Shifting digital behaviours across generations – chatting with WP Engine’s CMO

A new report from WP Engine highlights how digital behaviours and expectations vary across the generations. WP Engine CMO Mary Ellen Dugan chats hyper-acceleration, matching Netflix and Amazon and the impending chief digital experience officer.

Generational divides are a thorny and somewhat winding subtopic in marketing. Too often, marketing conversations are littered with advice on how to target generations based on sweeping generalisations across age groups– which can span up to 20 years. The reality is that a consumer’s age – and the generation it places them in – is only a single element in an incredibly sophisticated multivariate problem. Many marketers have made the mistake of dumbing down their targeting specificity, relying instead on the vagaries of generational assumptions.

That’s not to say that generational data isn’t useful. Generation, like all data points, helps orient the marketer closer to their goal. As described by Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO of WP Engine, there are trends and consistencies that cluster behaviours into generations. But to the marketer be wary; imagine your consumers complexly, and do not become seduced by those who claim to have to figured out the ‘three steps to targeting Gen Z’ or made ‘targeting Millennials made easy’. Take these insights and meld them with your knowledge, but never put your faith in a golden bullet.

This new report, the third annual edition from WP Engine, analyses evolving digital trends and expectations across the generations. One piece of the puzzle, but an important one. WP Engine is a digital experience management tool built on WordPress – the CMS which facilitates a staggering one third of the entire internet. According to Dugan, WP Engine supports 120,000 customers and about 600,000 websites.

Armed with the insights gleaned from the report, as well as her expertise in curating digital experiences, Dugan explains to Marketing how expectations are shifting and who’s paying the most attention.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Marketing: WP Engine has a new report out on digital behaviours across the generations, what surprised you the most from this year’s research?

Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO, WP Engine: We were really looking to what is driving consumers across all different generations from Gen Z to Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers. What are their expectations today and tomorrow for the digital experience and the websites that they’re using? 

One of the most interesting things for us comes from the fact that Gen Z is the first generation which doesn’t know the world without digital – so they really are unique. All the other generations have had both analogue and digital in some way, so Gen Z is really the first to be only digital, and they’re setting a new standard. They have an expectation that [the digital experience] is more human, that it’s more personal than ever before. 

The other side of it is it has to be incredibly predictive. One of the data points from the report was that [Gen Z] are more willing to give more personal information about themselves in exchange for something that’s very predictive of what they want. It’s this interesting dichotomy… 64% said they would leave your website if you didn’t know exactly what they wanted and provide what they wanted – so that’s a little bit more of this emotional, perfect experience. Then the other side is 44% are willing to give any personal information away as long as you’re going to predict what they need. 

The headline from the research is there is a new digital standard for Gen Z that is the combination of emotional plus predictive. And we don’t see that across all the other generations.

This is something we’ve been talking about a lot at Marketing; this radical shift in expectations that seems to be constantly accelerating; where enormous brands like Apple, Amazon, Netflix are setting the bar for excellent digital customer experiences, and the rest of the web is expected to meet those standards just to be perceived as adequate by the consumer. In your perspective and according to research, is that true? Are the expectations really as high as the watermark set by those global digital brands? And furthermore do those expectations differ according to age? Do younger people have higher expectations from brands than older people?

Given that Gen Z is 25% of the population, they have a $40 billion buying power, and Millennials are vastly different. You’re really talking about a huge part of the population that’s only going to keep growing. So the expectations are real.

What we learned about the dependancy on digital is that ‘always on’ is not even enough. If I’m a brand, I have to understand that the majority of consumers are always going to be online or accessing in some way. That then has a huge implication for the amount of content I have out there, how quickly I’m able to service that. Consumer expectations are so far above the previous generations – with that speed to market, that predictability – they’re always going to be on, so their expectations are there.

That’s where you see the big brands have recognised that, be it an Apple, Facebook etc. They are constantly looking at how they can break through and always be ‘on’ in a fresh and new way. It’s why you see the rise of Instagram, Snapchat and so on – any of these that are very quick, really get to the point and really engage you.

I don’t think this is going to go away, it means we’re going to have to be smarter, quicker and more agile marketers.

What can marketers do to adapt to these hyper-accelerated expectations?

This next generation is very savvy. They will participate in your brand, but you really have to know these insights of what they’re looking for. One question that we asked three Gen Zs at the WP Engine Summit was: ‘to break through and to reach through, what would a brand need to do?’ The three words they picked were: personalise, persuade and engage.

Each of those are very different for me. If it’s personalised, I better be able to use the data that I have access to and provide the most direct and personalised experience. Persuading somebody means they want an authentic experience; they’re happy with advertising, per se, but they really want it to be authentic and genuine. The third is engaging: that came up in one of the panels. If it’s not going to deliver [in a way] that I can access and take action on, I’m not going to engage with you.

Those three words sum it up as a marketer: am I delivering a personalised experience or the best that I can do? Is there the ability to persuade someone or reach them in unique way? What is that engagement profile that I really want them to do – what action do I want them to take?

Speaking more broadly, you are in the unique position of being a marketer, but also being the chief marketer of an organisation that takes care of marketers. From that perspective, where do you see marketers needing to focus more of their time in terms of crafting the digital experience?

The game has really changed. Today, I often say that it really is the rise of the chief digital officer, or maybe the chief digital experience officer. From that perspective in marketing, really being able to blend the art and the science – you have to be able to understand the science, being the research and development and the technology side, because without my friends in research and development and the martech stack, I’m not going to be successful on that personalisation performance. Then the art side might be what we’ve traditionally thought of – more creative and content etc.

Really blending that art and science is what’s going to seperate marketers in the future. I would fully expect that in the future I might have to be called a chief digital officer or chief digital experience officer – but it does really change the dynamics of this next generation. They’re always on, they’re expectation is that their digital experience is their human experience. It’s got to be the best science you have and the best art.

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Image credit:Tianyi Ma

Josh Loh
BY Josh Loh ON 14 October 2019
Josh Loh is assistant editor at MarketingMag.com.au