To Engage Across Generations, Start with Community Data

Posted on September 29, 2023

Graphic of seven face emojis in a row, from baby to elderly person.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Warren Kagarise, digital engagement manager for King County, WA. Connect with Warren on LinkedIn and Twitter.

What I’m Reading: A behind-the-curtain look at deathcare in the U.S. researched and written by public administration professor and GovLove Podcast guest (and my friend) Dr. Staci Zavattaro.

What I’m Watching: The local, state, and national aspirations of California’s second most-famous governor in the documentary “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.”

What I’m Doing: Getting ready for ELGL Supper Clubs, happening Oct. 23-27. I hope you can join us!

As public servants, our mission is to serve everyone. 

But when everyone is your audience, what can you do to make sure you’re communicating effectively? We sometimes fall into the trap of treating our audience as a monolith: the capital P Public.

In reality, the public is not a monolith and, despite the challenges, reaching everyone in your community is a worthy goal. You likely have tools available to reach key audiences. You also have demographic information and data — including some available within your organization — to start building your strategy.

A manageable place to start is by understanding more about who lives in your community and how different generations prefer to communicate. 

Depending on how you define the eras, as many as seven living generations call our communities home:

  • Greatest Generation, people born between 1901 and 1927.
  • Silent Generation, people born between 1928 and 1945.
  • Baby Boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964.
  • Gen X, people born between 1965 and 1980.
  • Millennials, people born between 1981 and 1996.
  • Gen Z, people born between 1997 and 2012.
  • Generation Alpha, people born between 2013 and now.

A personal aside: As a millennial knocking on the door of middle age, I am forever grateful we escaped the Generation Y label.

Though Gen Z consumes much attention nowadays, as public agencies we have a responsibility to reach everyone, from boomers to zoomers and traditionalists to millennials. (We will set aside for now Generation Alpha.)

Do not assume everyone knows the differences among generations; I’ve been in enough conversations where someone will say millennials when clearly referring to Gen Z.

Developing a social media strategy to reach cross-generational audiences is a logical place to start because use by platform is easy to visualize across age groups. 

Many millennials came to social media as high school and college students, with the rise of MySpace and Facebook. Now, though, Facebook is often linked with baby boomers. Millennials and Gen Z share joint custody of Instagram. TikTok reigns supreme for Gen Z.

Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, is a valuable resource for learning more about how different groups consume and share information, especially on social media.

Remember to account for exceptions in how different age groups use social media. TikTok, most associated with generations Z and Alpha, is also home to a thriving community of granfluencers — older adults with six- and seven-digit follower counts.

Finding the right balance is key. Encouraging residents to engage without appearing insistent is tricky, lest we appear like we’re trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty. Successful community engagement is built on a variety of analog and digital ways to engage, including in-person opportunities to share ideas. While most U.S. adults now use social media, it’s not everyone’s preferred engagement channel. 

Another factor to consider is how each generation views government. Importantly, trust in government varies across generations.

Supplement demographic information with insights from more local sources. Understanding your community, through community surveys, social media insights, customer service feedback, neighborhood-level social media groups, and other hyperlocal sources is paramount. With local journalism in decline the responsibility on government is even greater, especially in places where City Hall is left as the only information source in town.

Delving into your community’s demographics can go a long way toward improving engagement and outcomes now and in the future.

Remember: The oldest members of Generation Alpha will reach voting age in just a few years.

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