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The challenge of wooing Generation C

As Nielsen coins a new term to describe young adults ages 18 to 34, a group it considers bound together by a digitally connected lifestyle, one Gen C'er has some advice for advertisers.

Emily Dreyfuss Former Editor
Emily Dreyfuss is the senior associate editor charged with keeping CNET's home page fresh and on point. With 7 years experience as a journalist, she writes commentary and is the former co-host of CNET TV's Rumor Has It.
Emily Dreyfuss
4 min read

The C in "Generation C," not surprisingly, stands for connected. If you've ever been ignored by a twentysomething in an elevator who's too busy texting to hear your plea for a sixth-floor button push, you already know what Nielsen's getting at.

According to the 2011 U.S. Census, people in this newly labeled age group (formerly called Gen Y, or the Millennials, or Generation Next, or sometimes just "those kids with some college education who are largely unemployed but building iPhone apps in their spare time") make up just "23 percent of the U.S. population."

The author, a member of Generation C, at work. (Or is it play?) Karyne Levy/CNET

After crunching the numbers in its U.S. Digital Consumer Report for Q3-Q4 2011 (PDF), released today, Nielsen determined that this 23 percent "represent an outsized portion of consumers watching online video (27 percent), visiting social-networking/blog sites (27 percent), owning tablets (33 percent), and using a smartphone (39 percent)." (Smartphone and tablet owner information was taken from more than 300,000 surveyed volunteer participants.)

As a proud cable cutter who watches hours upon hours of streaming content; is on Twitter so much my boyfriend has tried (unsuccessfully) to ban it from the dinner table; owns an iPad "because I honestly need it for work and life"; and has a panic attack if my smartphone is farther than arm's length from my person, those stats sound about right.

But as attractive as people like me and my "Gen C" brethren can be to advertisers due to our always-on status, we also pose a tantalizing challenge: can they get us to notice their ads?

We spend much of the day in front of screens, be they smartphones on the bus, computers at work, tablets and Roku-connected TVs at home, or all of those at once. As Nielsen reports, "57 percent of smartphone and tablet owners checked e-mail while watching a TV program--their top activity--and 44 percent visited a social-networking site."

Advertisers will probably like this stat out of the Nielsen report: 19 percent of smartphone and tablet owners also searched for product information and 16 percent looked up coupons or deals while the television was on. This makes us perfect targets for ads, but also so used to a constant onslaught of information while multitasking that we can be incredibly adept at filtering out the data we don't care about.

I honestly do not notice the ads on Facebook, or at the bottom of the New York Times Android app, or at the top of Gmail. Of course, I can't speak for all of my generation; I do have friends who are constantly marveling at how the targeted ads on Facebook know them so well that they often take the click bait.

Personally, though, I have such a blind spot for ads that when Web sites make the unfortunate choice to put a piece of actual content on the right side of the screen where I'm used to seeing an ad, it's too bad for them, because I miss it.

Nielsen chart
According to Nielsen, 18- to 34-year-olds comprise the largest group of smartphones owners in America, by far. (Click to enlarge.) Nielsen

On those rare occasions when an ad on Hulu that I must sit through to watch my beloved "30 Rock" hits home, I focus on it. And that's how advertisers can get the attention (the full attention) of Generation C. Frame advertising messages like this: what we're selling is fundamental and necessary to your connected life.

Think of the iPad commercials that suggest in no uncertain terms that if you don't own an iPad, you're missing out on a world of learning, communication, entertainment, and fun. I bought an iPad after two years of thinking it was an unnecessary, overpriced luxury, because the marketing of it as an addictive product that would increase my connected productivity and happiness seeped in through osmosis and I literally looked up from my computer one day and said aloud, "Today I'm buying an iPad. I need it."

It also didn't hurt that my friends on Facebook wouldn't shut up about how much they loved theirs. If they found it to be useful and awesome, I probably would, too. Like many Gen C'ers at the start of a career, I'm extra careful about how I spend my dollars. But if my friends could vouch that the high price tag was worth it, I was sold.

The Nielsen report draws from a broad range of research efforts across Nielsen and NM Incite, including panel data, metered device usage, and surveys, according to a Nielsen representative.

So what do you think? Are you a member of Generation C? Are you as "digitally connected" as the report describes? And do you feel yourself bombarded by ads? Let me know in the comments.