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How Carriers and Agents Can Connect with Digital Natives

Knowledge and understanding typically flows from older generations to younger ones. Today, however, the generations that grew up with digital technologies are the ones leading both knowledge and culture in the digital world.

Insurance carriers and agents often find themselves playing catch-up to younger “digital natives.” Here’s how to see the world through the eyes of a digital-first generation — and speak their language when it comes to insurance coverage.

How Digital Natives Navigate Their Worlds

Author of “Empowered: Re-framing 'Growing Up' for a New Age,” Marc Prensky coined the term “digital natives” in a 2001 article describing how students at the time “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using” various technologies. Prensky called this generation digital natives to differentiate them from older enthusiastic adopters of new technologies, whom he called “digital immigrants.”

Digital natives and digital immigrants differ in several ways. Brad Cunningham, an academic advisor at Kansas State University, notes that digital natives approach the world differently when it comes to:

  • How they treat technology. According to Prensky, digital natives treat digital tools “as extensions of their bodies and minds, fluidly incorporating them into their daily routines,” writes Cunningham. Digital immigrants, by contrast, “still try and work around or second guess technology,” he explains.
  • How they process information. Digital natives are used to information being readily available and plentiful, so they process it quickly. Digital natives are also more adept at attention-switching than digital immigrants. “They explore their world as burst thinkers” instead of linear ones, writes Cunningham.
  • How they communicate via technology. To digital natives, the medium is the message — or at least part of it. The choice of whether to communicate by text, video chat or social media is itself a means of communication. To digital immigrants, however, all of these tools are lumped together as different examples of a means to an end.

These differences create a generation gap between digital natives and digital immigrants. As with other generation gaps, the potential for misunderstanding and frustration arises on both sides.

How to Support Digital Natives’ Quest for Insurance Coverage

When Prensky identified digital natives in 2001, the first members of the cohort had just started college. Today, those college students are nearly 40 years old, and an entire second generation has grown up immersed in technology.

Insurance carriers and agents, meanwhile, are still dealing with tools developed by and for digital immigrants. Even when individual insurance professionals and agents are members of the digital native generation, they often contend with technologies that were not created by or for their way of thinking.

Digital natives need insurers who understand their approach to the world. Insurers and agents, too, need digital tools that adapt to both native and immigrant ways of handling technology.

Carriers and agents can build these bridges if they:

  • Embrace digital natives’ willingness to learn from one another. Online reviews and social media have created a world where insurance customers learn from others’ experiences with an insurer as much as they learn from an insurer’s own resources or an agent’s guidance. Incorporating customer participation in information and brand sharing can help meet digital natives where they are.
  • Use technology to promote innovation. Tech for tech’s sake frustrates digital natives, who see technology simply as a means to an end, write researchers Meryl Rosenblatt, James Marchetta and Michael Masiello. It also wastes carrier and agent resources. To support digital natives, think like a digital native: Ask what a new technology allows carriers, agents and customers to achieve.
  • Remember that digital natives are comfortable with digital culture, but only as end-users. “Digital natives may not be necessarily tech savvy, but their sense of knowledge of what’s going on both digitally and culturally is what sets them up to be natives,” writes Gabriela Barkho at Mashable. User-friendly interfaces are a must, as digital natives see digital tools as a means to communicate.

Finally, carriers and agents will benefit from an awareness that comfort with digital culture doesn’t create instant comfort with every topic available online. Digital natives still need help understanding their insurance options and choosing the right coverage for their situation.

Carriers and agents remain the experts in the room. Choosing the right tools and approach allows insurance professionals to communicate this expertise to digital native customers.

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