Sick of Hearing About Millennials? Read this!

Feel like you’re constantly bombarded with all things “millennial?” Me, too — and that set me on a mission to get to the bottom of the conversation. Are millennials’ characteristics — favorable, unfavorable, and purely observational — symptoms of age and circumstance? Or are these always-on, socially-driven 18 – 34 year olds really that different? So different that we construct entire marketing divisions, strategies, and programming devoted to them and their unique whims and wants?

The answer is both — sort of. Many of the millennial traits that brands are clamoring to cater to are just functions of being young in 2016 — and that means they’re fleeting. Sure, maybe 18 year olds have more disposable income than I did, but why is it surprising that these teens aren’t big spenders? We weren’t either, at least not at 18. We weren’t buying houses or driving luxury cars or spending tons on food, clothes, meals, and entertainment. They’re less motivated than their older counterparts — wasn’t Gen X the “Slacker Generation?” And what about their hippie parents? Bet they were called “lazy” more than a few times. So that can’t be the claim when you talk about marketing to millennials, because that’s marketing to an age cohort — plain and simple. And, more importantly, these considerations won’t impact your marketing initiatives down the road. By then, the millennials will be controlling the vast majority of spending and look entirely different, at least from a conversion perspective.

But, just like every generation before them, there’s something that makes the millennials unique. Again, it’s not a different conversation from when marketers were discussing Gen X or Baby Boomers; we’re just having it on a bigger, more proliferated scale — you can thank the Internet for that. The notion of a population dynamic has always been part of the equation, and it’s our jobs as marketers to understand and interpret the patterns and leverage our predictive powers to craft smart, strategic courses of action for our brands and businesses.

Now that we have that out of the way.

Marketing to the 77-Million Millennials (and Then Some)

I presented on this very topic at Adobe Summit late last month. During the presentation, my colleague, Tamara Gaffney, and I dove into what’s unique about millennials and what are simply symptoms of their life stages. By focusing on the predictive nature of this audience and separating their youth from their true cultural differences — cultural differences that will inform their purchase patterns forever — organizations can start devising comprehensive marketing strategies to drive engagement, conversion, and other key performance indicators (KPIs). Again, not “millennial” strategies but marketing strategies that tap into this audience as a predictive jumping off point for short- and long-term successes. Some of the key cultural differences and drivers?

First, They’re Always on — and Always Addressable

Millennials are always on their smartphones — no surprise there. They own, on average, 7.7 connected devices (according to the latest Adobe Digital Index (ADI)) and use 3.3 each day. Seems like a slam dunk for marketers — having many platforms means many opportunities to connect, right? But, ironically, because millennials are so addressable, it becomes incredibly difficult to find them — and then to figure them out once you do. Their phones, tablets, and laptops are never more than inches away, and they’re on brands’ radars 24/7. But, that doesn’t mean millennials are converting.

So, what are they doing? They are browsing, researching, and turning over every stone — but they don’t take that last meaningful step. Nothing is prohibiting this always-on audience from engaging, either, considering the enormous number of access points. Addressable but not accessible — they’re faux-sumers.

Part of this, I’d argue, is cultural. Millennials can find anything online. If a review is out there, they’ll find it — and they can sniff out a fraud just as quickly. Everything in the millennial universe is Yelp-ified, and they’ll dig deeper than you can imagine to decide how they should allocate their dollars. Adam Padella, the CEO of BrandFire, explains, “Nobody can sniff out a fraud like today’s millennial consumer. They are information bloodhounds and have access to every bad review, every corporate blunder, and every negative reference to you and your product. … Don’t try to be cool. … Be vulnerable. …Your brand voice will resonate if it stems from something authentic.”

The upside of this? This young audience is willing to give you the same authenticity in return, helping steer your marketing strategy going forward. Nearly three in five check the accuracy of their social posts before they share them (according to ADI), and the vast majority say they don’t lie about what they’ve seen or done to fit in. This honesty and deep-seated authenticity means you’ll get incredibly good, incredibly honest feedback from millennials that you won’t get from other generations who may be afraid of feeling exposed or going public with their concerns or who try to align actions and reactions with their peers.

The other piece? I’d argue it’s the increasingly visual nature of this generation. Think about it — they have cameras in their phones and can quickly snap a pic and share it to anyone and everyone. Think about the social platforms they favor — Snapchat, Instagram, Vine — and how they can browse and passively engage without taking any real action. That simply wasn’t part of the last generation.

Secondly, They’re Hyper-Engaged and Ready to Create and Share

Not only are millennials always on, but also hyper-engaged and prepared to create and share content in a variety of ways. What’s more, they probably want to be hyper-engaged with your content even though they probably aren’t right now. The Internet of Me applies to this generation in a big way, and they’re incredibly engaged with content in every sense of the word. Half of millennials — versus 38 percent of the population — consider themselves content creators, and 75 percent share content online (according to the latest ADI). They’re also 2.5 times more likely to share video content but will ditch it if your videos are too promotional. That, again, speaks to their deep desire for authenticity — another cultural difference.

