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Make No Mistake, Marketers – This Next Generation is Hungry, Fast and Way More Knowledgeable

I was asked recently to be a guest speaker at an MBA class.  The class was devoted to fund-raising for start ups and I was asked to come and share the experience of our company in raising capital. 

I had a busy day that day and the idea of driving to and from York University to speak for an hour almost dissuaded me from doing it but boy am I ever glad I took the invitation.  Speaking at this class was an eye-opening experience for me on how much university has changed since I attended and, maybe more importantly, what this change means for those of us marketing to this generation.

It’s probably important to start by admitting that I’m 40, which means that I was going to university 20 years ago.  Now 20 years ago doesn’t seem that long ago when you are 40 and trying to pretend that you are still young, but things have changed significantly. 

When I went to University, you did research in a library, you sorted endlessly through microfiche for old newspaper content, you stood in lines for hours to photocopy books and you wrote your essays by hand at least a day in advance of them being due so that you could give them to a “typist” who would type your final copy (on a typewriter).

So let’s fast forward to how this generation learns.

Here are some observations:

  • While I was speaking with this class, there were three screens behind me projecting content from multiple sources including two live feeds to relevant web sites. 
  • Every student in that class had a laptop and a cell device and was connected through high speed WiFi from their seat. 
  • While I was speaking, students were looking up my references in real time, occasionally correcting them, and asking specific informed questions about my industry and competitors.
  • Every question I asked of them was answered correctly in about 5 seconds as they all had the wealth of the world of facts at their finger tips.  No more “Bueller … Bueller” moments. 
  • As I was speaking, there was an online “back channel” going on in the class of students speaking to each other, to other students and even to the professor asking questions about questions to ask me.  All, without anyone speaking a word out loud.
  • When asked, every one of those students stated that they participate in social networking and blogging (either as a content provider, commenter or an observer).

So, what are my conclusions about this small, albeit select, sampling of this generation?

  • They are empowered.  They don’t stand in lines for information at the library because the library comes to them.  They don’t believe what you tell them just because you are at the front of the class because they can look up 10 counter-opinions before you are even done talking.  And they don’t have the patience for a “you talk and we listen” mentality because they have access to more methods of “always on” communication than you can count.
  • They are informed.  Because information isn’t trapped by location, language, time of day or publication costs.  They have access to everything, now.  The toughest thing this generation will have to learn (or more likely, to solve) is how to sort the crap from the good stuff quickly.
  • They are fast.  And I mean “fast”.  They can get anything, anytime, fast, and they know it.  They have information and communication networks that are always on and always serving.  What I wouldn’t have given for a 24 hour library the night before my papers were due and access to 20 other papers on the exact same topic plus video clips of the author of the book discussing its nuanced conclusions.
  • They will call bullshit faster than you are finished speaking.  They will because they can.  They understand that information is power and they have access to it.  And they get that you can’t tell them to be quiet because they can scream in 40 ways that you just can’t hear.  Our job as marketers is not to sell to this generation but to recruit them.  And you can start by recognizing how they learn and communicate.  Speak to them as equals, in a truthful way that they can validate and, if you are lucky, that they can share widely and quickly with their network. 

Photo credit:  How many non-Mac are there by Quang Minh (YILKA)


  1. Sonia C
    Sonia C October 24, 2008

    I love the last point…
    “And they get that you can’t tell them to be quiet because they can scream in 40 ways that you just can’t hear. Our job as marketers is not to sell to this generation but to recruit them.”
    This is what terrifies marketers so much about the next generation.

  2. John Carson
    John Carson October 24, 2008

    Great insights on what’s coming/happening, Michael.
    And Sonia: “This is what terrifies marketers so much about the next generation.” I agree, and I also think those marketers should be looking for a new profession if they are terrified instead of being excited!

  3. Jana
    Jana October 24, 2008

    Michael, very well put.
    At Rotman we are in the middle of recruiting for full time positions, but its the same old big corporations and the same old jobs.
    I think its more than companies just having to recruit us. They have to change their perspective on what constitutes talent. They need to redefine job functions to broaden thinking and harness our ability to see the forest for the trees. They need to find the balance between corporate life and social networking/blogging/technology fiends. Bloggers don’t wear suits to work everyday!
    Personally I’m still struggling with what I want to do once I’ve graduated. It is frustrating because I can see what the future needs to be, but think its likely that we’ll need to create it ourselves.

  4. Rahaf
    Rahaf October 24, 2008

    I loved this post! As a member of this generation I wish that more marketers would see this landscape as opening up countless opportunities to collaborate, connect and engage with us, rather then running scared.

