family in a kitchen looking at a tablet

Designing Digital Experiences for Different Generations

July 23, 2019 10 minute read
Digital marketers are obsessed with marketing to different generations. Here are key factors when appealing to Boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z.
family in a kitchen looking at a tablet

Baby boomers are out-of-touch, tech-phobic dinosaurs. Gen Xers are largely forgotten and clinging desperately to their worn-out Sonic Youth t-shirts. Millennials are job-hobbing, avocado-guzzling participation trophy collectors. And Gen Z? They’re a bunch of smartphone-addicted, selfie-snapping Tide Pod snackers. We’ve all heard the stereotypes, but the truth is individuals from across generational cohorts have a lot more in common than generation-based think pieces would lead you to believe. 

When crafting digital customer journeys, many marketers rely on generational segmentation to predict user behavior and craft content targeted to each persona. Yet, when it comes to effective digital experiences, there’s a lot more nuance to understand what touchpoints, messaging and channels resonate best with each audience. It’s easy to say that millennials and Gen Z are complete digital natives while older populations prefer in-person interactions. However, studies have shown that every generation is becoming much more in-tune with technology and embracing digital transformation as a part of their everyday lives. (In fact, more than 65% of adults aged 50-64 regularly use social media.) 

Bridging the digital generation gap is not as simple as offering online vs. in-store options. To create the best customer experiences for each generation, marketers first need to understand each population’s unique relationship with technology and their digital experience expectations. That’s why we’re breaking down the digital preferences for Baby Boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z and letting you know which brands are doing it right when crafting digital experiences.

Baby Boomers: Informative Content  

One of the biggest errors digital marketers and developers can make when creating experiences for Baby Boomers is ignoring them completely. Some brands have dismissed the older set entirely under the guise that online efforts would go unseen. However, now more than ever, middle-aged adults and seniors are adapting to digital transformation. 

Growing up in a thriving, post-WWII era marked by the rise of television, globalization and mass production, the Baby Boomer generation (aged 53-75) views technology as another channel to gather information that can improve their lifestyle. How-to and educational content like recipes, product demos, news sites and lifestyle blogs are popular with this generation. Raised in a time of consumer abundance, this generation loves scoring a deal. They’re price-savvy and spend the majority of their time online shopping in the research phase, comparing prices across different websites, and digging into warranty conditions. While millennials tend to rely on customer reviews to influence their purchasing decisions, Boomers prefer online retailers who feature price and product descriptions prominently on their sites. Even though they're more accepting of digital interactions than marketers may assume, Baby Boomers still distrust highly branded content and prefer to consume posts from people they actually know, especially on social media platforms.

Ask Carrie blog homepage
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz’s “Ask Carrie” column answers financial questions from real people.

And speaking of social media, the idea that “Facebook is only for parents now” holds some weight. Facebook and LinkedIn are the most popular networks among the older generations, likely because they cater to their preferences for informative content that ties directly to their own personal and professional lives. Baby Boomers are actually 19% more likely to share content on social media than any other demographic and use the Internet as a way to stay in touch with their communities and keep up with current events.

One organization getting Baby Boomer content right is long-standing banking and brokerage firm Charles Schwab. With much of their audience concerned about saving for retirement, Charles Schwab is committed to financial literacy. The “Ask Carrie” series, created by board chair and president of the Charles Schwab Foundation, Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, modernizes the traditional advice column format many Boomers are familiar with to give personalized financial advice to customers. This educational resource hub is the perfect mix of humanity and digital accessibility that appeals most to Baby Boomers online. 

Gen X: Innovative Tech and Traditional Tactics 

Wedged between the dueling media coverage that surrounds the Boomer and millennial market, Gen X is far too often overlooked by advertisers. These Xiennials, as they’re also occasionally called, were born between 1965 and 1976 and are currently in their late 30s to early 50s. As the last generation to reach adulthood before the rise of the Internet, they favor a mix of both traditional and digital messaging. Today, Gen X makes up the largest portion of the workforce and typically use technology to research businesses they interact with. Standard, concise channels like email are their preferred form of digital communication, but they also still respond positively to television advertising and direct mail. 

Brands who can craft a message that strikes the right balance of innovation and nostalgia will capture the Gen X market. Once seen as the slacker generation raised on grunge and MTV, Gen X is now all grown up and raising families of their own. Still, they hold fond memories of the carefree 80s and 90s. Honda hit each of these dual identities in a 2012 ad for their Pilot SUV. The commercial, which shows a family singing along to the Ozzy Ozbourne hit “Crazy Train,” proved you’re never too old to rock.

Millennials: Integrated Customer Journeys 

While many news outlets mistakenly characterize this generation as naive college kids, today the youngest millennials are already in their mid-twenties and the oldest are nearing 40! Entering teen/adulthood alongside the explosion of Google and with unlimited access to the latest gadgets, social networks, and gaming systems has made millennials eager to explore the latest product innovations and models as soon as they hit the market. An omnichannel strategy that spans multiple touchpoints is a requirement for anyone who wants to attract and hold onto millennial attention.

