Posted January 29, 2008 2:14 pm by with 17 comments

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Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to a generational gap I’ve seen become more evident over the past few years separating traditional marketers from online marketers. I’m 36, and I can tell you that with a few noted exceptions, most of the marketers I know over the age of 40 don’t really seem to understand the cutting edge of online marketing, much less the basics.

Yesterday, Mike Grehan over at Clickz wrote a great article entitled: “Search and the Changing Face of Public Relations”. In it, he addresses how public relations is changing today with the advent of technologies like social media, blogging and more. And the unfortunate reality is that MOST public relations firms are not adapting to bring these new technologies to their clients.

In the beginning of my firm two years ago, I reached out to several major PR firms in my local area to become partners. I was hoping to outsource PR SEO to a local firm. While I have a lot of PR experience, I wanted to focus on just search, so I’d hoped I could educate a PR firm in how to optimize press releases and put them out on the web. Every firm I approached seem disinterested.

I find that the case in PR is similar across all of marketing. It’s why I believe (without sounding too ageist here) that there is a definite generational gap in marketing today. When networking with seasoned marketing professionals, I often find that a large majority of them are almost clueless about pay-per-click advertising, social bookmarking, search engine optimization, blogging and more, although they all seem to know that these tactics are important in some way.

Just today, I had a conversation with a longtime friend who ran a small web design and marketing firm for many years. I was telling her I thought, based on her skill set and video background, she might consider branching out into podcasting. Then I had to explain to her what podcasting is, how you get a podcast, and what the purpose of one is. Wow.

The greatest concern I see with the current state of the marketing generational gap is that seasoned marketing professionals with twenty years or more of experience are typically in leadership roles in companies, typically holding a title of director, vice president, or CMO. This same generation of marketers is the core decision making group for marketing tactics and budget within an organization. So, because these individuals do not understand online marketing in many cases, do they stunt the growth of the newest technologies within their own companies? If they don’t understand it, will they still try it and/or budget for it?

I hope that they are willing to listen to the staff members that do understand online marketing and trust the instincts of those young bucks. If not, it may be several more years before real cutting edge, effective online marketing reaches deep into those organizations married to traditional marketing tactics.

  • Two points (point/counterpoint response):

    First, I disagree that it’s a generational gap in all instances, specific to PR. I’ve seen PR folks who are younger than I am who are adamantly opposed to online marketing. My view is that the loss of control is the biggest issue, not their age.

    Secondly, I agree that the some director’s, VP’s and CMO’s may not fully understand it, but if one of their competitor’s is engaged in a “new” form of marketing, they understand that they have to be there. Yes, this does make the adoption rate slower. The real difficulty are in the industries that STILL aren’t adopting the online channel at all. Without a fast-moving competitor to compare to, companies are doing “business as usual”, which is kind of sad to see.

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  • BigTequila

    @ Dan above: While I agree that some VP’s and CMO’s are going to say, “hey, are competitors are offering this – why aren’t we?” I really hope this isn’t the case across the board. Real innovators focus on the value to their clients, not some bar set by a competitor. The fact is that these “new” forms of marketing work, and they work well. The ROI for effective SEO is through the roof. I recently spoke with a VP at a digital marketing firm in NYC who explained that they’d achieved a 3,000% ROI for a big SEO client. It just makes sense for the clients, and that’s why traditional marketers need to snap out of it if they haven’t yet. However, you’re probably right that most are looking to competitors for trend signals. Sad indeed.

    @ Janet: Great post. I’ve seen a lot of this myself. Even the heads of so-called Internet marketing firm I’ve worked with/for have not seemed to grasp the new methods of online marketing. The problem is that most of their clients know even less, so relatively speaking they’re still ahead of things…the reality, unfortunately, is that so many of them abandoned the reality that they had to actively stay up-to-date on trends and opportunities on a daily basis years ago. One firm in particular has been involved in Internet marketing for 10+ years and hasn’t grown at all in the last 7 – very much because they aren’t forward-thinking.

    Anyway, great post, thanks for it.

  • The problem is that this is just one big cycle. Even us young(ish) marketers will soon grow old, and we’ll become stuck in our SEO/Twitter/Digg ways, while the young’ns are doing the cool stuff.

