At AlwaysOn, talking 'bout the IM generation

Start-up CEOs at conference say traditional media has to shape up to reach younger tech enthusiasts.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
NEW YORK--It's not uncommon these days to hear debate about how advertisers and media insiders can successfully get through to the age demographic known as "Generation Y," the "MySpace generation," or the "IM (instant message) generation."

And the AlwaysOn Media NYC conference, a three-day event hosted by the media industry "blogazine" AlwaysOn, was no exception to the rule. A crowd of advertisers, marketers, analysts and members of the press packed a ballroom at the midtown Mandarin Oriental Hotel Tuesday to hear a panel of new-media execs talk about how advertisers will have to change their modus operandi to reach young people whose lives are fueled by text messaging, MySpace.com, YouTube and a content-saturated Internet.

"The IM generation is probably sitting on the biggest access and level playing field that any creative generation's ever had."
--Steve Starr, Revver

The discussion, moderated by The Economist business writer Matthew Bishop, featured four CEOs: Guba's recently resigned Tom McInerney, Steve Starr of Revver, Justin Townsend of in-game advertising firm IGA Worldwide, and Jeremy Verba of teen-oriented social-networking site Piczo.

Bishop admitted that he, like the audience, had a stake in learning what the new-media execs had to say, joking that his colleagues at The Economist "initially were terrified by the arrival of the Digital Age" and were still trying to find ways to reach "those readers who haven't grown up reading books and magazines."

The Internet is "the way they're going to express themselves, the way they're going to communicate, the way they're going to buy things, the way they're going to share things with their friends, and so on," Verba said. "I think it's really a generational shift. It's hard for us to think that way."

The panelists all agreed on one point: traditional media, from TV stations to advertisers to the print industry, really isn't in touch with the "IM generation" of tech-savvy teenagers and college students. But beyond that, there was some disagreement on whether youth marketing should aim for uber-specific niche targeting or generalist business models that can be interpreted and implemented differently.

Out of all the panelists, ex-Guba CEO McInerney was the one most inclined to recommend casting a wide net. "I think the big thing is that you really can't tell this generation how to use a product," he said. Social-networking pioneer Friendster, he added, "didn't allow bands or businesses or different kinds of profiles to be created, and they really kind of forced user behavior, and when they did that, everybody kind of jumped to MySpace." MySpace, McInerney said, was successful because it could be used differently by each user. (McInerney made no mention of his December resignation from Guba.)

Piczo's Verba, on the other hand, favored a heavily targeted approach that uses the iterative nature of new Internet media to respond directly to young Web users' opinions about the sites and services they frequent.

"They're very, very quick to talk to you and tell you what they like and don't like," Verba said. "(Piczo's) users own us. We really don't own them. They tell us every day what they want and what they don't like. They're very vocal...We don't have to guess."

But by the end of the discussion, there was almost no talk of the "IM generation" specifically--the talk had shifted entirely to discourse about how the advertising and marketing industries are being shaped by Internet users in general rather than by any particular age group or demographic. More specifically, it was about how the "next big thing" can appear out of nowhere like never before: "They got on a wave," McInerney said of YouTube, with "the technology, the design, the content, and the community. And once you have the community, in the case of YouTube it was self-reinforcing. They had the content." The same thing, he said, was true of MySpace.

None of the panelists actually acknowledged that there are plenty of 20- and 30-somethings (and older) who have MySpace profiles, who procrastinate at the office with YouTube clips, and whose television and print media consumption is going down because of the rise of digital media. IGA Worldwide's Townsend came close, though, by talking about how in-game advertising had grown more complex because of games' expansion beyond the traditional demographic of young men. "There are many, many gamers in the female demographic, and right through their 30s and 40s," he said.

But to the audience, or at least to this reporter and some of the bloggers sitting in proximity to her, it was apparent that traditional media tactics are going to have to change to meet the demands of the entire Internet, not just its younger users.

Earlier in the panel discussion, Revver's Starr said that "the IM generation is probably sitting on the biggest access and level playing field that any creative generation's ever had." However, if the playing field is really that level, it must have room for at least a handful of people over the age of 20.