Can we learn permission marketing from Generation Y?

This week saw the annual IDM Lunch taking place once again, an opportunity for members to meet, catch up and discuss current issues over lunch, followed by a keynote address. The calibre of the speakers is always high and this year was no exception, with “worldwide business and technology strategist and best-selling author” (according to the IDM) Don Tapscott occupying the slot this time.

Tapscott’s presentation set out to highlight some of the reasons to embrace rather than disdain “Generation Y”, to whom the Internet is second nature. Rupert Murdoch described them as “digital natives”, against those of a slightly older disposition for whom the Internet arrived at a later stage in life and therefore making them “digital immigrants”. This generation are “bathed in bits” and have a completely different approach to media consumption and social interaction. This of course is characterised by Facebook, Twitter and My Space, but also, critics assert, lack of attention span, insularity and general dumbing down.

Tapscott rejects this description though, and as a Professor of Management at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, among other roles, and having recently completed a $4m research programme in this area, I guess he should know what he’s talking about. The general thrust of Tapscott’s counter-argument was that far from leading to the atrophy of the skills needed in modern business, online technologies foster them. The collaboration, team work and leadership engendered and developed online create individuals far more likely to be effective knowledge workers in the future.

Tapscott also highlighted the attitude of Gen Y to email and a memorable way of characterising it. Email is regarded as a more formal means of communication than instant messaging or social media sites; in other words, something for the oldies to use! Though not a new observation, Tapscott’s research turned up the following gem: when asked when email would be used by today’s teenagers, the response was “when writing a thank you letter to my friend’s parents for having me to dinner.” The art of letter writing may well be on borrowed time…

You can enjoy the rest of Tapscott’s observations in more detail by reading his latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, so I won’t dwell further here. The other element of his presentation which interested me though was actually his opening gambit. Demonstrating that great minds think alike, as I had suggested this only moments earlier to my neighbour at the table, he asked for a show of hands as to how many Twitter users were in the audience. Of perhaps the couple of hundred delegates, about a third professed to using Twitter, which was a little higher than I might have expected from a relatively senior audience. (Although given the IDM’s strap-line “Digital, Direct, Data”, perhaps this was just the digital contingent.)

Now, I confess I’m not on Twitter, though it’s on my list of things to do. This result however, somewhat supports my assertion that few of the people I’d like to speak do use the service, making my presence a little futile. However, I’m not closed off to it, and I was only recently enthusiastically assured of it’s great utility by an industry colleague (you know who you are!). In view of the upcoming generation ensconced in this technology though, marketers surely need to take these channels seriously, and start learning how to use them to the mutual benefit of organisations and those they wish to influence. This is a similar situation to the early web, when companies built websites with a limited understanding of what they hoped to achieve. This has the danger of being self-fulfilling, but the web didn’t turn out too badly!

What interests me, to bring this back on topic, is the operational implications of these technologies. How can they be effectively integrated into marketing processes, measured and justified? Or is this counter to the ethos of Web 2.0, where such mercenary and quantitative thinking is counter culture? It would seem a shame if so, as Twitter’s “follow my Tweets” approach strikes me as the ultimate in permission marketing. Where’s Seth Godin when you need him? (Well, try here, here or here!)

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