Multiple Online Personas: The Choice of a New Generation

Bill is a gear head.

If you want to sell a car to Bill—a professional in his early 40s—you need to come at him specs first. Don’t talk to him about cup holders and fold-down rear seats. When you find Bill, a.k.a. TrakBurner115, in the Edmund’s forums, talk to him about horsepower and foot-pounds of torque. Talk to him about how many other car enthusiasts are salivating for the same vehicle.

Stone is a head banger.

He likes the dark poetry of bands like Tool and System of a Down and Deftones. Selling anything to Stone—clothes, jewelry, music, membership, anything—means selling a statement. It has to skew young and smart and aggressive. Stone, who also goes by NecroticOne1 on MySpace and Bonita Gorel on Second Life, needs to see what other metal fans are sporting as well as a way to show off some of his own gear.

The same goes for Frumunda on and Cahmortis in World of Warcraft and plain old William Sylvia on Facebook. They all have traits and desires unique to their online personalities. They all communicate in ways specific to their virtual environments, ways businesses need to understand to reach all of them.

The difficulty? They’re all the same person.

Such is the dilemma—and such is the opportunity—of what Gartner has termed Generation V. Unlike previous demographic containers like Baby Boomer and Gen X, the new Generation V (the “V” is for “virtual” according to Gartner) is not defined by age, gender or geography. Instead, it is based on achievement, accomplishments and a growing preference for digital media when it comes to learning and sharing.

Like William Sylvia, many of these new-age consumers create multiple, often anonymous, personas in order to control their environment and manage the flow of information, according to Adam Sarner, the analyst credited with coining the term Generation V. Plus, the segmentation of their personalities simply makes them feel good. An unpopular office worker can be a highly revered and accomplished player in an online fantasy game, Sarner notes. An 11-year-old boy can be the resident DVR hacking expert in a TiVo forum. With these different personas, consumers seek out ways to enhance their reputation, prestige, influence and personal growth in the virtual world, Sarner says.

“Having different personas online is no different than real life. People act differently when they go to the doctor than they do at a football game or at a parent-teacher conference,” says Sarner. “We now need to recognize that people have a different set of desires on or while using Flickr or Second Life.”

In these virtual realities, Sarner says the members of Generation V “believe in active participation in global communities … a conversation rather than a communication. They strongly believe in the benefits of collaboration; that ‘we’ is more powerful than ‘me.’ ”

In studying Generation V, Gartner has found that:

  • Traditional ways of selling to customers using demographic information will become irrelevant in the online world, which has its own merit-based system using personas that conduct transactions and spread influence anonymously.
  • Companies need new skills and techniques to remain relevant in the online world. They need to target a customer’s multiple personas, collect data on their relationships and find new ways to engage customers.
  • Providers of third-party customer data, business intelligence (BI) and analytic tools will shift toward consumer applications, eventually arming companies with automated, artificial intelligence, self-learning “persona bots” to seek customers’ needs and desires.