  • This is a interesting one. I agree that there is a generational gap between traditional above the line marketing and below the line. Businesses now understand that there is a shift in this area and are beginning to explore online options. Where PR firms fail is the difference between where Technology is heading and what they are currently doing. Advertising on high traffic volume sites is becoming less effective the ability to engage at the end of the day as Guy Kawasaki would say you have to start with a good product or service then build your marketing strategy around it. The best form of PR is people telling people which is where social networking is very powerful. And don’t even think about optimizing your site or implementing flash web 2.0 stuff if you have a crap product.

  • I thought it is really interesting how you bring up new media and it’s role in marketing/PR. In particular, your anecdotal example of podcasting.

    Podcasting is a medium that I’ve been really torn about. I myself am a big fan and consumer of various podcasts, but I’ve found that they are far less relevant than twitter/blogs/social networks at conveying a message. Primarily the podcast audience is made up of marketers,PR, and techies. If it’s a B2B client you’re working with, this would seem like a more applicable strategy, but in terms of the general public, it makes up only a small piece of the pie.

    And like Nigel touched on, content is still king, no matter how it is presented.

    I’m liking the discussion being generated!

  • It’s the same in Real Estate. Many agents still don’t have a website or even know what SEO is. Although, I agree with Nigel, you have to have good content and product to begin with. The real estate industry is moving towards an all online approach, and in the process its leaving some “older agents” behind.

  • It’s not necessarily generational, but age is a factor in predicting online marketing expertise and affinity.

    As a Conversion Optimization agency we need to quickly determine how far along the online “sophistication curve” a marketer is since we’d be considered cutting edge for most of them. If they’re not already paying attention to their key online metrics (ie. their conversion rates) then they probably don’t realize how much profit they’re missing.

    Andy’s right on in Point 4. For each of us to avoid becoming a dinosaur, we have to stay engaged in the trenches rather than delegating all the learning to the lower ranks. That’s one benefit of being a consultant – we’re forced to continually innovate to bring more value to our clients. And, we’ve got to have an intelligent answer when they ask, “Should I be doing something about _________?”

    Important thought, Janet, thanks.


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  • Janet, an idea-provoking article. Thanks for the thought food.

    I don’t think the ageism position is wise, though. “Isms” can always be turned around and used against the “ist.”

    For instance, the “older” top line management could always say that the “youngsters” don’t understand or have enough experience in, say, client relations. Why give anyone ammunition to frame an argument? Let them come up with their own. Like this argument . . .

    If social media is such a great marketing idea, and I believe that it is, why can’t those clever under 40 persons come up with a cogent and logical business argument to employ social media in marketing programs? A convincing demonstration of dollars and sense will sway anyone of any age.

  • Whether you’re young or “old,” involved in SEO or social media, the key is good content. Practical information delivered in an easy-to-understand and interesting-to-read format is essential to success in any form of online marketing.

  • Your observation that there is unfamiliarity with the tools that can be used to engage customers online is well taken, although I would argue that this is a difference in awareness and mindset that is independent of age. (Many of us who are over 40 participated in Web 1.0, too.)

    This is an indication of a need for traditional marketers and agencies to understand and embrace the new paradigm in customer interaction and conversation that these tools represent to understand their value.

    Persuade with results that make sense to decision makers.

  • Is it a generational gap that’s keeping traditional/online marketers and PR folks apart? I tend to think the issue goes a lot deeper than that. This 50-something-year-old has been recommending and executing online strategies for some years now, particularly in pursuit of more effective, integrated communications programs.

    Part of the issue is fear of change, combined with a very real hesitancy to take risk. (And how many corporate environments encourage risk, anyway?) It typically takes a hard sell to convince senior management that there’s room — and a need — for new media strategies when all they know is mass media advertising or the number of people reached with an article in the New York Times. And on the agency side, it’s easier to stick with traditional if the clients aren’t pushing for anything more.

    My firm has been able to make inroads and gain hands-on experience by getting in clients’ doors with our traditional capabilities and then helping them take baby steps into “new” waters. The ability to prove out the value with solid results helps immensely. On that front, I think we’re all agreed.

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  • I agree as well that this is a cycle where our age competes with ever growing technology.
    Therefore older marketers are less knowledgable about pr and other internet aspects comparing to younger marketers.

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  • hmm, I like what you had to say about Mr. Grehan

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