Interview #18 Transcript – September 11, 2013
Participants: David Erickson and Martin van der Roest

Martin van der Roest: Hi, I’m Martin van der Roest, the host of the Content Marketing Examiner. Joining me today is David Erickson. David has 18 years of experience in marketing and strategic communications, public relations, online media and advertising with a particular emphasis on internet marketing. In addition, he publishes the e-Strategy Internet Marketing Blog on a regular basis, putting out some interesting topics covering all aspects of internet marketing, content marketing, search engine optimization and so forth. David, that’s quite a background. Thanks for joining us.

David Erickson: It’s my pleasure.

Martin van der Roest: Great background, and you and I have chatted previously about the things we wanted to talk about today and, in part, we want to talk about audience and potentially generational impact. But before we jump into that, tell us a little more about what you’re doing and a bit more detail about what is a key focus in the activities you are helping others with.

David Erickson: As you said, I have been doing this for a while. I’ve had my hands in pretty much all aspects of online marketing over the course of my career. That experience, that knowledge, comes into play and allows me to understand how all the things connect. What I do a lot is help people think through their strategy—create a strategy for whatever they want to accomplish with online communications. More and more of that, as we’ll discuss further today, is thinking how generational aspects play into reaching your target audience. What I do is help people think about their online strategy, understand who their audience is, understand what is of value to those audiences, and understand the content that will resonate with those audiences and help them achieve their goals.

Martin van der Roest: That’s great and works nicely into what we want to drill into today. So, setting the stage for the topic today, we’re focused on the content marketing lifecycle, in particular we’re looking at the production of content. This is preceded by an editorial calendar and followed by the publishing activities. As we think about producing content, one of the things we’re always talking about is understand your audience, be clearly aware of who your audience is and what does it mean for the kind of content. So let’s put this spin on it that you brought up and we want to talk about today, let’s further extend that to generational considerations. So everything from the Boomers at one end to the Gen Zers at the other end. Give us a backgrounder on why this is important to the conversation of understanding your audience.

David Erickson: We’re hearing more and more people talk about the importance of intimately understanding your target audience for marketing purposes. Because we are so overwhelmed with information these days, you need to understand your target audience as intimately as possible so you can provide relevant things they’re going to pay attention to. Beyond the demographics, beyond the psychographics, get into the technographics of what types of technology the target audience is using and how they’re using it. Additionally and frequently overlooked are generational aspects of those audiences and how their generation plays into their attitudes toward content, and their attitudes toward technology, or just how they react to certain messages.

I read a book a long time ago and I recommend it to anyone who will listen. I give the book to people often and they never read it, but it’s a fantastic book and it’s completely changed the way I think about marketing. It’s called Generations: The History of America’s Future, written by two sociologists, William Strauss and Neil Howe, and they take a look at America’s history from 1584 to 2069. They extended into the future in relation to the generations that lived throughout American history and how those generations play off each other. I think understanding those generational dynamics helps you become a far better marketer, so I highly recommend that book.

Martin van der Roest: When we think about generations and generational groupings and the terms that we just mentioned, the Boomers, the Gens X, Y and so on, and we can get very granular in this whole topic. If I were to throw another angle on this, there’s the thought that there’s the larger categories of the so-called “connected generation” and the “unconnected generation.” Based on the kind of work that you’ve done, how would you loop that into the more granular categories that we just mentioned.

David Erickson: Let me step back before I address that and add on to my take on generations. The current generations now that are being targeted by marketers are Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z in the popular parlance of how we identify who they are. The Silent Generation precedes the Boomers, but they’re sort of out of the marketplace. The naming of these generations, we see the story come up written by media about every 20 years—the lifespan of a generational cohort—and it’s that this generation is lazy and no good and blah, blah, blah. It’s the same exact story except the name of the generation has changed. And you’ll see from our application of names for these generations, Boomers, Generation X, because we didn’t have a name for the generation after Boomers so they used X. Generation Y suggests that Generation Y is just a younger version of Generation X, which could not be further from the truth. There are characteristics of generations that are only applicable to that generation and not to others. It belies a misunderstanding of how generations work and who generations are. The terms I use are Generation X, Millennials, and then for this new generation, I’m calling them Generation V for “Virtual,” they’re growing up in an entirely virtual world.

My friend tells a story about how his toddler tried to use the monitor of his desktop computer as a touch screen and when it didn’t respond, looked up to him with an expression that said “Why is it broken?” because it didn’t work the way the iPhone or iPad do. That is the world in which Generation V is growing up: Communication technologies permeate their everyday existence.

Martin van der Roest: By the way, has that term been used or is that something you are starting to use?

David Erickson: It is something I’ve been using for a while but I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody else is using it as well, so I’m not going to claim ownership.

Martin van der Roest: Good description, but go ahead.

