Old Ideas About Older Audiences

I did it again.

In a meeting, I used an example from the 1980s to illustrate a point.  This time, it was the Talking Heads’ David Byrne who wore a really big suit in the video for the song, “Girlfriend is Better.”

Blank stares from all the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in the room.  What is she talking about?

And then I remember that popular culture for these folks doesn’t start until somewhere in the mid-1990s.  Again, I feel old as I approach my 41st birthday.

This is not a therapy post about my aging. Rather, it makes me think about audiences and how to be and remain relevant to them, along with our deeply-ingrained penchant for always assuming that anyone that is a parent is suddenly as old and out of touch as Archie Bunker, and that anyone in their teens and twenties are as vapid and self-indulgent as Lindsay Lohan.

We are fortunate at UM-Flint to  have some very smart marketing people across departments and units who truly look at their efforts from the viewpoint of the audience, asking the questions, “Who are we talking to and what do they want to know?”

The questions are great, but after that, I think we get into a bit of trouble.  We have a problem of assumptions and perceptions about groups, and it is something all of us (including myself) are guilty of routinely.  It’s time we really use facts to help us make informed decisions, as opposed to starting sentences with, “Everybody I know uses/listens to/watches…..”

Here is an example of what I’m talking about:  The website InsideFacebook.com is a veritable treasure trove of stats and information about Facebook, the fastest growing form of media (yes, I know it’s a social network, but it’s time to accept the fact that social networks are part of the media that we buy to reach an audience) in the world.  Looking at the statistics from Facebook use in May 2010, the fastest growing group is the 18-25 demographic, but right behind that group is the 26-34 and 35-44 groups.  Surprisingly, 13-17 year olds rank toward the bottom of new users.

These statistics lead to more questions:   is the 13-17 year old group small because everyone is there already? Or has Facebook already jumped the shark for these teens?  Are adults the fastest growing group because everyone is just discovering the fun you can have posting pictures of your kids and grandkids for everyone to like?   Sources such as InsideFacebook.com can provide even more information that we can use to drill down for more facts so that we as marketing and communication professionals, can make informed decisions regarding audiences.

And one more word on the topic of the parent audience:

Suddenly, it’s as if becoming a parent renders you completely out of touch. Society assumes the brain of the American parent can’t handle information presented in a fresh engaging way, and can only comprehend brochures and such that look like the latest newsletter from an insurance company.Once we become responsible for young lives, does that mean that we can’t handle a presentation style that is outside the norm?  If I had a hair scrunchy for each time I have been in a meeting and someone was advocating for a very conservative, ubiquitous print/communication piece because it was targeting parents, I would be awash in scrunchies.  It has happened more than once that we assume parents aren’t online, on social networks, listening to current music, watching MTV, etc. Widely available demographic information tell us that, in fact, they are consuming the same or similar types of popular culture as people who are younger.

We need to stop categorizing categories of people without facts.  Is it impossible to imagine a grandfather of 62 loading apps onto his new iPad?  Is it beyond realistic to think of a forty-something mom downloading Usher or the Black Eyed Peas onto her iPod?  I believe our problem is that we consider these people iDuds, and we are not giving them their due for being informed and current.  Yes, not everyone is there yet, and some people still think of the “internets” as a set of tubes.  But, a way to build a strong, loyal audience is to give them some credit for intelligence and it’s time to start respecting the audience.

Speaking on behalf of my fellow Gen Xers, ours is the  generation that related to the Breakfast Club, embraced Madonna, blasted the soundtrack from Purple Rain, and found the pursuit of the highest score in video games time well spent.  The fact is, as much as people would like to dismiss popular culture as trivial (and it certainly is at times) it is nonetheless culture which serves to inform and define us as individuals and as a collective group identifiable as Boomers, Gen X, Y or Millenial.  And because all of these generations deeply value their popular cultural connections, I strongly believe that each generation can handle a bit of edginess, a bit of irreverence in communication material.

By the way, I will stay a bit mired in the past, and I will continue to use obscure 1980s references as examples and nonsequiters for the kids in the office.

Forever Young,

Jen X Hogan