Face-to-Face with Digital Natives

Aug 07, 2014

Twenty years ago, I bet none of us thought that we'd be able to buy basically anything we needed through our laptops, watch TV on our smartphones, or talk to someone across the globe through our computer screens. The internet has changed so much of how we live: we buy online, we converse online, and we relax online. Essentially, our culture now lives on the internet. Face-to-face communication has become less and less common, but shouldn't some interactions still only be done in person? Well, not if you ask the Digital Natives.

For example, at the end of June, NPR did a story about online therapy sessions and how this sort of interaction is becoming more and more common, especially among younger people. It seems that folks just don't have time to walk into a psychologist's office, sit down across from their doctor, and talk. Freud would be devastated. But according to NPR, having the option to complete yet another facet of our lives via the internet is working for young people, perhaps even better than the traditional way of seeking treatment.

One of the interviewees for the NPR story noted that between work and her social life, she just doesn't have time to trek to a doctor's office, and that seeking treatment online has allowed her to have a more personal relationship with her therapist. She can bring her doctor into her own world, Skyping with her from her bedroom as if she were Skyping with a friend. And many share this experience. 

Websites like Pretty Padded Room, The Angry Therapist, and Virtual Therapy Connect have found a wide audience for their services. These websites connect eager patients with a proper therapist, for a fee of course, but the cost of online therapy is no more than traditional therapy. NPR notes that, for example, on Pretty Padded Room, it costs $45 for a 30-minute session.

But cost aside, is the growth of online therapy a good thing or is it just another way for Digital Natives to cut corners? It's complicated. For starters, a service such as Pretty Padded Room allows people who may not typically have the means to seek treatment for a mental illness to receive the help they need. Maybe the demands of jobs, kids, and social obligations are too much for some people to take time to treat themselves. An online therapy session just might be the right ticket.

On the other hand, though, online therapy is just another example of how our culture is moving away from personal interactions. Of course, Skyping with someone online can be an intimate experience, but it doesn't compare to talking to them face-to-face over a beer at a local pub, or in the doctor's office. (Can you imagine Tony Soprano Skyping with Dr. Melfi?) Are Digital Natives losing their desire for human contact? Or do they just want that contact on their own terms?

But this all makes me wonder what other traditional face-to-face services Millenials and Digital Natives would pay for online, and what companies can learn from a business such as Pretty Padded Room. If Millenials and Digital Natives are telling us that the two biggest obstacles in their lives are time and convenience, from just a customer service standpoint, we owe it to them--and to our bottom lines--to offer them services that solve those problem in new and unexpected ways.

Of course, this is easier said than done. From a business perspective, just throwing out a line and hoping a Millenial bites isn't realistic. The real key to success seems to be proper marketing research, but that doesn't mean just finding out where these groups spend their time online or what kind of devices Digital Natives are using. We already know this group relies heavily on the web and their smartphones. In order to really serve this target group better, you have to look at the whole picture.

Analyzing studies like this one from Pew Research can help companies understand all aspects of their target audiences' lives. For example, when asked how trustworthy people are, 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, and 40% of Boomers. While initially this sort of statistic may seem inconsequential, marketers may want to think twice before offering their companies' equivalent of online therapy if their audience is already inclined to distrust. Digital Natives, on the other hand, are open to anything that might benefit them.

The internet has invaded pretty much every aspect of our lives already, it only makes sense that in order to stay afloat in the changing digital landscape, companies need to look at those interactions that take place offline, and focus on how they can enhance and improve the experience--or just bring it to more people, especially Digital Natives--through the magic of the web.