If someone tells me that A is much the same as B, my hackles rise.Â Au contraire, I reply.Â B could hardly be more different.Â There may be a few superficial similarities.Â But on closer examination, well, chalk and cheese doesn’t begin to do justice to the gulf that exists between them.Â Chalk and, I don’t know, maybe woodpeckers, more like.
But then, of course, if someone tells me that A is in fact very different from B, guess what.Â Not to me, it isn’t.Â There may be a few superficial differences.Â But on closer examination, two peas in a pod doesn’t begin to do justice to the resemblance.Â Two cloned sheep in a pen, maybe.
I suppose these two reactions position me a a contrarian.Â And one of the things that brings out the contrarian in me is this digital natives vs digital immigrants thing.
Of course I accept that there is now a generation, reaching young adulthood, for whom the digital world is home turf. They’ve known it since they were very small.Â They’re entirely at home there.Â They lead large chunks of their lives online.Â Their online and offline lives co-exist.Â Marketers who want to reach them should think about ways to engage with them online at least as much as offline, if not more.Â Engaging with them online is fairly different.Â And so on and so on.
But what I don’t really accept is that in almost all of these respects, they’re really all that different from older people – including some much older people – who work in offices.Â Yes, it’s true that I started my working life right at the tail end of the era of manual typewriters.Â Then there were great big whirring clunking electric typewriters.Â Then word processers with green type on black screens.Â Then desktops.Â Then laptops.Â Then blackberries.Â Then cloud computing which only needs a keyboard and an internet connection.Â But the thing is, that may make me a immigrant rather than a native – in fact, it may make me a somewhat rootless expatriate, roaming across technologies like an HSBC international banker roams across territories.Â But is the place where you’ll find me today all that different from the place where you’ll find, say, my 16-year old son Oliver?
I am, of course, online from the moment I get to work till the moment I leave, and even after I leave there’s the mobile, the Blackberry, the laptop downstairs beside the sofa and the desktop in the study.Â When I’m out and about, there’s the Blackberry and I very much hope there’ll be wireless internet:Â when it was down on the East Coast Main Line the other day, I was so lost that the only thing I could think of doing was going to sleep.
On this machine, here at the office, I keep at least three browsers open, each for different websites that I use throughout the day.Â One of those is the middle-aged businessman’s social networking site du choix, LinkedIn:Â I do Facebook minimally, but I link in a lot.Â I blog, and read other blogs, many of them written by people at least as old as I am.Â I engage with hundreds if not thousands of brands on the internet, not least because I do 98% of my non-food shopping there.Â I don’t tweet much, because I’m too verbose, but I do follow a few people who have brief-but-interesting things to say.Â And just like Oliver, I live in online and offline worlds simultaneously:Â while he’s texting on his phone in an English lesson, I’m doing my emails on the Blackberry in a research presentation.
Ollie does online gaming and I don’t, but apart from that I can’t seeÂ any fundamental difference in the way that we balance our online and offline lives.
Sorry that this all sounded so me me me.Â I didn’t really mean “me.”Â I meant us.Â In all the respects I’ve just described, I don’t think I’m any different from several million other office workers.
And if that’s right, two questions arise.
First, behind the similarities in our behaviour, does the fact that Ollie is a digital native while I’m an immigrant imply some underlying differences between us?Â If so, it’s hard to see what they are.Â Those days of electric typewriters seem a million years ago to me now.Â Or the days when if you wanted to buy something, you had to get off your arse, go out of the house and visit something called a “shop.”
Vice versa, I should also say that Ollie’s digital nativeness (?) doesn’t mean that he can’t relate to the offline world, or that he relates to it in some odd and digital way.Â On a Saturday afternoon he could watch the football live online, on some pirate Romanian website.Â But in fact we traipse up Tottenham High Road to White Hart Lane just as previous generations have done, the only difference being that during the game we keep up with BBC Live Text on phone screens rather than listening to radio earpieces jammed in our ears.Â Â If there is a significant difference at any level between native and long-established immigrant, I can’t see it.
But then second – and, you’ll be pleased to hear, last – if there isn’t a significant difference, then what about all this stuff we keep hearing about how brands need to engage in completely new and different ways with young, digital native markets?
It’s certainly true that teenagers like Ollie relate to a lot of brands that mean nothing to their 50-something parents.Â It was ever thus.Â And it’s certainly true that the Internet presents gazillions of new ways, and new opportunities, for brands to relate to their target groups, more or less whoever those target groups may be.Â This is big, and important, and wonderfully exciting.Â But are there special rules which brands have to understand if they want to engage with Ollie – rules that don’t apply if they only want to engage with boring old me?Â If so, I can’t see what they are.
There are brands that Ollie engages with very closely – Tottenham Hotspur, Nando’s, Audi, Lucozade Sport – that he encounters almost entirely in the offline world.Â There are others that he encounters only online – and quite a few that he encounters in both.
The same goes for me.Â Some of my strongest brand relationships – Aston Martin, Red Stripe, Wisden, Waitrose – exist only offline.Â Others – I suppose Amazon is the obvious one – only online.Â And many in both.
Enough already.Â If I haven’t made my point by now, I never will.Â The digital world provides wonderful new opportunities for brands to engage with consumers.Â In many areas – perhaps financial services in particular – we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what these opportunities may be.Â Most of the best, and most exciting, will be new, and different, and specific to the interactive nature of the medium.Â I’m loving all of that.
What I’m not loving is the idea that all these possibilities should be focused wholly, or largely, on the upcoming generation of digital natives, to the exclusion of other target groups who in fact blend offline and online lives in virtually identical ways;Â or the idea that if you are targeting the digital natives then online is now the only game in town.
I don’t love these ideas a) because I don’t think they’re true, but also b) because they seem to me to try to create distinctions and compartments and separations where none really exists.Â Whatever we’re doing, and whoever we want to engage with, we have a hugely-expanded – and expanding – range of ways to do so.Â Comparing us to previous generations toiling at the brand, marketing and communications coalface, that’s the really big difference – chalk and woodpeckers, indeed.