  5. Erin
    Erin October 24, 2008

    Great post.
    Makes me want to go back to school.
    It’s true – the divide between this generation you’re talking about – and those who are 35+ is widening. Those who are smart are doing all that they can to close the gap. But it’s a full-time job to stay current.

  6. Trevor Stafford
    Trevor Stafford October 24, 2008

    Sure they have instant and omniscient access to information, but you can teach a parrot to mimic without understanding as well.
    What I’ve been dismayed by (and this is a from a limited sample) is the group’s inability or reluctance to parse the information that surrounds them.
    Issues arise when what they are looking for is NOT instantly available… or not immediately applicable to the problem.
    I have recruited several of that generation…and fired them for being unable (or perhaps unwilling) to solve problems that go beyond Google.
    I worry a little that this ‘knowing without understanding’ is akin to wanting to eat food that’s already been chewed.

  7. Rob
    Rob October 28, 2008

    As slightly more senior than the author and one who has hired this generation of employees, I agree in large part with the post. There are many positive attributes to this generation of employees and today’s companies need to speak to these folks on their terms.
    However, this generation has lived in large part through a bubbling economy…really since the mid to late 90s through 2008. They have not experienced the challenges associated with a down economy so while their demands are high, those demands have been delivered against by some sectors because “times were good”.
    We are about to enter a period of sustained weakness in the economy and the call to be the “CEO in a week mentality” combined with the “need to redefine job functions to broaden thinking and harness our ability to see the forest for the trees” as articulated by Jana in the above comment by this generation will go unheard. Reality will set in and it will be unpleasant for the majority of this generation.

  8. Jana
    Jana October 28, 2008

    Rob – hopefully we have the humility to realize that life isn’t an ideal situation. Sometimes we need to work jobs that we don’t like, in situations that aren’t the best because we have responsibilities to take care of and bills that need to be paid. But that might be professing more common sense than most people seem to have.

  9. Rob
    Rob October 29, 2008

    Jana – here’s hoping that members of your generation have that common sense.
    Fyi, an Interesting article in the Careers section of today’s (Oct 29, 2008) edition of the Globe and Mail that talks about Gen Y’s introduction to the realities of a down economy and how they and employers should adjust to meet the conditions of the new work environment.

  10. Timbot
    Timbot October 29, 2008

    I am not convinced that this constant access to knowledge and network is as helpful as it at first glance seems to be. From personal experience, I can say that those who did worst in my post-secondary education were those who were always connected, always on instant-messenger, twitter, facebook, etc. It was almost like they assumed they could retrieve any piece of information – and so did not need to retain anything. Classes were spent chatting with friends online and surfing rather than listening to professors. A few years down the road, those less-connected fared far better – those who were arriving at classes with good old pen and notepaper.

  11. Pam
    Pam December 30, 2008

    Interesting article. This up-to-the-minute generation is also completely clueless when it comes to interacting with people or having that knack for intuition. So poster Rob gets a huge thumbs up from me. I concur on every point. This same group of kids think nothing of cheating with all those fancy gadgets, not to mention walking mindlessly into objects because they aren’t paying attention.
    This is a generation that needs a good old fashioned ego cleanse. But what else are we to expect from the offspring of their egocentric boomer parents.

  12. Pam
    Pam December 30, 2008

    Correction: I mentioned poster Rob, but was referring to poster Timbot. However, I also agree with Rob and Jana’s comments overall.

  13. Samantha
    Samantha January 3, 2009

    I really think that you can’t sum up our entire generation as easily as you’re all trying to.
    Timbot- you say those that are connected were the ones whose gpa suffered, but you only mention connected to facebook, myspace, etc.
    what about students like myself that use their laptops to look up information to insert into the notes i’m typing as my professor is speaking?
    you can’t say that all students that are connected are wasting time chatting to their friends when they should be paying attention in class.
    i agree some students can’t handle it because they’re still immature, but that’s them as a person, not our generation as a whole.
    I certainly have never used my laptop or cell phone to cheat on an exam either, once again you’re speaking of less mature individuals, not my entire class.
    As for walking into things while texting someone, I’ve seen a few less intelligent teens do that, and I laugh at them just as hard as you would.
    For those in my generation that are making the mistakes previously mentioned with the resources they have, I feel that in some cases the parents are partly to blame.
    Many of the students at my school are spoiled by their parents. They give them monthly allowances to pay for their needs (cigarettes and booze in most cases), and baby them when they make a bad decision.
    Coming from a family that has money, but doesn’t easily hand it over, I’ve learned you have to work for what you want. Perhaps I appreciate my education more because I’ve worked two jobs since I was 13 to pay for it. Perhaps I make more of an effort to get better grades because I’m STILL working two jobs (while in school) to pay for it.

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