We all want to remain connected. And social media provides us with the opportunity to do this. According to a study published by Pew Research, 73% of online adults use social networking sites, as of September 2013. In 2005, this number was stammering with a shy 8% and hit the symbolic 50% milestone 4 years later in 2009. If we look at Facebook specifically, the “adoption among the 65+ crowd has grown by 10% points in about a year’s time to reach 45%”.
One other major study recently conducted in Marketing Charts goes to the next level and breaks down the user demographic from 5 major Social Networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest). I invite you to read this study in full but what I would like to highlight here is the fact that social networking sites tend to ‘specialize’ in specific age groups, therefore, encouraging the widening of the generational gap.
To put it differently, the longer a platform is being used, the less global it becomes from a demographic standpoint with “teens leaving Facebook” being the best illustration of this observation.
Different ages, different goals
Now, the question we are asking ourselves is: why? The first set of divergence lies in differences in interests and priorities in life. A very interesting chart created by BVG Janaka highlights the fact that teens and young adults (14-21) value common interests with people of the same age.
This explains why interests-oriented social networking platforms such as Instagram or Pinterest have come to be predominantly used by the 18-29 age group which has just moved ahead of 30-49 years-old on Pinterest (27%) and which represents 37% of users on Instagram. Next, LinkedIn is a very interesting platform to study. It is mainly being used by 30-49 years-old (27%) at an age where careers and financial security become more important as the necessity to care and take responsibility for individuals and family members grows.
People use LinkedIn to reconnect with ex-colleagues or ex-University peers, (People You May Know), but the most useful and practical way of using LinkedIn is to connect with more experienced and more senior professionals in order to find a better job, as illustrated by this very familiar testimonial published in a recent Forbes article: “I have found by linking with C-Level executives, they reach out to me, or others like me, to fill positions within their organizations.”
This insight shows us that in the case of LinkedIn, Social Media is being used to bring different age groups together whilst serving complementary purposes (I’m looking for a new job vs. I’m looking to fill in a new position).
Now, if we look at our priorities in life, in the 49+ age group, we observe an aspiration to go beyond the immediate community and serve the world in general, as well as the need to stay connected to the family and old friend (40% of seniors are going on Facebook for this reason). For this group, the use of Social Media tends to reduce the generation gap by producing social and familial unity.
Different goals, but the same human brain
The first topic I would like to surface in this section is “Privacy”. Privacy is a topic that produces both divergence and convergence amongst different age groups. For teens and young adults, privacy issues and views of intimacy are clearly defined by the need to create a space between them and their parents.
This certainly explains the success of Snapchat, the ephemeral photo messaging application which counts 71% of its users below the age of 25. Having observed that, “teens are sharing more information about themselves on Social Media sites than they did in the past” and “most of them report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings”. We have all heard of the epic stories where employees got fired after posting disturbing status updates on Facebook (in case you would like to refresh your memories, here’s an entertaining article from Business Insider).
Working individuals in their late twenties/early thirties express privacy issues but deal with them more from a “Reputation” perspective. In other words, this group is more selective about sharing with people they trust which can include people of all age groups (younger relatives, parents, mentors, etc.). A junction can be observed amongst different age groups with regards to third-party related privacy.
The recent NSA/Facebook spying scandal did create a buzz on Social Media and confirmed a trans-generational concern with regards to privacy. “40% of teen social media users say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that some of the information they share on social networking sites might be accessed by third parties like advertisers or businesses without their knowledge” and Zuckerberg’s public discussion with U.S President Obama revealed a real topical threat to Facebook’s integrity.
We also observe movements that emerge on Social Media and that create behavioural momentum amongst all age groups. Websites such as Avaaz.org that help people to drive change are thought to leverage Social Media. The issues they want to alarm people about such as stopping epidemic raping in India immediately break age and demographics barriers.
In this perspective, Social Media also brings people from different age groups together behind a common goal. The last point I would like to raise is how Social Media produces new technology and medium insights that bring people closer, no matter how old they are. The first insight is that people prefer pictures over text.
And this is true amongst all age groups: Instagram is now teens’ most important social network and 30% of seniors go on Facebook to share pictures.
As a validation, Facebook analytics revealed that photos on Facebook generate 53% more likes than the average post. Also, we need to understand how the devices used affect the Social Media generational gap. Mobile native social networking sites such as Snapchat, Instagram, Line or Whatsapp are more likely to exclude age groups with the lower smartphone penetration rates.
As identified in a study published by Deloitte, there is a smartphone generation gap that shows a drop at the 55+ age group. As the Millennials grow older, we can expect radical transformations in the way the Social Media generational gap will evolve, and marketers who have understood this challenge today will be the ones who will be successful in the future.
Social Media is a very curious universe. It is global, multipolar and siloed at the same time – with different perspectives that can contradict each other.
On the one hand, it brings people from all age together at a speed that was never seen before.
On the other hand, it creates clear pockets of demographical groups that develop their own set of rules, codes and ethics.
Understanding those different dynamics where access to technology, changes in interests, goals and concerns collide is the first step to think about to initiate reach and engagement. For online marketers, I believe this is quite an unexplored topic that may contain new insights to reach the maximum of people with the most.