The Tablet War Shines A Light On (Digital) Illiteracy

I usually dislike espousing demos because I believe the world’s quickly-evolving anthropology is making demographics, as we know it, useless.  But, sometimes you just can’t get away from certain truths about demographics. This is certainly on full display if you generally lump older consumer into the Digital Illiterate bucket.  As opposed to Digital Natives (those who have really only lived and known the digital world) or Digital Immigrants (those who grew up in an analog world and are embracing digital), Digital Illiterates are those who might test the digital waters with their toe or only go so far as the shallow end – and they just might prove to be a huge growth opportunity that is being overlooked.  Having just brought a relative Digital Illiterate to an Apple Store so she could buy her first Apple product (an iPad 2), an untapped opportunity was illuminated.

First off, let’s be clear that Digital Illiterates (or Ignorants) don’t necessarily have NO knowledge of computers or Digital – they are just using a small percentage of the available capabilities.  They may only use email, surf the web, or (in a growing case around the world among older users) interact with Facebook.   The basic discussion of technology and the “new” thing often makes their eyes glaze over, or they just turn and run. And yes, for the most part, they are part of that older demographic.

With that in mind, I took a neighbor and her sister (both Digital Illiterates by my definition above) to an Apple Store yesterday so that the sister could buy an iPad.  When we got to the store, there were seemingly as many employees as there were customers – the place was packed.  Their initial impulse was to turn and run.

But let’s jump back to why this friend wanted an iPad in the first place.  It was because I had told her how easy it was to understand and work with – and that if she was thinking about buying it, it was much cheaper to buy it here before she headed back to London.  I explained that she would probably never need a regular computer again and because the interface is so intuitive, she would be able to get the hang of it quickly.

In the store’s controlled mayhem my guests were shocked to see so many people – but were even more shocked to find out that those employees are well-educated about the product and willing to spend as much time as needed to help in the sale and/or initial setup of the product.  Our Manhattan Beach Apple Store Specialist, Richard, was  the perfect person to help my very confused and cautious friend.  He not only processed the transaction, but helped her set up her account (correctly tying it to the UK App Store) and gave a tutorial.

It was interesting that we had this experience at Apple Stores the same day that Apple laid off their retail chief, John Browett. Rumour has it that Browett ruffled feathers by trying to cut back on store staffing and removing the customer service component – leading CEO, Tim Cook to reverse some Browett moves.  Obviously, Apple understands the value of the knowledge amongst the staff and the value of providing that type of resource to Apple users who are lucky enough to be close to a store.

Though I had known that Apple provided this service, it never occurred to me that a potentially enormous sector of consumers has no idea. The computer industry still retains a reputation as being scary and cold to those who are not “experts”.  Apple seems to have cracked that.

But it also illuminated the fact that Apple doesn’t seem to be making their ability to ease consumer’s transition to the digital realm – through both OS and Store employees – known to consumers.  If there were marketing programs in place to go after those Digital Illiterates, can you imagine how much they could increase sales?

Apple could be the only ones who can pull this off.  Their store staff is primed to do it – whereas the Microsoft and Sony stores have neither the staffing nor the know-how to shepherd the transition. We don’t even have to discuss Best Buy and other big stores when it comes to this same issue. I just haven’t seen any marketing from Apple that clearly calls out their advantage – leaving yet another piece to insider knowledge.

They’ve got to find a way to convey that store excitement through forms of media to draw in a diverse crowd (read “less than hip,” “not technically savvy,” umm…not young).  Apple already knows what happens when they get people in the stores.  I honestly didn’t see a diverse age range in the store – nor have I ever seen that in an Apple store.  To fortify market share even more, that needs to change. With a product like the iPad, they have a key platform to drive that new user sampling – but I have yet to really see marketing to draw that audience. It could be interesting to see how traditional media could be used to draw certain demos into the store to transition them to the digital media realm. Either way, the effective costs of properly targetting audience segments have come down in price to a point where it doesn’t make sense to not have multiple campaigns running concurrently – especially if you are one of the biggest companies in history.

Could it be as simple as the brand wanting to convey youth as opposed to generating greater sales?  I really don’t have any insight into their research that might be leading them one way or the other.  I do know that there is a growing amount of players on the tablet front and the tablet has turned from being a toy gadget to being arguably the only necessary digital product to serve most of the consumers’ needs – especially the needs of the Digital Illiterates.

Regardless of what you think of iPads against all other tablets, that “ease of use” benefit needs to be more largely sold to Digital Illiterates – at least in a way that doesn’t make them run – and nobody other than Apple is as primed to win that war through their stores. They maybe just need to do a better job of getting that <insert demo here> crowd in the door. Because, for every Digital Illiterate, there’s an opportunity to convert them to a Digital Immigrant.

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