Want real proof of the generation gap? Consider the screens.
Two-thirds of Internet users 55 and older in the United States still say television is the main way they get news and other information, according to a survey from networking firm Belkin and Harris Interactive. Almost as many (56 percent) of the 45 to 54 age group say the same thing.
For younger folks, the 18 to 34 age group, TV (30 percent) is neck-and-neck with laptops (28 percent) in the race for attention. Smartphones are the primary device for 17 percent of younger respondents. For other age groups, smartphone preference didn't exceed single digits.
Media consumption, at least among young adults, is growing more diffuse. There are more viable options. For brand marketers and communicators, that means they're aiming at a moving target.
"The data is indicative of the end of mass media, at least from a marketing perspective," says PR consultant Frank Strong. "Increasingly broad brushes are painting less."
In light of the data, Strong and others' advice for communicators and marketers is to be nimble and get social.
A separate question in the Belkin/Harris survey found that the snapshot the survey presents is anything but permanent, especially for millennials. When asked if they might consider replacing their laptops with tablets in 2013, almost 40 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said it's a possibility.
The new status quo, Strong says, is change.
"It's not enough to study a target market anymore," he says. "Brands have to keep a watchful eye on the ever-shifting desires of a finicky consumer."
Meghan Keaney Anderson, product marketing manager at HubSpot, adds that consumers have more control over what they see than ever.
"This survey illustrates perfectly the fact that the ways in which consumers interact with media is fundamentally changing," she says. "Customers can readily block out marketing messages, from DVRing shows and fast-forwarding through commercials to setting up spam filters with Gmail's priority inbox."
Anderson says brands are going to realize "responsive design"—interactive online experiences with easy navigation—has become a must. A person looking at a brand website on a laptop one minute should have a similar experience when that he or she switches to a smartphone the next minute.
"All of us need to up our game to make our approach more relevant, engaging, and easy to access via multiple channels, including social," she says.
Strong says it isn't just about including other channels, though. Brands have to start realigning their budgets to develop messages intended for specific platforms, he contends.
"Currently, there are a lot of brands that create content or marketing campaigns and then worry about how to make it mobile friendly after the fact," he says.
Jason Mollica, president of PR and social media firm JRM Comm, puts it this way: "The spray approach doesn't work like it did in the past."
He adds that brands need to get a better grasp of the differences from one screen to another.
"Brands need to understand that when their product is viewed on a smartphone, it needs to be concise and easily viewed," Mollica says. "There are still too many brands that do not get this."
Signs of progress
Mollica and Strong each pointed to examples from this year's Super Bowl of signs that brands are coming around to the idea that some customers are looking at lots of different devices, sometimes all at once.
"Look at what Oreo did during the Super Bowl blackout," Mollica says. "They didn't wait until the next day; they pounced. More brands need to think like this."
Strong says other campaigns—for example, Doritos picked its Super Bowl ads through a Facebook contest—show that brands are tapping into social media to extend the life of campaigns and extend them across different devices.
"These experiments are being refined and transformed into a cornerstone of marketing," Strong says. "I think we'll see more of this approach in everyday advertising and even the TV programming itself over the next 12 to 18 months."
Mollica says brands that opt to put ads with social elements in online versions of TV shows get it.
"Smart brands are already social," he says. "It will just be a matter of how much deeper they decide to dig."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.