Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of speaking at a number of colleges and universities throughout the Northeast. It was somewhat eye-opening for one who has been invited to campuses for the last 30 years.
My topics varied. I was asked to speak on the current state of the media, the future of media, the future of television, and how to do media for a non-profit organization. The schools varied in their student base--from commuter schools, a private school for scions of well off parents, a graduate school, and students at some of the leading liberal arts colleges in the U.S.
In the aggregate, I spoke to several hundred bright young adults. They were more attentive than I have seen in the past perhaps because they are about to face the worst job market for recent graduates in memory. At only one school did I observe students sending text messages to friends as I was speaking. (name of institution NOT available on request)
Before, sometimes during, and always after the sessions I asked the students about their media usage. It was very absorbing to listen to them. While there were differences by school and even type of school, a few trends stood out:
1) Students listen to very little commercial radio in their local markets. At one commuter school, several said they listened in the car to and from the campus but that was it. At one school, a lonely co-ed raised her hand and said that she listened to local stations and was belittled by her classmates. Once they realized that I was not a federal agent, most students across all schools admitted that they stole a lot of their music or received it from friends free of charge. A few mentioned that they liked to get music from artists performing at small clubs near their campus. They did not want to support giants such as
Warner and a few mentioned it by name. At the top schools academically, National Public Radio (NPR) played surprisingly well as a news source but, interestingly, no one told me that while in the class but informally after most of their classmates had left.
2) They all watch lots of video but conventional TV and cable do not fare particularly well. With no embarrassment, several students at more than one school, told me that they go to You Tube first to see if there is a video available on a topic for which they need to write a paper. Then, they move on to Wikipedia and finally to the Internet. Hulu.com is wildly popular across the spectrum of schools but the Slingbox was known and owned only by the most affluent. About half had DVR's at home and a handful had them in their dorm rooms. ESPN Sportscenter played well among the guys, and most students said they had one show that they watched regularly. Hulu was used for many of these as students said that they "could watch on their schedule and avoid many commercials." The top school students also had a little larceny in them and told me of illegal offshore sites for watching feature films. Even I had not even heard of some of them before and I have been monitoring this carefully for the past year. When I mentioned these names at a commuter school, no one knew (or admitted to know) what they were. Bottom line--these kids watch a significant amount of video but little is on commercial TV. They are forming habits which should make broadcasters nervous.
3) Newspaper--you pretty much know the answer here. At my first campus visit, when I asked about newspaper a young lady barked out,"Newspaper? My grandparents read the newspaper." That comment helped me create the newspaper post of January 31st entitled "Do Newspapers Have a Future in the U.S.?" Almost no one, not even journalism students, reads a daily paper. Exceptions were graduate students reading The Wall Street Journal and students at a toney liberal arts college who get free delivery of The New York Times in their dining hall. (at $50,000 a year, that is very generous of the school!)
4) Magazine was virtually all special interest. No one that I asked read TIME or Newsweek. I remember in college how a copy of either would work its way through a dorm in the course of each week. It seemed sad but few want to wait a week to get news even when the writing and analysis are first rate.
5) Where do they get their news? Many watch The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. No one took it totally seriously but said there was an education of sorts in the satire. More than half watched either show via Hulu. Much news is gleaned online and You Tube videos along with those from Google or Yahoo can fill in gaps.
What does all this mean? There appear to be significant challenges ahead for both the media and marketers. How do you market to these tech savvy young adults? Most say with some blend of social media, the internet, and mobile. One other thing that came through talking with the students was the large influence that word of mouth had on purchasing decisions. That has always been true but it may be stronger now. As a generation gets used to not seeing or hearing a great deal of advertising, it will be especially hard to reach them. The young upscales who have gadgetry and much sophistication will be almost impossible to reach. And they are the ones you want to cultivate. I tried to calculate the present value in accounting terms of some of the 21 year old rich kids. It was staggering what they could mean to brands if a marketer could crack the code and reach them.
The media itself has a large and immediate problem. Many newspapers are on the ropes right now and it does not appear that newly minted college graduates see much appeal in their traditional product. Radio, which we will discuss in future posts, has a big problem if it loses the well educated young. The medium is under strong financial pressure now but they cannot exist as we know them for a long time if they lose the next generation. TV and cable will always pick off viewers in any demographic but as more video options become available with less or no advertising, they will get hurt.
Some magazines that I have read all my life now look like pamphlets. So what happens to them? A shrinkage in titles and a slow death for some old favorites seems likely.
I have told people for years that you can learn a lot by listening. This de facto tour taught me a lot. Most of all it reminded me that the habits these fine young people are forming now will not disappear. We need to find a way to reach these emerging professionals or suffer the consequences.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org