This month I started teaching a college course in Web Marketing at the Art Institute of Indianapolis. Most of the 15 students in my class are nearing graduation in fashion design and retail marketing, and my course is required for them.
In fact, on the first night when the students came into the computer lab and sat down, they completely self-selected by major: my 10 fashion students on my right, my five web and graphic design students on my left. I was like a junior high school dance with the girls and boys planted against opposite walls, each side eyeing the other warily.
As I went over the syllabus and course introduction, social media played a big part. I figured the students would be all over it, most of them having come into the lab early to check email and Facebook. But I ended up being surprised.
About two-thirds of my class had never used or even looked at Twitter. Many of those didn’t even know what it was or what it was for. Only one of them blogged, and one other had their own website.
Jaw Hits Floor
Wait, you mean to tell me that the most wired, connected, always-on generation isn’t using basic social networking tools? Has the media been perpetuating myths and lies? Am I so ensconced in my own little world that I disregarded an entire segment of the population?
Seeing my surprise, one of my students replied, “Oh, I’ve seen that on Facebook: ‘posted via Twitter.’ I never knew that’s what it was.”
Okay, so I was playing up my shock for comedic effect. I am fully aware that adoption of various tools and channels differs by, among many other factors, age group. I know Twitter gains in popularity among older demographics. But I was surprised at how many of these early-twenty-somethings didn’t even know what Twitter was.
Let’s Do Some Math
This prompted me to go back and look at some recent research about social network site age distribution. In February 2010, using data from Google Ad Planner, Royal Pingdom showed that across the 19 most popular social networking sites, 18-24 year-olds accounted for just 9% of users. In the case of Twitter, this same group accounted for less than 10%, with 64% of Twitter users are aged 35 or older.
Overall, 35-44 and 45-54 year-olds dominate social networking sites, representing a combined 74% of users. Interestingly, those aged 0-17 (zero-year-olds user computers?) account for 21%, making them the second largest user group.
Let’s fast-forward one quarter to May 2010 and a study by Edison Research called “Twitter Usage In America: 2010.” According to their research, 18-24 year-olds made up 11% of monthly Twitter users. With a combined 52%, the 25-34 and 35-44 groups still dominate.
Now, there is one significant mathematical difference among the demographics represented here: 18-24 year-olds span seven years rather than the 10 of all the others. So there is some margin for tweaking the numbers based on this breakdown, but I’m fairly certain it all comes out in the wash.
Why Aren’t They On Board?
If I believe my own first lesson of the semester, the primary draw for web marketing is that your content must provide value to customers. According to my students, most of them don’t personally know anyone extensively using Twitter. Therefore the site and its service provide no value.
Secondly, everyone in the class was checking Facebook. Some reported seeing the “via Twitter” verbiage on status updates, indicating that some of their friends do indeed use Twitter. This proves the second piece of my lesson (and a huge component of the Raidious business model), which was that it’s not the platform that’s important, it’s the content. They didn’t care where the updates originated, they only knew that they could get them via the platform of their choice.
Finally, both the research data above and my anecdotal evidence point toward the larger notion that college students are just too busy doing other things to constantly check (or check into) a multitude of sites, networks and platforms. Many of them reported that they spent time doing coursework and working part-time jobs rather than fooling around on the internet.
So What Do We Do?
As online marketers we must understand and embrace these usage differences for varying age groups. We must take the content to the people we want to reach using the tools they actually use. This is accomplished by thorough research and planning for online initiatives, and by knowing what platforms to monitor, moderate and measure. Otherwise, we’re throwing time, effort and money into the wind and hoping the right customers catch on.