Centennials & Technology: How to speak Digital Native and why you should learn

“OMG I would die without my phone. I really do not know what I would do.”
Alexandra, 14

Centennials are the first digitally native generation.

The term was coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky, an education consultant, and his thesis was that the arrival and rapid proliferation of digital technology in the 1990s caused an event which changed things so fundamentally that there was absolutely no going back. This singularity, he hypothesized, would impact Centennials by changing the way they think, process information, the language they speak, and how they engage with digital tools.

While Prensky’s theory was not without controversy, there is no denying that Centennials have a radically different interaction with technology than their parents did. The great majority we talked to had smartphones by age 12 and many of them had their first social media presence as early as 6 months old, thanks to proud parents posting baby pictures. As a result, Centennials have lived in a world of constant connectedness and the resulting constant distraction. Sara, a 16-year-old we interviewed, said it best: “Nowadays we’re growing more and more dependent on technology. I’ll be doing my homework … and then 10 minutes later, I’ll be on my phone. And I’ll be like, ‘Oh, wait. No! I need to put this down!’ And then 20 minutes later, I’ll be back on my phone. And I’ll be like, ‘How did this even happen?!’”

What are these changes in behavior and interaction? Why are they so important?

1. Centennials expect technology to enable them, not control them. Because Centennials don’t remember a time when they weren’t connected, they have, arguably, higher expectations for technology and how they want to interact with it. They expect technology to push them forward from behind, subtlety – even passively – rather than stand in front of them, controlling them and acting as a barrier to achieving their goals. It is an integral part of their survival but one that they don’t tend to think too much about until oppressive or until it’s taken away. Caitlyn, 16, said it best: “I’m so used to having my phone with me that I freak out when I don’t. It’s stressful not to have a phone with you at this point.”

This level of connection means that Centennials are not passive observers of the world around them, but are active in it and interacting with it constantly.

Bottom line: Develop beautiful customer experiences, without interruptions, that allow Centennials to achieve their goals (buying, shopping, learning, or teaching) quickly, efficiently, elegantly, and playfully. Design knowing they’re connected and expecting that you are just one of a myriad of options. Win them over by using the information they provide to show them that you understand them.

2. If you’re not designing mobile-first and communicating by video or SMS, you’ll never attract and retain Centennials. Why aren’t desktop computing and email a primary part of a Centennial’s arsenal? The Wall Street Journal explains it well: “You might think a generation as tech-savvy as this one … would have embraced email in its infancy. But progress has inverted the order in which Generation Z encounters many technologies, relative to their older peers. Many used tablets before laptops, streaming before downloads and chat before email. For them, email is about as much fun as applying to college or creating a résumé.”

Elijah, a 14-year-old Centennial whom we interviewed, further argues against email: “It used to be email, fax, old fashioned means that were long … now you can send a three character text to someone and they’ll understand what you’re saying. Whole conversations can be via technology instead of having to meet up in person or over long emails.” Notice that Elijah doesn’t even consider email a valid technology.

Bottom line: Design mobile first and carefully consider any use of email. Make your messages short, informal, reliable, and with instant calls-to-action or rewards. Catch their attention – because you’re competing for it – by being relatable and unique.

3. Centennials are exploring their identities through social media applications. For good or bad, the reality is that social media often has a large impact on a Centennial’s self-worth and as such, it’s incredibly important to them. Sara, 16, said, “Social media is that validation that we need. If I post a picture on Instagram, I’ll be checking every 10 minutes who’s liked it. I need that sort of validation in my life.”

Sara goes on to describe the impact of her digital footprint. “On social media I’m very aware of the fact that anyone could search for me, come across my profile and go through my things. That knowledge helps me control what I post, what I say, and what I comment on.” We found that Centennials generally seem more comfortable providing their personal information than previous generations, but they are still acutely aware of the privacy and security of their digital lives, even if they don’t seem to fully grasp the consequences of living a life online.

Which social media apps are the most popular? Like Sara, half of the Centennials we interviewed said that Instagram was among their top three favorite apps. Other apps mentioned were Snapchat (one-third cited it as a top-three favorite); Twitter, gaming, and messaging apps (just over one-quarter each); YouTube and streaming music apps (23% each). Facebook was almost never mentioned as a top-three favorite app.

Though Centennials are completely comfortable using apps, it’s important to note that if it doesn’t provide a great experience, an app will be deleted just as quickly as it was downloaded. One study states that 99% of apps only get used once.

Bottom line: Communicate to Centennials in the same ways and on the same platforms that they use to communicate to each other. Use social media to connect to Centennials, not only in your advertising and marketing, but also when you’re trying to hire them. If you’re going to build an app for Centennials, be doubly sure it’s exactly what they want.

Want more? Come back next week to understand more about Centennials and their views on brands and shopping.

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