Millennials want to be part of the conversation, and that’s something you can use as part of your testing strategy. Look to user-generated content to see how you can boost your authenticity while fostering their desires to create and share. Maybe it’s soliciting pics of consumers wearing your brand’s sweatshirts and then sharing those images on your site. It’s authentic — these are real consumers wearing your product — and encourages your millennial fans and followers to create and share.

Thirdly, They Love Personalization — Content and Data Are Their Currency

Millennials, unlike their older counterparts, don’t just want personalization — they demand it. For them, content and data are currency, and they’ll happily spread it around and share it — it’s an entirely different expectation than any other generation before them. This young audience understands that they’re seeing this recommendation or having this experience because others with similar profiles were on board — and they’re happy about it. Eighty-four percent say they like personalized ads, and the majority want more.

What’s so unique, though, isn’t just that they like personalization; it’s that they see the value exchange that exists between themselves and brands. More than one in four say that they get commensurate value from brands — personalized offers or experiences, for example — based on the data they’ve shared about themselves. They’re willing to turn over a tremendous amount of information just to be a part of your brand experience. You don’t see that from Gen X or the Boomers. Foster this value exchange, and it’s something that will become more and more ingrained in their lives and their consumer experiences, enabling you to better tailor your marketing strategies as this cohort becomes a bigger piece of the spending pie.

A great example? It’s always been a major marketing no-no to ask for a consumer’s email address right off the bat. It takes customers out of the experience, experts (including me) argued, and away from their conversion journeys. But, millennials will happily turn over their emails from the start because they crave this value exchange. They want to be a “partner” or a “VIP.” They want the exclusive discounts, birthday surprises, and personalized recommendations. That’s why they buy — and why they’ll continue to buy — and how they want you to engage with them now and in the future. They crave community and connectivity — and that’s cultural.

Brand Preparing for the Future

After my Summit presentation, a millennial attendee approached me. He works in marketing at a major radio station, so he’s always thinking about listenership. What’s interesting about his industry is that, every few years, stations rebrand; and for him, all of this was really an aha moment. Millennials are the next generation of listeners, so tapping into the predictive power of this cohort is really meaningful. Because the station will eventually rebrand and shift to different music styles or a different approach, the predictive power of millennial data is really vital to him and his organization right now. And, more importantly, that predictive piece transcends being just a “millennial” strategy. Instead, it’s the marketing strategy that will drive the next phase for this powerhouse station.

He’s not alone. Nuno Teles, the CMO of Heineken, says, “We spend all our energy trying to understand millennials.” It’s not so that they can sell more beer to newly minted 21 year olds, though — it’s because millennials don’t drink beer, and when they do, it’s craft beers and microbrews. So, should Heineken simply roll over and die? Of course not. They’re a strong brand with more than 140 years of success. But, to stay afloat in the coming years — and even decades — Teles needs to understand which cultural differences making millennials tick now will continue to make them tick tomorrow, so he can architect a strategy that aligns with those.

Cadillac is also heavy on the millennial front, with a strong push, particularly during the Oscars. But, it’s not because 25 year olds represent some secret Cadillac audience or even a desired audience — what 25 year old is buying a car like that? Instead, Cadillac recognizes that they need to “reach out to Generation X and Y more—just like every other brand.” The brand also explains that, “By 2020, 80% of all new car sales will be made by Generation X and Y,” and to stay on top, they must stay ahead of the cultural shifts and buying patterns this cohort represents. Notice this isn’t a millennial strategy — it’s a marketing strategy. For Heineken, Cadillac, and brands like them, understanding the millennials means figuring out these cultural differences so they can determine who to sell to and how to sell to them, boosting their successes now, and more likely, in the future.

Reaching Them Today — and Tomorrow

Despite all of these cultural differences and moment-in-time considerations, the millennials aren’t so far off from the rest of the buying population even now — another argument against getting carried away with a millennial-only strategy. Online search is the top content source for millennials and Gen X. While social-networking sites rank #2 for this young generation, it’s not far down the list for the others — social networking sites come in #3 for Gen X and Baby Boomers even. Same goes for messaging — it’s millennials’ #3 content source and #4 for the older demographics. Email is also the best way to reach them — not too different there, either.

Viewing these building blocks through the lens of major cultural differences, a long-term strategy begins to emerge. It’s not just how you’ll speak to 18 – 34 year olds today, but rather, how you’ll engage your entire audience in the not-too-distant future. It’s how your strategy, your considerations, and your digital-marketing priorities will bend to meet the needs of this powerful majority cohort — it’s your marketing strategy, plain and simple. We need to break down the siloes surrounding “millennial targeting” and “millennial messaging,” and instead, look at how the entire marketplace is evolving. By taking this approach and leveraging the unparalleled predictive insights that this generation provides, brands across all industries can begin fine tuning their overarching approaches to building their businesses, boosting optimization, and driving the kinds of consumer experiences that ensure long-term loyalties and advocacies. It’s not a different language; it’s simply separating the now behaviors from the deeply rooted cultural ones and understanding the impact the latter has on your organization.

And, once we figure it all out, Gen Z is waiting in the wings.