David Erickson: Boomers grew up roughly from 1943 to 1960, Gen Xers from 1961 to 1981, Millennials from 1982 to 2002, and Generation V 2003 to 2023. Those are your rough definitions, but generations are more defined by their shared experiences than hard-and-fast dates. Things that Boomers share are not the same things that Gen Xers or Millennials share. A significant moment in Boomers’ lives was the assassination of JFK. References to that point in history will have a different response than it will for Millennials. If you refer to Bob Dylan, Boomers will have a certain response and Millennials will say, “Oh yeah, that’s something my parents listened to.” So understanding those generational touchstones are important for understanding how your messages will resonate with a particular audience.

So the connected and unconnected generation question, I think you can and you should consider your target audience’s connection to technology. That is obviously a huge and increasing part of how we deliver messages. But even if you’re targeting people who aren’t using online technologies, let’s say you’re doing a direct mail campaign, if you’re not using appropriate images in your direct mail campaigns you may be wasting your money. There’s certainly value and you need to consider the technologies people are using, but generational aspects of that are not divorced from that either.

Martin van der Roest: You made an interesting point: that we refer to these generations, these groupings, as having like experiences. Those experiences have an emotional component and when we talk about content marketing we oftentimes hear that content marketers want to be storytellers that touch emotion. I had a great conversation with Barry Feldman just recently, and Barry has drilled into that in trying to determine how do you evoke certain emotions and capture your audience, in part, through that? So your point of speaking to the generations, the like experiences, the common experiences which have an emotional component to it I think is important versus this broader category of “connected” and “unconnected.” So based on this conversation we’re having, I would tend to say that recognizing the generational audience groupings is important.

Let’s take this a little further. David, talk to us a little bit about what does this now mean for the content marketer? I recognize that we made somewhat of key decision here where it’s important to recognize generations. What does that mean for the content marketer and the way that content is produced?

David Erickson: Understanding your audience, knowing what generation they’re in and whether or not you deliberately put in generational cues that will evoke emotion or a response, or conversely, being aware of things that might evoke a response that you didn’t intend or want. You’re a Boomer and I’m an Xer, so we obviously grew up in different ages. Coming of age there were certain things that were in the air, there’s popular music, there’s popular events. One of the hallmark events of the Boomer generation was the music festival Woodstock. I’m a huge music fan, I absolutely love the music of the 60s and 70s and everybody that played at Woodstock, but Woodstock the name and certainly the whole idea of it almost evokes a “roll your eyes” response from Xers. So if you had in your messaging some reference to Woodstock, the 60s font style that was popular at the time or a reference to a song from Woodstock itself, and you’re targeting Xers they may just roll their eyes and dismiss the message simply because of the cultural cue. Because Xers were overshadowed by Boomers, Xers have a certain inferiority complex compared to Boomers. So understanding those generational dynamics is key toward at least not making mistakes, but even more so evoking some emotional response that you may want to.

Martin van der Roest: The implication here has a very tactical component in that. I want to produce content, and let’s say that my audience is broad, so the reality is that I produce different content based on the audience I’m trying to reach. So rather than think one size fits all, it doesn’t. A good example would be non-profits. We’ve talked to folks in the non-profit space and the key goals are we need donors, we need people who can chip in dollars, we need volunteers and we have constituents that we want to reach. The first two that I just mentioned, donors and volunteers, I would guess represent two different audiences. The donors are probably the folks in their 40s, 50s and above whereas the volunteers might be those that have a lot of energy, cause-based beliefs, and they’re young, so as a result I have to produce different messages. Is that a fair assessment?

David Erickson: I think that’s absolutely fair and in that instance your donor messages are evoking emotional responses, that’s a typical tactic of non-profits and their fundraising, playing on those heart strings to raise money. Whereas with the volunteers you’re looking at inspirational messages that inspire them to volunteer, to contribute toward the cause. The question then becomes, what are the generational cues that evoke both those sets of emotions? In the donor aspect, if you’re targeting Boomers, you might have an “Ask Not” type of reference in your message, a little JFK line that you can play off of that will resonate with Boomers and GenXers. With Millennials it would be something else.

Martin van der Roest: In the work that you’re doing, David, can you site any recent case studies of what organizations have done to consider this generational component in the content that they’re developing? If so, what was the process that you saw and how was it successful?

David Erickson: I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but with the non-profits there’s a video I came across recently called, “Follow the Frog.” It’s from the Rainforest Alliance and it’s a non-profit PSA video that’s an example of advocacy video marketing to build awareness for Rainforest Alliance certified products. The video takes an office worker, could be a Gen X, could be an older Millennial, and it gets into the head of that consumer and plays out the fantasy of them quitting their job and going to the rainforest and standing up to the people that are deforesting the rainforest and destroying indigenous people’s way of life. It takes that whole fantasy and plays it out and says, “But you’re not going to do that. But one thing you can do is pay attention to the Rainforest Alliance certification badge on your products and buy those products.” It’s generationally appropriate; it knows its audience completely and does a fantastic job of delivering exactly what it wants to do.

