Marketing to Millennials 101

March 23, 2016

Marketing to Millennials 101

How Modern Marketers Can Really Reach Millennials

The way people talk about millennials, you would think we were directly responsible for the downfall of civilization. Take this quote, for example:

“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.”

That’s a pretty harsh indictment of my generation…except that it was written over 500 years ago, by a preacher called Peter the Hermit. So maybe all the hand-wringing about “kids these days” isn’t so new.

It’s true that millennials have a unique worldview. But we aren't the first generation to throw societal convention a curveball, and we certainly won't be the last. Marketing to millennials is less about understanding some strange new decadent breed of human, and more about understanding the circumstances that shape their worldview. As with any audience, marketers need to know what millennials value, how they consume content, and what messages are most likely to resonate with them.

The first step is understanding that millennials aren’t a group of clones with one set of beliefs, values, or habits. Use the following as a general overview to guide you into deeper generational research.

The One Major Circumstance that Defines Millennials

There are hundreds of small differences between, say, a Gen Xer’s upbringing and a millennial’s. All of those little changes are due to one big difference: Millennials are digital natives. We grew up with the Internet. The youngest of us don’t even remember life without it. The Internet shaped the way we process information in a few important ways:

  • We’re used to on-demand info. We never searched a card catalog or waited for the daily newspaper to learn what was going on in the world. Whether it’s vital or trivial information (like song lyrics or which actor was in what movie), we expect instantaneous answers.
  •  We’re skeptical, critical thinkers. When a Gen Xer’s big brother said the moon was made of cheese, he had to either haul out the encyclopedia or take big bro’s word for it. Millennials are more accustomed to online fact-checking, cross-referencing, and evaluating various sources.
  • We’re into transparency. We are early social media adopters, used to sharing our lives with the world. We believe you can make genuine connections with people on social media—and we resent it when brands use social for aggressive corporate promotion.
  • We want personalized experiences. Whether you call it “spoiled” or “empowered,” we might take certain known benefits of personalization for granted. Of course the ATM remembers my preferences. Of course the pizza restaurant’s website remembers my favorite toppings.

We are used to communicating instantly with friends across the globe—and to us, there’s no such thing as an “online friend.” We just call them “friends.” Millennials tend to have a wider worldview than previous generations, because the Internet made the world a whole lot smaller, and put it at our fingertips. And speaking of fingertips…

How Millennials Consume and Share Content

A recent study from Fractl and BuzzStream found that fully 25% of millennials use smartphones as their primary device for content consumption. The other 75% use desktops or laptops as their primary device, but still spend a substantial amount of time tapping and swiping. If you’re marketing to millennials, it’s important to keep that mobile experience in mind.

There’s a broad assumption that millennials are more likely to share content that is purely entertaining—think the clickbait articles on Buzzfeed. But in a recent MediaPost survey, 62% of Millennial respondents said intelligent, thought-provoking content was what inspired sharing. Smart content was the second-most popular type of content to share, barely trailing funny content. So don’t assume you need to dumb it down to appeal to my demographic—we reward high-quality content just as much as the older folks do.

Which Marketing Messages Resonate with Millennials?

Millennials are even more resistant than Gen-Xers to hard-sell pitches. The Mad-Men style “buy this because we say so” messaging won’t fly with us—it’s too authoritative and too one-sided.

Study after study shows that millennials value experiences more than products. We want to connect, not just with a brand, but with the people behind the brand. We want our purchases to mean something beyond filling up a closet or a knick-knack shelf.

Transparency, authenticity, and personality are popular marketing buzzwords for what resonates with millennials. They’re all just facets of the overarching theme: We want our interactions with a brand—with anyone—to have meaning. We grew up in an always-connected, instant-access world; we don’t have time for empty sales pitches or fake corporate messaging. Either make a genuine connection, or we’ll tune you out.

3 Brands Killing It With Millennial Marketing

These brands, both B2B and B2C, get it. They don’t just cross-post their press releases to their social streams. They make a connection because they operate in a context beyond the products and services they provide. They add meaning.

1. General Electric

GE is an old-school B2B brand—exactly the kind of moldering institution you would expect to churn out stuffy, dull content. Yet GE is absolutely crushing it at the millennial marketing game. Their Instagram account has over 216,000 followers. The images range from motivational slogans to workers on the factory floor, but they all serve one narrative: GE is not some faceless corporation, but a group of people using science to improve the world.

GE’s not afraid to have a little fun, too – their Unimpossible series is like Mythbusters with a shorter runtime. In this video, they show how a “snowball’s chance in hell” might be better than you’d expect:

2. IBM

Another seemingly stodgy older brand, another thoroughly modern approach to marketing. IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign shows the company willing to take on the planet’s big problems, from poverty to hunger to education inequality.

This video from the Smarter Planet series is both heartfelt and playful—not adjectives you usually associate with International Business Machines.

3. TOMS Shoes

TOMS is a shoe company with social activism built in. When you buy a pair of TOMS, the company gives a pair to a child in the developing world. Before you see a single purchasable product on the website, you see pictures of barefoot kids trying on TOMS shoes, with links that read “See how your purchases improve lives,” and “Shop the shoe that started a movement.” The “How We Give” section of the website gets equal pride of place to their catalog.

TOMS also encourages community activism. You can join the TOMS tribe and partner with the brand to arrange charitable events:

“As a TOMS tribe member, you aspire to be part of something bigger—helping others and giving back—while letting inspiration guide your efforts and involvement.”

It’s pretty heady stuff for a shoe company. But TOMS handily illustrates the concept of meaning beyond the purchase—buying a pair of their shoes means joining a movement. What the brand stands for is equally as, or more important than, the product they sell.

A Common Sense Approach

What do millennials want out of marketing? The same thing that every previous generation wanted. But we’re the first generation to demand it: We don’t want to be marketed to. We want to be entertained, informed, and inspired.

We want all of our interactions to have meaning beyond a transaction. We want to know what we’re buying—where it was made, how the workers who made it feel about their jobs, what the company’s values are and if they match ours.

Basically—shockingly, I know—millennials are people. Treat us like people instead of customers. Keep it real, keep us informed, answer when we ask questions. If your brand can do that, we’ll consider making a connection. And you may find those old-fashioned Gen Xers and Baby Boomers appreciate your efforts as well.

The Millennial Minute is an ongoing series written by LinkedIn's resident millennial marketer, Alex Rynne. Read previous posts about the unique ways Millennials view the world by reading the entire series.

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