Over the past few years I’ve had numerous discussions with clients and peers about the dramatic disruptions caused by new social media technology. In the early years, in particular, not everybody accepted the premise that these changes were in fact occurring, or driving fundamental shifts in how people gather and share information. Well here we are, several years into the so-called Web 2.0 revolution. If nothing else, what has become widely acknowledged – even among the most recalcitrant naysayers – is that we are truly living in a digital world.

Indeed, a recent article by McKinsey provides another layer of accumulating empirical evidence that global consumers are increasingly communicating and conducting business through digital devices. This study mirrors a recent report by Forrester (presented at SXSW 2011) that suggested employees – most of them wired, social networkers – were increasingly using their technology within the workplace, firewalls and rules be damned. [FYI: both these articles may have restricted access and require registration.]

Here are some highlights of the McKinsey study:

  • Nearly 50 percent of US online consumers are now advanced users of smartphones, social networks, and other emerging tools—up from 32 percent in 2008;
  • Social networks, particularly Facebook, are emerging as the dominant digital-communications channels. For people aged 34 and under, they already are the preferred channel (by minutes of use per day), displacing e-mail, texting, and phone calls. Social-network use, growing swiftly among all segments of our survey population, has doubled among those over 55;
  • As the usage and processing power of smartphones increase in tandem with the rising speed of 3G and 4G data networks, mobile devices are invading the domains of single-purpose gear such as game consoles and portable media players, as well as PCs. Smartphones are also becoming the device of choice for e-mail, Web browsing, and product research;
  • As digital platforms multiply, consumer video-viewing habits continue to change. Among our survey respondents, 69 percent now view videos on their PCs and 33 percent on their smartphones;
  • Only 24% of respondents are considered “traditionalists”, or consumers who are less interested in internet browsing and social networking and are more likely to read print newspapers.

Given this data, there seems little doubt that discussions on communication or marketing strategy, and more specifically social media planning, can start from the premise that the majority of our audience are digital natives, or largely wired and fluent in social media. And that cuts across geography, job and income level – though there are still important variations based on these demographic variables. In a sense, the conversation should now shift from if to how or what we need to do differently.

Of course, this has important repercussions for communication professionals, whether the focus is PR or internal communications. At minimum, we need to plan based on this new reality, and ideally take advantage of the emerging opportunities to use fresh, original strategies. I like the approach proposed in another recent McKinsey article that argued that in this digital age we are all marketers. As the headline puts it: “engaging customers today requires commitment from an entire organization – and a redefined marketing organization.” Here’s an excerpt:

For the past decade, marketers have been adjusting to a new era of deep customer engagement. They’ve tacked on new functions, such as social-media management; altered processes to better integrate advertising campaigns online, on television, and in print; and added staff with Web expertise to manage the explosion of digital customer data. Yet in our experience, that’s not enough. To truly engage customers for whom “push” advertising is increasingly irrelevant, companies must do more outside the confines of the traditional marketing organization. At the end of the day, customers no longer separate marketing from the product—it is the product. They don’t separate marketing from their in-store or online experience—it is the experience. In the era of engagement, marketing is the company.

This bold, innovative approach is a useful model for communication professionals. We must avoid falling into old patterns and timid ideas and instead develop new programs that are resonant and relevant to this population of digital natives. In short, we need to change. And we need to help our clients change. With the overwhelming evidence of the increasing reach and impact of new technology on consumers (including our employees and peers), there’s really no excuse for inertia.