Today’s young adults are expert multitaskers, simultaneously catching up on Netflix, ordering takeout on Postmates, live-tweeting their walk to the gym, and scrolling through news sites or online communities like Reddit to catch up on current events. Still, it’s not enough for brands to just be everywhere, they need a unique digital strategy to customize content that feels authentic across multiple sites and channels. 

The best way to forge these relevant, timely connections with millennials is by understanding consumer data and using this information to create tailored, personalized experiences. According to Salesforce, 40 percent of millennial-aged consumers value personalized recommendations so much that they’re willing to pay to receive them. Direct-to-consumer brands like HelloFresh and Dollar Shave Club have gained popularity with millennial consumers because they offer a streamlined shopping experience delivered straight to their homes. Along with allowing millennials to avoid a trip to a retail outlet, D2C brands appeal to the their desire for personalization and customized brand experiences that mean they can order products based on dietary preferences, grooming habits, or living conditions.  

dollar shave club survey screen
Dollar Shave Club uses personalized survey technology to bring the right products to their customers.

The challenge for companies is creating these personalized experiences without coming off as “creepy.” Most millennials came of age in the midst of the mid-2000s financial and housing crises, causing them to have high levels of mistrust and skepticism toward large institutions. They dislike traditional, interruption-driven advertising formats and actively avoid seeing it. Rapt Media found that 57% of millennials use ad blockers because it is too pushy and not relevant to their interests. To strike the right balance between integrated and invasive personalization, we recommend brands that target millennials use the Crawl-Walk-Run Approach to collect data with consent and turn that information into useful, contextual experiences.

Gen Z: Immersive Experiences 

While news outlets are still reiterating fears of millennials “killing off” industries from canned tuna to diamonds, a disruptive force has arrived to shake up our understanding of the digital consumer journey. Born after 1997 with the oldest members barely of legal drinking age, Gen Z already accounts for a quarter of the U.S. population and is predicted to hold 40% of the nation’s purchasing power by 2020! A cohort that's never known a world without technology at their fingertips, this group expects a fully fluid blend of digital experiences and will only engage with brands that offer something beyond a basic one-to-one transaction. 

While both Baby Boomers and millennials primarily use social networks as a way to catch up with friends and family, Gen Z approaches social media mainly as an entertainment platform. Raised in the reigning era of influencer marketing, they’re the most accepting of sponsored content and regularly embrace brand interactions in exchange for interesting content. Gen Z is much less concerned with data and security than previous generations and will readily offer personal information to companies in exchange for better, relevant experiences. According to Epsilon research, while over 50% of older generations are concerned about privacy online, 22% of Gen Z “don’t care at all.” 

This open invitation for higher quality branded experiences has spawned an ecosystem of constant digital conversations that flow into one another across multiple devices and locations. The rise of streaming platforms like Spotify and Netflix has removed the barriers between digital interactions and turned content consumption into one ongoing, uninterrupted experience. Storified digital experiences, such as Snapchat and Instagram Stories, are now more popular than traditional timeline formats, especially among younger audiences. Static status updates or one-off TV spots are being replaced by multimedia, multichannel brand narratives. A 15-second Snapchat story often encapsulates video, pictures, text, and graphics into a unified digital experience. 

hand holding iphone with Pokemon go app
Pokémon Go captured the world with AR technology that broke boundaries between real life and video games. Source: Paintimpact

Gen Z desires livable and interactive digital experiences, as well as on-demand entertainment. Augmented and virtual reality technologies are two of the most requested formats from Gen Z consumers. 79% of U.S. Internet users ages 10 to 18 are interested in virtual reality — 6% more than millennials. While current VR efforts are generally expensive and time-intensive, AR experiences have been much more accessible for both large and small companies. Users typically only need to have a smartphone to participate.

One AR innovator was Pokémon Go. When the app was released in July 2016, it saturated popular culture and broke multiple world records, grossing more than $206.5 million in revenue in the first month alone.

No Matter Where You Start, the Customer Journey Keeps Moving Forward 

Each generation has its own set of unique expectations for digital experiences that brands must meet if they want to keep up and successfully serve customers. This means embracing new technologies in new places quickly and building scalable customer journeys that anticipate needs and deliver results. Understanding how user behaviors evolve as new pathways and technologies enter the market means that digital marketers won’t have to limit their products and services to a single portion of the population. Instead, their strategy can grow with their audience and offer lifetime value and relevancy to people as they reach different life milestones. 

But generational labels make up a small part of a person’s identity and customer experience. Factors like gender, family structure, location, and more also influence viewpoint and behavior. As a result, a flexible digital marketing strategy that allows new experiences to be deployed and customized at a moment’s notice and a marketing strategy that takes the entire customer journey into account and optimizes for preferences in real-time is needed. Journey orchestration tools don’t just place customer experience on a timeline; instead, they help marketing teams view data from multiple touchpoints and interactions, so they can create rich customer profiles and offer content that's personalized to their needs at the right place and time.

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