital technologies, including social media.  Living off-grid is never going to be more than a backlash for a few.

And, depending on what age you are, a big part of your social communication — and even your social life — likely takes place online. We’re all receiving e-vites rather than phone calls or printed invitations to parties. Many of us are connecting with friends from high school and college and earlier jobs exclusively online.

People who consciously withdraw from the social media sphere may not want to “fan” Pepsi or Nike on Facebook, but I don’t see why they would resent the request any more than they would have resented an invitation to enter a branded sweepstakes or other contest in which they weren’t interested a couple of decades ago. We’re all incredibly good at screening out information and come-ons that aren’t relevant or of interest to us. This will just be more of the same.

At the same time, there will be opportunities to connect with people who are hungry for face-to-face interaction and a stronger sense of being part of a community based on common interests. Look at how Nike+ brings runners together online and then extends that to real-world running partnerships and races. One thing we know for sure is that having a good-works component will continue to be a big draw for any brand. Kickstarter, Just Giving and Pepsi’s Refresh project thrive on people’s desire to do some tangible good for others through an online exchange.

But isn’t the “happy balance” idea just wishful thinking to some extent? Not to be too dystopic, but there must be a movement (based on books and movies) of people who think humans will end up plugged in all the time. Isn’t the Internet addictive? And while people may have moments of remorse, they will “jack in” to the Web and forget all about it. But maybe I feel this way because I just read Neuromancer.

I wouldn’t frame it in terms of addiction.  What we tried to express in our “Prosumer Report” on the survey is that people absolutely are not intending to make any sort of permanent break from digital technology. It’s becoming such an integral part of people’s lives (socially and at work) that it’s a conscious choice to take a short break from it. We’ve all had that feeling of panic when we realize we’ve left our phone behind.  That’s reliance, not addiction.

We’ve seen stories about companies that have instituted no-email days, forcing employees to pick up the phone or, you know, actually walk down the hall to speak to a colleague. There’s a growing understanding that our work lives and personal lives will benefit from some techno downtime. And I think we’ll see more companies catering to this. In Sweden, telecom company Telia offers a free download that disables Internet use at home. Sure, some people may use it to keep their kids offline, but others need that extra boost to keep themselves away from the Internet.

This is just the beginning of what will be a growing conversation about the place of digital technologies in our lives and to what extent, if any, we need to curb their reach.  
More exclusive clubs, restaurants and resorts already have “No Cell Phone” policies; it will be interesting to see whether society as a whole will absolutely give in to new technologies or begin a bit of pushback. I think we’ll definitely see some of the latter, coming from all sorts of sectors — and aided and abetted by marketers who recognize that lots of their customers are looking for a bit of a nudge to help them get off the grid from time to time.

What will the always-connected world look like, and is that what marketers want, ultimately?

I don’t think that marketers are aiming for the precision-targeted, 24/7, mind-meld with their customers that you’re suggesting. The most useful always-on connection won’t be a constant stream of offers and messages from a brand to a consumer; it will be a quieter stream of customer data that allows a brand to tweak its services in order to be more useful to the user. is a good example.  The CEO of Mint has spoken about how every debit card transaction generates 120 fields of data, but most banks are only interested in the one field that says whether the customer has enough money in their account to cover the transaction.  Think how many more useful services you could generate with those other 119 fields.

And the types of connections that brands create are just as important. It’s all about creating meaningful connections that impact the consumer’s life in a positive way — whether it’s by creating a fun experience, offering information, creating interpersonal connections, letting them get involved in building the brand or something else. Given that people prefer to spend time with brands that they like and admire, brands need to act in a more “human” way — including not making excessive demands on customers who need little more than a low-level transactional relationship with a brand, and respecting that customers aren’t exactly hoping for a future where brands can beam promotional messages onto their retinas.

Again, we’re not talking about a total digital disconnect; we’re simply saying that plugged-in consumers around the globe are showing signs of dissatisfaction and a desire to create a bit more balance in their lives. It’s hard to imagine a downside for a brand that can help its customers live well.

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