Generation #hashtag or why native digital content is not a temporary fashion

The next billion user generation flocks to native digital services, to sharing and mobile pure players like Airbnb, Yelp, Uber or LinkedIn as well. Good news, there is hope. Generation #hashtag does not expect content to be free. Instead, they are willing to pay a price. What’s left is the question of how do you “design” native digital content and who will take the lead? 

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Source: Bain Global Media Consumer Surveys, 2011 and 2015

Bain recently published its annual survey of media use across global markets, the second in a row. While Bain’s 2014 report focused on the rise of Generation #hashtag, the follow-up study in 2015 had a closer look at how this group of media consumers had developed over the course of a year. 

We’ve heard of millennials and digital natives. But this group is special and the term “generation” may be misleading. We find people of all ages among them. What makes Generation #hashtag special is its preference towards native digital content. 

But what is native digital content and what is its impact on publishing

Caption: The above comment was made by Jeff Jarvis

Content is native digital if it is genuine digital. In the evolution of media, it is also a logical next step. Most companies and publishers have been focussing on the digitalisation of physical products or services so far. It was time to ask how products and services will look like, if they’re built on top of a digital and mobile infrastructures only, in other words with a completely digital DNA as a starting point.

In their study Bain identifies three traits of native digital content: mobility, ubiquity, and context. Three traits, which are also three key differentiators, which explain why native digital stands out from digital and analog media. The good news is, that due to the fact, that mobile networks and mobile distribution play a key role in the distribution of native digital content, it is also easier to monetise it. Users are already accustomed to pay for products, services, and information in the mobile world. In the words of Bain: “Mobile platforms are key to success here, given their built- in user bases with registered credit card details from Apple, Amazon or PayPal.” 

Bain: “Native users are willing to pay the price for convenient access to the content they need”

We’ve seen and experienced native digital content already from newcomers like Buzzfeed or platforms like Meerkat, Periscope or Snapchat and Vine, which offer their own content formats sometimes even behind their own platform walls. In case of Snapchat’s Snaps content only resides inside of the network and the platform offers unique tools, filters, and masks to enrich the experience. In fact, native content is often the key differentiator in the digital platform market. Native digital content is their language, a lifestyle expression, which helps them to stand out and to attract audiences. The content format is the glue not only to gain new audiences but also to keep them engaged.

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Source: Bain Global Media Consumer Surveys, 2011 and 2015

Native digital content has a lot of advantages. It’s not only free of any historical burden (how do you digitalize physical products, which were built to be physical?) it makes use of the hardware strengths of the platform which hosts them. If medium and message are so closely tied together as in the case of native digital content, you can achieve authenticity, which is key to winning consumers’ hearts and to grow. Native digital content can create a completely new user experience, a habit changing environment. It can be used to build up market entry walls which protect brands against upcoming competition. 

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The challenge is that it also requires organisations to pour much more money into the development of such content formats because it often relies on new technology, so that you have to experiment and test in an environment of complete insecurity and high risk so that you need the (financial) strengths to survive this phase of completing the product and finding first adopters. You also have to recruit and hire the right staff with the necessary skill set to navigate through this uncertainty. For sure, startups have an advantage here. They don’t have to overcome the boundaries of legacy media: old structure, slow decision making processes, protected products, etc. Starting from scratch is often the only way to succeed when building a disruptive new content format on top of technology, design or interaction innovation. 

We have a lot of nice examples from startups in the market right now, which show us how far you can go in creating new experiences, or native digital content, for an audience which is growing so rapidly. Many of these examples push their users to create new ways how to interact or how to use language in more innovative ways. Look at Snaps, a picture or video message taken and shared with friends on Snapchat in real-time, which can be viewed for up to 10 seconds and which disappears once viewed. Or think of Vine, which enables users to record short video clips up to around six seconds long while recording through its in-app camera. The camera records only while the screen is being touched, enabling users to edit on the fly or create stop motion effects. Visual design and the graphic tools built into the latest tools vary based on the assumption of how a user should interact with the software. 

Real-time video broadcast is another example of how the same feature can be interpreted differently by companies like Periscope and Meerkat. Both allow users to broadcast live, but both also have completely different user interaction in mind which helps them to differentiate from each other. Now add context (location, time, situation) to the ingredients and you get a recipe of how to create native digital content for Generation #hashtag successfully.

In Germany, a new generation of sites have started to address the new information habits of a younger audience, mainly millennials, a subset of the Generation #hashtag. 

Bento, or Byou publish content for a younger audience, which is no longer in transition but lives in a digital and mobile world already. They try to reflect the language of the audience in their digital publications but sometimes also seem to fail just for that reason. Lacking the resources of VC-backed startups, their focus will always be on the storytelling and they would always struggle to develop new content formats. In the end, platforms will take the lead. Sites won’t change behavior. Platforms can and do.


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