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Gartner’s New Generation “V”

February 19, 2009

Earlier this month, Gartner analyst Adam Sarner wrote an article for Forbes in which he introduced a new “demographic” category – Generation “V.”  As described by Sarner:  …Generation V is not defined by age, gender, social demographic or geography, but is based on demonstrated achievement, accomplishments (merit) and an increasing preference toward the use of digital media channels to discover information, build knowledge and share insights.”  Sarner goes on to subdivide Generation V into four sub-groups organized by behaviors – Opportunists, Lurkers, Creators, Contributors.<!—-><!—->

My first reaction to this article was not entirely positive.  While I understand the basic thrust of Sarner’s argument, I think this whole concept as it’s presented now is a miss on several fronts:<!—-><!—->

  • Don’t we already have enough generation descriptions?  We already have Gen Y and Millennials for the same demographic.  And to these two existing demographic descriptions, Gartner has already added Generation Digital.  So we have three descriptors of Gen Y.  Now we have a Virtual Generation (which isn’t even really a “generation”).
  • Generation “V” isn’t a “generation” at all – it’s a description of behavior patterns.  While I do agree that we can and should divorce behavior from arbitrary age distinctions, I don’t think we should call a behavior-based categorization a “generation.”  Maybe we call this a “Pattern” or “Behavior.”  Using the term Generation to describe Behavior confuses both and robs the concept of potential.  More on this in the next bullet.<!—-><!—->
  • If we call this “Virtual Behavior” instead of Generation Virtual, then it opens the possibility to also have non-Virtual Behavior – like Traditional Behavior or even finer breakdowns within Virtual – like Consumer and Producer.  Then you could matrix generations with behaviors:  a Boomer with a tendency toward Producing; a Gen X with a tendency toward Consuming; a Traditionalist with a tendency toward Traditional behavior.  This is indicative of what I see in the market today:  I have plenty of Gen X friends who don’t blog, twitter, Facebook etc…  They read reviews, they Google, they know what Wikipedia is, but they don’t make or contribute; they consume – Gen X with a tendency toward Consuming.  I also have Boomer colleagues and know Boomer clients who are Producers.  There is value in this line of thinking because it provides a more nuanced way to think about people and behaviors.<!—-><!—->
  • Maybe it’s me, but the breakdown between Opportunists, Lurkers, Creators, and Contributors is hopelessly vague as defined by Sarner.   I’m an “Opportunist” if I “create purchase feedback” when the opportunity presents itself, but I’m a “Contributor” if I “create a product review”?  I feel like we’re seriously splitting hairs here.  When I write a blog post, I’m a “Creator,” but when I answer someone’s question, I’m a “Contributor.”  And when I ask a question, I’m an “Opportunist.”  I’ve argued for over a year now that we need to think of this stuff as a continuum and not artificially bucket behaviors.  Some answers may be way more involved than a blog post.  To call one “contribution” and the other “creation” is an needlessly limiting view.  Isn’t contribution an act of creation?  I feel like Sarner’s describing the trunk, the tail, and the skin and missing the fact that it’s all part of a single organic whole.
  • Where is the workplace or enterprise in all of this?  For behaviors, Sarner lists “Review a product,” “Transact,” “Read product reviews,” “Provide purchase feedback.”  What about “Share ideas,” “Collaborate,” “Network with peers,” “Provide employee or product feedback”?  Or really anything that might be tied to the enterprise?  If we’re going to name a new Generation, let’s be sure we consider all the angles and not just focus on marketing and ecommerce.  Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials are generational descriptions that have applicability and value to HR and training groups as much as they do to marketing and sales groups.  If this new concept is real, it should apply there as well.

    I’m also pretty confident, based on what we’ve seen so far with our customers, that these  metrics of 80% Lurker, 3% Creator etc.. . won’t hold true on the Workplace side.  I might “lurk” on sites where I need info, but in a workplace, community is not a novelty, it’s how people do their jobs.  So again, we need to stop focusing exclusively on marketing and sales and worse, presenting the data from there as indicative of a general pattern that would hold in other use cases.

<!—-><!—->In general, I think the core idea is solid, but the presentation and description are wrong.  I think we should keep it simple:  Creators and Consumers.  And if we’re going to go deeper, let’s use the stuff Charlene Li has already been working on — creators, critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, and inactives.  There is significantly less overlap than in Sarner’s model (just a little between creator and critic) and it’s become an accepted way to think about online behavior.  Reinventing the nomenclature in an emerging space just mucks things up.<!—-><!—->

<!—-><!—->A better use of energy would be for Sarner to take his core concept – separating behavior from demographics – and layer it into Charlene’s model:  Boomer Creators, Boomer Critics, etc…  and then figure out how this matrixed model might be used to support marketing, sales, HR, and training within the organization.  Another area that might be interesting to explore is how this breakdown might inform the way communities are marketed internally and externally – how do you market and grow a consumer-oriented community to Gen X Critics?  How do you market and grow an internal, workplace community to Boomer Spectators?  This would be an interesting area to dive a little deeper and would stimulate some interesting discussions. <!—-><!—-><!—-><!—-><!—-><!—->

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