What Modern Romance Can Teach Us About Generational Research

tech-modern-romanceI was recently inspired by Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance—a well-researched, insightful look into the rapid changes in modern social life: meeting, dating, coupling, cheating, uncoupling. His book provides many great lessons about a changing world, perhaps none more so than his concept of a “phone world” which many of us now regularly inhabit:

“Through our phone world we are connected to anyone or everyone in our lives, from our parents to a casual acquaintance whom we friend on Facebook. For younger generations, their social lives play out through social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, Tinder, and Facebook as much as through campuses, cafes, and clubs. But in recent years, as more and more adults have begun spending more and more time on their own digital devices, just about everybody with the means to buy a device and a data plan has become a hyper engaged participant in their phone world”.

The advancement of technology, including its adoption and influence, is moving fast—fast enough to reshape our thinking about how to best approach generational research. We often consider Millennials—those roughly age 18-34—as a homogenous group. Yet, there are distinct differences in technology device usage and technological perceptions between those in emerging adulthood (18-24 years old) and those in young adulthood (25-34 years old). These groups are adopting technology differently, and we need to approach them as distinct segments, particularly when conducting technology research. 

The shift away from personal computers

At the device level, we’re seeing shifts away from personal computers toward smartphones as the tech device used most often daily. Data collected in our recent consumer omnibus study[1] show a significantly smaller percentage of younger Millennials (38%) who use a personal desktop computer on a daily basis compared to older Millennials (53%) and older generations. Millennials, in general, are much more inclined to use a smartphone, with 85% to 87% of them doing so daily.

Daily Device Usage

The shift toward shorter correspondence

We’re also seeing changes in the format of communications, where Millennials—particularly younger ones—are moving toward shorter correspondence. Beyond the ubiquitous texting seen with Millennials, there are generational differences in the depth and length of email correspondence. Younger Millennials report writing thoughtful e-mails less often—just over a third (36%) of them say they have written a thoughtful e-mail in the past six months, as compared to about half of the older age groups. Younger Millennials are less likely to write short emails as well.

E-mail usage in the past 6 months

Are Millennials less thoughtful? Cynics may say yes, but a more likely cause for the shift in e-mail usage is the way they interact with technology in their daily lives. They are increasingly involved in a rapidly evolving mobile, social media environment, and thus less involved in traditional computing and email correspondence.

The changing social media landscape

In conjunction with the rapid pace of smartphone adoption, the social media landscape is transforming every year. We see distinct patterns of trial and use of social media services, and younger Millennials are doing much of the experimentation. I am only 27 years old, but I represent the “older” segment of Millennials and have distinct experiences from the younger segment. Social media has had a profound effect on my perceptions, my expression on the internet and my entertainment tastes. I vividly remember when MySpace was the dominant form of entertainment and remember shifting from it to other social media such as Facebook and Twitter. However, when reviewing the top social media apps in use by teens today, I haven’t used 4 of the 7 top platforms. Those platforms undoubtedly expose younger users to unique perceptions, behaviors and tastes than Millennials who were exposed to a different social media paradigm.

Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat Top Social Media Platforms for Teens

My example may be anecdotal, but the MySpace lesson is important. Social media platforms assumed to be important today by older generations might seem outdated, old or clunky to many younger Millennials. It is important to ensure research questions on technology expand the list of diverse social media and technological experiences when researching brand perceptions and connection, information sources and shopping, and brand promotion and sharing. Someone age 27 will likely have a vastly different experience and will be drawing from a different context than someone age 19 or 20.

The music consumption disruption

Here’s another example from the online content space. Our study shows that 76% of younger Millennials have streamed music in the past six months compared to 63% of older Millennials.

Streamed from Spotify, Pandora or other music services in the past 6 months

The streaming industry has turned music consumption upside down. Just a few years ago, iTunes was the go-to place for digital music but with the proliferation of sources comes a proliferation of experiences. What will be the dominant platform for younger Millennials in three years? We will miss the nuanced answers to that question if we consider 18-34 year olds as a uniform group.

Why is all this significant to market research?

When technological advancement is slow, people of different ages share many of the same experiences so making observations about generational behavioral and attitudinal differences within this shared context seems reasonable. However, just a few short years in age can dramatically affect experiences with technology and communication. We cannot overlook these real differences or we will miss important details and insights. Currently, we are in the midst of such a shift as Millennials (particularly younger ones) are spending more and more time in a phone world. Instead of personal computers and e-mail as the communication and technology center, the youth have moved to smartphones and social media, and there are huge implications for market and social research.

Nowhere does the rapid advancement of social media and new phone worlds impact research in sub-generational differences than in studying purchase process. The number of avenues available to a consumer to discover and research a product, consume reviews from fellow shoppers and purchasers, and ultimately purchase a product is exponentially greater than even a few years ago. Not only are there online reviews and ratings, but also blogs, YouTube, vines, posts, tags and so many other ways for consumers to find information. Nearly all of this is available to shoppers while they are in phone world—there’s little need to go anywhere physically.

To understand just how deep the purchase process can go in a phone world, we turn again to a story told in Ansari’s book, in which he provides another illuminating example drawn from his actual experience. Here is how Ansari describes trying to find a restaurant using his smartphone (with info sources marked in bold):

“First I texted four friends who travel and eat out a lot and whose judgment on food I really trust. While I waited for recommendations from them, I checked the website Eater for its “Heat Map,” which includes new, tasty restaurants in the city. I also checked the “Eater 38,” which is the site’s list of thirty-eight essential Seattle restaurants and standbys. Then I checked reviews on Yelp to see what the consensus was on there. I also checked an online guide to Seattle in GQ magazine. I narrowed down my search after consulting all these recommendations and then went on the restaurant websites to check out the menus. At this point, I filtered all these options down by tastiness, distance, and what my tum-tum told me it wanted to eat. Finally, after much deliberation, I made my selection: Il Corvo.”

Ansari used six different sources to determine the best restaurant. And he is 35—borderline Generation X. Imagine the experiences of someone just a bit younger—they may message their friend on WhatsApp instead of text, search for restaurants on Facebook, look at images on Instagram or see a video of someone eating on Snapchat.

The next huge shift: virtual reality and augmented reality

We may be on the precipice of another huge technological shift—while smartphones are the dominant device today, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are poised to revolutionize consumers’ interaction with technology and brands. If Goldman Sachs is correct, the size of the VR/AR market could be the size of the consumer PC market today by the year 2025.

Researchers need to stay on their toes as connected devices and platforms continue to shift in adoption and popularity. What was the dominant platform last year could soon be passé. We must keep our research instruments relevant, designing and refreshing constantly to account for the rapid changes in behavior. We must research Millennials’ technology and communication norms and adapt accordingly. And we must keep asking and evolving as we go.

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[1] The survey interviewed 1,002 general consumers with representation across age groups; 18-24 (n=190), 25-34 (n=153), 35-44 (n=167), 45-54 (n=182), 55+ (n=310)

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