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I was at a meeting this week that drove home the big generational divide in online and offline media consumption. At the podium was a 20-something CEO of a new venture that is trying to work with new college grads. In the audience were people mostly captains of industry twice his age. The young CEO was asked what he thought about using content that was similar to the way Consumer Reports rates and compares products. After a pause and a blank look, he said, "I don't know what you mean, I never heard of that publication." That got a big laugh from the audience, but his ignorance was genuine. The Q&A continued, and he mentioned a few moments later how he gets a lot of his information from the Web site HuffingtonPost.com. Now it was the moment of being perplexed for the gentlemen sitting next to me, who leaned over to ask me if I have ever heard of such a publication. His ignorance was also the real deal.
So where do you stand on the Consumer Reports/HuffingtonPost axis? And more importantly, where do your readers stand as well? How savvy are they with using online media to get their information?
There is a growing divide in how we consume media, and it is mostly age-related. But it isn't as simple as everyone older is using this technology and younger is using that technology – there are a lot more subtle sub-groups. For example, 20-somethings that have never been to college aren't using email – they went right to texting and if they don't need email for their jobs they don't use it in their personal communications, and probably will remain away from email for a long time to come. And 50-somethings don't have much experience with social media, unless their kids are on Facebook and they signed up for defensive parental reasons, or they heard about it from a younger work colleague, for example. Almost no one is really using RSS feeds to keep track of Web content, except a few nerds and PR people. Instant Messaging has all sorts of twisted demographics, depending not just on age but also on how distributed the work team is and whether it is blessed or cursed by the corporate IT department. And so forth.
What does this mean for professional communicators? Several things. First, you have to become a master of multiple media channels and methods. Writing, speaking, podcasting, blogging, creating social network groups, filming videos, and more. You have to become omnivorous in what you consume and what you create.
Second, bylines aren't enough. So while I do write for the New York Times several times a year, that isn't enough. I should also post comments on various newspaper blogs (if it is relevant), and participate in various discussion forums.
Third, it isn't just about you but whom you know and who forwards your emails and links to your content. Is it better for the CEO of a potential client to just get a single email from me about a particular subject? Or to have five of his direct reports send the same link to something that I have posted? Or to have the post appear somewhere else that results in three new clients hiring me? You get the idea. Everything has the potential to be viral these days.
Finally, don't be afraid to experiment. The rules aren't set in stone, and while there are differences in the generations in media consumption, no one really knows how this is all going to shake out. One of the great opportunities of the Web – the ability to measure everything – is also its biggest challenge, because you don't necessarily have the ability to link cause and effect. I realized this as I was posting a new screencast video of mine last month to 15 different Web sites. Some of the sites have no traffic, some videos are rising stars. It is the same video on each site. What makes one more viewed is impossible to explain. (And by the way, if you haven't checked out my videos yet, go over to WebInformant.tv and watch one or two and let me know what you think.)
David Strom is an expert on Internet and networking technologies who was the former editor-in-chief at Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. He currently writes regularly for PC World, Baseline Magazine, and the New York Times and is also a professional speaker, podcaster and blogs at strominator.com and WebInformant.tv