conversationFrom marketing to media the digital native generation is impacting all aspects of how we do business. Michelle Manafy, a contributor to and co-editor (with Heidi Gautschi) of the new book Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step with the Generation That is Transforming the Way Business is Done (May 2011) tells why we must all learn to participate in two-way conversations.


Since you’re a reader of MobileGroove, odds are you have one or more mobile devices within arms reach right now. You are pretty likely to fall into the early adopter category as well. However unless you were born since 1980 or so, you are what is known as a digital immigrant. Face it: No matter how techno-hip you are, you find yourself at the precipice of one hell of a generation gap.

The generation that is entering the workforce and increasingly dominating the consumer base is one of digital natives: those who have grown up immersed in digital technologies. So while you may consider your mobile phone an appendage, it’s an artificial limb when compared with a native’s attachment to it.

The fierce desire of digital natives to have what they want the way they want it (and delivered to the device of their choice) changes all the rules. What’s more, digital natives want to share their experiences. They gravitate to companies that allow them this flexibility, and flock to the ones that listen back.

Dancing_with_Digital_NativesAs our employees, our customers and our community members, digital natives are moving our businesses in new directions. Based upon my work co-editing and contributing to the book Dancing With Digital Natives, I’d like to offer you three insights that will help you navigate this new territory and find your way to successful interactions with digital natives.

Privacy has evolved – and so must your approach: Consider a quote from one of the most famous digital native entrepreneurs, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: “Privacy is no longer a social norm.” At first glance, this may seem like a self-serving comment from someone who profits from extreme openness. But the phenomenal success of Facebook tells a different story.

People once kept their dirty laundry tucked away in their own hampers; this gave way to a generation that would share with a therapist behind closed doors… but over time, we have seen an increasing willingness to flaunt soiled linens on national television. Today, we see a generation sharing information about every aspect of their lives in social networks.

Once we recognize the native’s natural inclination to live publicly, we can participate in ways that are consistent with our business objectives. We can also build models that leverage this openness, both in the way we structure our internal interactions and, of course, interactions with our customers.

Share the wealth: Digital natives don’t only live publically; they are passionate about knowledge sharing, not knowledge hording. Don’t think you have tackled digital collaboration just because you product development wiki, a company Facebook page or a massive Twitter following. We are still taking baby steps when it comes to understanding the knowledge sharing mentality of the digital native. A huge reason why companies that routinely restrict employees’ social media activities and businesses that resist digital natives urge to share knowledge (and add their own) are overdue for a rethink.

If you doubt this, I encourage you to consider the Haul Video phenomenon, in which consumers produce videos demonstrating products, modeling, discussing prices, trends and much more–which they freely share with anyone who’d care to watch on YouTube. Or take a look at Quirky, a place for social product development that was founded by a digital native. The shift to a knowledge sharing mentality is one of the greatest advantages to organizations. Tapping into this cultural phenomenon allows companies and brands to develop and market products digital natives will appreciate.

No hard sell: The final insight I’ll offer here (and the book offers many more, as well as examples of these traits at work): digital natives are interested in interactions, not transactions. Today, we see the rise of a customer base with a very different notion of currency from those before them. Kids today would gladly collect their allowance on PayPal, in the form iTunes gift cards or mobile money.

But it’s not about technology; it’s about communication. Digital natives are excited to do business with organizations that connect with them. This goes beyond marketing, though; we must make it possible for these natives to provide input into the products and services we offer them.

The early leader in this business model was a company called Threadless, whose community creates and helps select t-shirt designs. We can also see this style of interactive business model making inroads into automotive design at Local Motors, and in journalism as community centric media outlets leverage pervasive mobile technologies and encourage their audiences to submit their views, videos, and images from anywhere at anytime.

In summary, the rise of digital natives turns up the pressure on companies, brands and marketers to change how they do business. But don’t assume technology is the answer. Clearly, we must adapt to use the channels (mobile, interactive, social) that natives prefer. But first we have to learn to think like the native and understand that conversation and collaboration come first.