by Neil Shoebridge, Australian Financial Review
Rather than being slaves to television or radio sets or newspapers and the content they pump out, the members of generation Y are slaves to devices allowing them to choose the media content they receive.
How do you reach youth? That is the question exercising the minds of many. It was easy when they were part of the mass market. But now they are absorbed by the more opaque digital world.
The members of generation Y present a great opportunity for those who can capture their attention, and a great threat to those who cannot.
Most companies in "old" media sectors such as radio, free-to-air television and newspapers fall into the "cannot" category. For many of those companies, generation Y is shaping up as the lost audience.
"The key thing to understand about members of generation Y is that they love to multi-task," says Mark McCrindle from McCrindle Research, a company specialising in generation Y. "The less structured and more visual the media, the better. They hop around, taking a bit from here and a bit from there, normally at the same time, and they show little loyalty to brands."
Media agency Starcom recently completed a study of people aged 13 to 24. Chief operating officer John Sintras agrees the members of generation Y are media multi-taskers.
"They are doing at least two or three things at the same time," he says. Ominously, he notes this may require their suitors to do exactly the same to capture them.
"Marketers need to surround them. They can only be reached with a symphony of marketing tools."
Reaching the members of generation Y is a non-negotiable objective for old players and new, and the search for the right herding techniques is on in earnest. The teenagers and twentysomethings who make up generation Y refuse to passively receive their media meals, they are hanging out online, where they make their own news and entertainment.
They have eagerly embraced the online equivalent of a party, the so-called social networking websites where they can communicate with their peers.
Rupert Murdoch has followed them. His News Corp was a digital laggard until July last year, when it plunked down $US580 million for Intermix, the United States-based owner of about 30 websites, including MySpace, a social networking and blogging site.
Murdoch's move signaled the arrival of websites consisting of content created by their uses as a mainstream part of the media world.
The rising penetration of broadband internet connections is not the only reason for the surging popularity of social networking sites.
"The growth is being driven by other strong trends which have less to do with technology," Andrew Curry, a director of the British consulting firm The Henley Centre, wrote in a recent article.
"These include, for example, the decline of institutional authority and the rise of peer-based trust systems; the rise in the production of content by users; changing attitudes to the value of the content; the rise of communities of interest; and perhaps even the decline in the number of safe spaces for young people."
Mike Morrison, chief strategy officer of the marketing services group Y&R Brands, says generation Y consumers have grown up in an era of "cheap and ubiquitous fame" and are an "identity, not needs, generation."
"They have a desire to be known and the spread of the internet means they are the first generation that expects the whole world to hear them when they speak," Morrison says.
"MySpace, YouTube and other sites are examples of the new community networks by which this generation defines itself. TV is not their medium. Anything with a small screen is their medium.
McCrindle says the way sites such as MySpace, Flickr and others are put together is "almost a personification of generation Y consumers."
The sites are created by them and are for them, not aimed at them," he says. "They are entertaining, give users a strong sense of community and give people a strong sense of control."
The word "control" crops up regularly when researchers and media executives talk about generation Y consumers. Technology gives them the ability to control the media they consume. Rather than being slaves to content from TV or radio or newspapers, generation Y members are slaves to devices allowing them to choose the media content they receive.
"They are very skeptical about 'talk at' media like TV, newspapers and outdoor ads," says Justin Graham, strategic planner at ad agency Leo Burnett. "They do not want to be passive consumers.
"This is the first generation to grow up with digital media and to understand the control digital media gives them. SMS, the internet, iPods and so on are all important to them and an integral part of their lives."
The definitions of generation Y vary, with some social researchers and statisticians saying it covers people born between 1980 and 1994, others defining it as 1978 to 1994 and others plumping for 1982 to 1995.
While researchers cannot settle on one definition or name for these consumers, they agree that their behaviour and attitudes present myriad challenges for media and marketing executives.
Mobile phones are ubiquitous among generation Y consumers and, according to Chris Christofi from the media agency Ikon Communications, are an important symbol of their behaviour and attitudes.
"Mobility is one of the main characteristics of this generation, as they lead lives that flow from activity to activity, staying connected, informed and entertained via their mobiles and other portable devices," he says.
"Reaching them when they are on the move is a key factor in connecting with this audience."
Starcom's research found most people aged 13 to 24 say they are "time poor."
"Pressure from their parents to achieve and the huge choice they have in terms of entertainment and information means they feel the need to make the most of their time," Sintras says.
"Anything that ensures they have no downtime and stay connected is important.
"That's why they are devoted to the internet," iPods and mobile phones.
That devotion will continue as the members of generation Y age.
"Some of their habits will shift as they become more mature," McCrindle says. "Their current focus on entertainment, for example, will change and there will be less playing of computer and video games, for example.
"But many of the media they are using now, particularly the internet, will remain a big part of their lives and media consumption habit."
Graham says generation Y consumers have not turned their backs on old media, but they are only interested in media products "in which they can get involved."
"Brands need to stop talking at consumers through traditional channels and start engaging them at an emotional level, one that requires involvement."
Research by the media agency MindShare shows that the amount of time people aged 13 to 17, a key part of generation Y, spend watching free-to-air TV has dropped 30% in the past five years. In the same period, the number of male teens using the internet at home as jumped 78%.
Starcom's research found generation Y consumers watch free-to-air TV, but only "appointment TV" programmes.
"Just sitting around and watching TV to kill time is not an option for them," Sintras says. "But watching appointment TV programmes is important, because it makes them part of the herd.
"If everyone is talking about The OC, they need to be part of it."
Sintras says Starcom's research found the rise of MP3 players, podcasting and the downloading of music is hurting the radio industry.
"The 13-to-24s we spoke to said radio has had its day," he says. "It is rapidly losing relevance. The most common comment was 'My iPod is my radio station'."
A lack of young customers has been a problem for newspaper publishers for decades.
But publishers have taken comfort from the fact that when people hit their mid- to late-20s and start to "nest," they turn to newspapers for information about cars, houses, jobs and so on.
David Kirk, chief executive of John Fairfax Holdings, the publisher of The Independent Financial Review, thinks the nesting theory still holds, although increasingly younger people are turning to the online versions of newspapers.
"I don't agree with the view that newspapers are facing a generation who don't and won't read newspapers," he says.
"There are lots of newspaper readers aged under 30 today and that will still be the case years from now. The challenge for publishers is to ensure they are putting out the right type of newspapers to keep people engaged.
"And our online audience is much younger than the audience of the printed newspapers.
"Our websites are set up to appeal to a younger audience with blogs, planners, more immediate stories and so on. That strategy is working very well."
Belinda Rowe, chief executive of the media agency Zenith Optimedia, says the fragmented nature of generation Y's media consumption habits is forcing marketers to focus harder on engaging with consumers rather than simply reaching large numbers of them.
"If marketers are only using traditional media to communicate with generation Y, they face a very challenging situation," she says.