Martin van der Roest: This whole best practices conversation that we have at the Examiner, we can so some deep dives and there’s always the “what’s the value proposition to that?” but it’s worth exploring and I want to take that step here. We talked about the generational considerations which I think we’re all in agreement with. Let’s add the perspective now of the so-called “buyer’s journey.” There’s a whole conversation that’s going on in internet marketing and content marketing that says we need to recognize also where the buyer is at. It’s not like the olden days where the organization, the vendor, whoever was reaching out to the audience; today it’s the buyer’s journey and you do a little discovery, perhaps in your own network, talk to other people, get referrals, look at reviews; move your way up into maybe getting a demonstration and so on, depending on what the product represents. Can you add any commentary to that in terms of looping the buyer’s journey into the generational considerations?

David Erickson: It’s an important aspect of that. A big part of everyone’s discovery process during the buyer’s journey is search engines, using search engines to answer the questions that they have. I haven’t seen anything out there that suggests there are any generational differences, per se, in how people use search. It could very well come down to the types of phrasing or words they use, but I haven’t seen any hard and fast data that suggests there’s a significant difference among generations. So search should remain the same basically.

I think it gets down to where the other aspects of communication come online. For Boomers who grew up during a time when there were three TV stations to choose from, newspapers, radio and books were the dominant media forms. They are likely spending less time online than other generations. If they’re on social media they’re on social media for friends and family, communicating with kids and grandkids primarily. As you get into Gen Xers, a lot of Gen Xers are like that too, but a lot of them are on the cutting edge of technology as well. Millennials are online a lot. So figuring out where they’re discovering content and social is a much more important part of that as the generations get younger, so they are going to be more likely to tap into the social networks and ask for recommendations. They are going to be more likely to pay attention to social signals around content, the “likes” around content, the different social proofs that are around content. And then in your video marketing as well, is it generationally appropriate, are the testimonials coming from peers? In that video marketing you can use your generational cues as well. If you know what generations you’re targeting, you start from search which is largely going to be the same, and then once they get to the content, what does that look like from a generational standpoint?

Martin van der Roest: I just talked to someone in their 30s and they told me that when they go to search for something, they do the search in Facebook, they don’t go to Google or other search engine which caught me completely by surprise. I asked this person if it was something they saw other people doing and the response was, “Yes, that’s what my friends do. We do search right in Facebook.”

David Erickson: That’s fascinating for a couple of reasons. One is the amount of time people spend on Facebook is by far the most of any online platform, but also the way that Facebook search works is that it is giving you personalized search based on your network. It’s popping up people so you can get recommendations from people within your network who have been to a certain restaurant, you can find out from Facebook. So you’re getting the search experience plus personalized search results and personal recommendations from people that if you don’t personally know, at least are aware of through your personal network.

Martin van der Roest: I think part of this all underscores the importance of not only understanding your audience but where does your audience hang out. There’s no replacement for that. I agree with you there are generational cues, there are some things for the buyer’s journey. I think of LinkedIn as being a place geared to professionals and you might have people on another platform that might be geared to the arts community, etc. That can’t be underscored enough.

As we talk about this and all the factors, what’s a person to do that’s just getting started? What advice would you offer them as they come to this point of, “Okay, who’s my audience and how am I going to communicate with them?” What’s the crawl/walk/run in terms of what you would suggest?

David Erickson: Generally understanding your audience, getting the demographics down, that way you know the generations you’re targeting. The psychographics, understanding their lifestyles, what media they’re paying attention to, the technographics is very important and too often not paid enough attention to, what type of technology are people using and how they’re using it. And then finally the generational aspect, what I would say is to know from your demographics what your target audience’s generation is. Go back and do some research about significant points in the history of their life. When growing up as kids, what toys were popular? What was on television? What cartoons were they watching? As becoming teens, what music was popular and what movies were popular at the time? Just take significant points of their lifecycle. Are they in college, starting families? Do a little research about what was going on in the world and in popular culture and things that they would have been paying attention to and seeing what you can use within that research to hone your message and to find cultural cues or find generational touchstones that might help you grab their attention.

If you do that, you’ll gain valuable insights into your targeted audience beyond the tactical things we’ve been discussing, to some fundamental assumptions about how a given generation views the world. When you take a look at history during the lifespan of Xers, for example, you’ll find that economic calamity has essentially followed them throughout their lives, from the recession and Savings & Loans crisis of the 80s to the Dot Com Bust during their college and young adult years to the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession.

That economic volatility had an effect on them: as children when their parents struggled with it, to their young adult lives as they struggled to find gainful employment and to the stress their own families are experiencing in today’s economy. Understanding that history gives you a much greater appreciation for the emphasis Xers’ place on the value they seek for their dollar.

Martin van der Roest: That’s great advice and we always hear not losing site of the goals, those things we want to accomplish and how that drives those factors.
We’re close to wrapping this up, David. Any last comments that we didn’t ask you about or any thoughts you want to share before we wrap up here?

David Erickson: Not off the top of my head, but if I think of anything I’ll come back to you.

Martin van der Roest: That’s absolutely fair and I really appreciate having you join us, sharing from your experience. I think there are some nice little nuggets here that we’ll want to harvest out. Thank you again, David.

David Erickson: My pleasure.

Martin van der Roest: That concludes our session today. I’m Martin van der Roest, managing editor with the Content Marketing Examiner, where we continue to pursue best practices for content marketing.