The Eastern Communication Association (ECA), the largest regional communication association on the East Coast, hosted its annual conference remotely in March with a very appropriate theme: Resilience. I presented my research on how five generations use information and communication technologies and social media, based on an analysis of Pew Research Center data. The differences are quite striking and underscore why it is so important for communicators to understand the communication preferences of their target audiences.

The Pew Research Center defines fine generations:  (1) Generation Z (born 1997-2012, ages 7-22 in 2019), (2) Generation Y (born 1981-1996, ages 23-38 in 2019), (3) Generation X (born 1965-1980, ages 39-54 in 2019), (4) Boomers (born 1946-1964, ages 55-73 in 2019), (5) Silent (born 1928-1945, ages 74-91 in 2019).  I used this categorization as a theoretical basis for my study.


No surprise: younger generations spend more time using digital media

There are generational differences in ICT ownership and usage. Overall, the percentage for younger generations (e.g., Generation Z, Y, X) to own and use a variety of ICTs (e.g., Internet, email, smart phone, game console, social media) are higher than older generations (e.g., Boomers, Silent Generation).

Younger generations tend to spend much more time using the Internet. More than 4 out 5 participants in Generation Z (89%), Y (89%), and X (81%) use the Internet either constantly or several times a day. In terms of using social media, the silent generation is obviously left behind, as less than one-third (28%) are social media users. Thus, the grey divide still exists. Nevertheless, there are always individual differences within each generational cohort.

There are also generational differences in using specific social media platforms.  First, more Generation Z are using Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.  Second, comparing with other generations, more Generation Y are Facebook and WhatsApp users.  Third, more Generation Y and Generation X are LinkedIn users, because LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional networking site. The majority of the Generation X and Generation Y were employed when the data was collected. Finally, the only generation that seldom use YouTube is Silent Generation.


Tailoring communication strategies to generational cohorts

The results of my study can help organizational leaders and marketers make data-driven decisions about how to segment audiences based on generational cohorts. Testing generational differences in social media use is important, because many organizations use social media as a marketing tool. Organizations/marketers must customize their social media marketing strategies and choose the right platforms, based on characteristics of their customer base, such as generational cohorts.

For example, Snapchat and Instagram are frequently used by Generation Z.  If organizations would like to reach and sell products to Generation Z, they may use these two platforms.  If organizations would like to build professional relationships with working professionals in Generation X and Generation Y, they may use LinkedIn.  Organizations also need to offer customer care both online, through various media, and offline, by phone, if they have customers in diverse populations.


The value of attending professional conferences — spotting trends

First, there is a consumer behaviors/integrated marketing communication (IMC) panel, offered by Applied Communication Division.  It seems to be a trend for communication programs to offer consumer behaviors courses.  I am glad that we offer CMN6040: Consumer Behaviors in the Online Environment class at our program.  I am currently teaching this class online.

Now, it’s the trend for individuals to shop online and for organizations to use social media to communicate and engage with key audiences.  To respond to the digitalization trend, I have covered important topics in my class, including consumers’ social media usage and online shopping behaviors, customer engagement in social media, electronic word of mouth (eWOM), branding and advertising issues, platform personalities, methodological and analytical perspectives, organizational use of social media marketing, and ethical issues in the social media and e-commerce environments.

Second, social media remains to be an important research topic.  I attended several panels offered by Communication Technology Division.  I found that there are social media papers in almost every panel offered by this division.  Nevertheless, there is something new.  Some colleagues are researching about online conferencing tools, such as Zoom, Microsoft Tams, GoToMeetings, and WebEx.  People use these tools for both instrumental and social purposes.  Thus, it’s interesting to explore how individuals and organizations can use video conferencing to build connections and online communities amid the pandemic.

Third, COVID-19 related research has attracted much scholarly attention.  There are many COVID-19 related papers presented at Health Communication panels.  For example, colleagues are researching about factors affecting individuals’ knowledge, attitudes, and protective health behaviors.  Health misinformation and responses to COVID-19 related conversations on social media are also studied by researchers.

Finally, crisis communication and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are the current research issues in public relations (PR).  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these two research topics become extremely important.  I take a look at our program’s public relations curriculum.  We do cover both topics in our PR courses.  By doing so, we can prepare our graduate students to be effective communicators who can help their organizations adapt to environmental changes.

It’s my great pleasure sharing thoughts, ideas, and research findings with you!


Posted by Ming-Yi Wu, Faculty