A charitable organization wants to understand how to work with social networks to increase its donor base. My research, including a test lab with subjects aged 17 and 21, has led me to wonder what impact these networks will have on reaching Gen Y/Net Gen, and how networks will affect the future of email.
The first step, though, is to get that we don't get it. As education expert Mark Prensky wrote in an essay way back in 2001, there are Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. Digital Natives "grew up on the 'twitch speed' of video games and MTV. They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They've been networked most or all of their lives." If you are reading this, you are more likely to be a Digital Immigrant. "As Digital Immigrants learn -- like all immigrants, some better than others --- to adapt to their environment, they... retain their 'accent,' that is, their foot in the past."
For Digital Natives who are in high school and college, email is not a way of life. Of course they know what it is and how to use it, but it is the province of adults -- teachers and businesses that they have to correspond with. For personal communication, they rely on the "wall" in Facebook or send messages within their relatively closed communities of friends. They have a lot to say about what and who they are, but they shut out the outside world and take refuge in an inner sanctum of like-minded young people -- some friends, some strangers -- who share their passions and interests.
To reach Digital Natives, you have to understand the community and respect it. You need to participate, but in an authentic way. A first-class guide to the philosophy can be found on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's WOM 101 guide. For the nonprofit group mentioned above, it can be as simple as finding young people who are passionate about their cause and active and well-connected in their networks. As Ben McConnell, author of Citizen Marketers, said in a recent talk, there is a fifth "P" of marketing: participation.
Another aspect that is easy to tout but difficult to do well is integration. The Digital Natives expect all aspects of communication with your company to feel like part of a whole, running on all cylinders. They have the patience of a gnat (or is it just my son?), so when the experience is clumsy or disjointed, you won't get a second look. For a fabulous example of integration and social networking, go to Barack Obama's Web site.
As the Digital Natives grow up and get jobs, their interactions with email will change. But what will be the effect of their pre-email focused years? The only way to anticipate the impact is to make sure you "get it." Because, as Digital Foreigner Marshall McLuhan said, "...the personal and social consequences of any medium -- that is, of any extension of ourselves -- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology....Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force."