iMedia Connection

The 5 myths of marketing to Millennials

At the dawn of the third millennium, there aroseth a new generation of consumers, called Millennials, and the great and mighty brands looked upon this generation and did lust after their spending power greatly. But the ways of the Millennials were strange to the brands, who despaired of winning their favor. Then there aroseth in the land many false prophets, who said unto the brands, "Giveth unto us a large retainer, plus travel expenses, that we may deliver these Millennials unto you, for their strange ways are known only to us." In this way many were deceived, and despair filled the land, except among those whose retainers purchased ski vacations in Banff.

The 5 myths of marketing to Millennials

As a Gen-Xer, I'm a little jealous that marketing gurus never burned so many mental calories trying to figure me out. But the ones who did invariably pointed out that Gen-Xers had grown up in a media-saturated culture, had become immune to the siren song of traditional advertising, and demanded that brands treat them with authenticity. Does that sound like some other generation you know? Ironically, we've made the Millennials seem so distinctive because digital media has enlarged our echo chamber, so we can devote a lot more space to analyzing a generation of consumers whose chief characteristic is, well, their immersion in digital media.

But Millennials' status as "digital natives" -- a generation that never knew the dark and disconnected pre-internet era -- does give them a legitimate whiff of the exotic. They process information differently, socialize differently, and they alone will be able to play movies in their minds with the next retooling of Netflix. Also, the fact that they have grown up largely unexposed to commercial jingles frees up large portions of their brains for higher-order reasoning, like figuring out where to purchase the most sustainably made hemp messenger bag. I, on the other hand, dither my way through middle age being able to recite, in order, the ingredients of a Big Mac while never again being able to eat one, lest my arteries stop sending blood to my brain.

So how do we separate fact from hype when marketing to Millennials? As a digital marketer whose company, People to People Ambassador Programs, markets to and creates educational travel experiences for the younger end of the Millennial spectrum, this question is of surpassing interest to me. So I thought I'd undertake yet another of my "de-hypification" rituals and pass on what I've learned about the many pervasive myths surrounding these digital wunderkind.

Myth 1: Millennials are monolithic

All snipes about hemp bags aside, Millennials are in fact deeply diverse in their habits and worldviews. One cannot hope to understand them merely by rounding up the crowd clustered around the Genius Bar at the Mac store and subjecting them to several rounds of ethnographic research -- though you sometimes get the impression that this is precisely where Millennial stereotypes originate.

For a healthy antidote to this blinkered thinking, check out Boston Consulting Group's survey of 4,000 Millennials, which uncovered such diverse sub-species as "Anti-Millennials" -- the 16 percent who are conservative, disinterested in sustainability, and averse to change -- and the "Gadget Gurus," the 13 percent who are predominately male, gadget-obsessed, and (it almost goes without saying) mostly single. BCG's study is a reminder that we marketers risk missing our targets when we over-generalize a generation, a habit for which I am now coining the term "generationalization."

Myth 2: Millennials can only be reached through social media

It's true that Millennials are more likely than other demographics to interact with the brands they love through social media, but the "love" part is not to be overlooked. Brands that succeed with Millennials in social media tend to be "naturally" social, with high customer engagement, product quality, and brand loyalty built across multiple channels.

And even these hardworking brands don't have it easy when it comes to connecting with over-connected Millennials: If you're lucky enough to be one of only nine brands, on average, among a Millennial's 200 Facebook friends, your updates are still showing up in their Timeline an average of 16 percent of the time, by Facebook's own estimates. While social media remains an essential arrow in the marketer's quiver, you're still going to need the whole quiver. Which leads me to...

Myth 3: Millennials are so over traditional marketing

Prognoses of direct mail's rapid decline and imminent death would have us believe that Millennials regard direct mail primarily as a good starter ingredient in garden mulch. But a Nielsen study found that 92 percent of this demographic are influenced in their choice of retail brands by direct mail -- the top among all tactics. How can this be? Don't Millennials hate direct mail?

The reality is that they exhibit the same unsurprising behavior as previous generations, going back to the first Cro-Magnon who chucked a hunk of overcooked bison against the cave wall: They hate things that suck. Most direct marketing sucks, as does most television and most Stones songs written after 1968, but there's money to be made in all of them. In an era of easy personalization, most direct mail remains stubbornly mass market, and how many oil change offers do I really need?

Millennials follow the same pattern in "traditional" forms of digital. Because they, like the rest of us, use search engines to find things, 84 percent of them have clicked on paid search ads -- roughly 10 times as many follow a brand on Twitter, according to Forrester Research. And our belief that Millennials don't want to receive emails probably has more to do with our own boredom with email than with any actual behavior; the aforementioned Nielsen study found that 78 percent are influenced by emails from brands. Again, it's important that the emails not suck.

Myth 4: Millennials are glued to mobile

Millennials do love them some mobile, but that observation is about as timely as saying that the young folks love that rock 'n' roll. The reality is that mobile usage is gaining ground so rapidly that its growth cuts across demographics, and marketers' age-centric ideas about mobile can lead to myopic thinking, like believing that sites with older demographic targets don't need to be mobile-versioned.

It's much more useful to think about Millennials in terms of multi-device usage. A famous but probably false anecdote from the Lost Generation of the 1920s holds that F. Scott Fitzerald once declared, "The rich are very different from you and me," to which Hemingway is supposed to have sneered, "Yes, they have more money." It could be said that Millennials are not so different from you and me; they just have more devices.

This insight comes from Time's innovative "A Biometric Day in the Life" study, which observed the device usage of Millennials ("Digital Natives") against "Digital Immigrants" using biometric meters, which also measured emotional engagement. They found that Millennials switch attention between platforms (TV, tablets, mobile, magazines, laptops, etc.) an average of 27 times per hour -- almost twice as often as Digital Immigrants, which explains why I recently observed my 10-year-old son trying to put a book in "sleep" mode.

The result of this rapid switching, sorry to say, is much lower emotional engagement and attention span, but this again argues for a renewed emphasis on quality forms of disruptive advertising. Marketers need to burn their creative calories finding new ways to surprise and delight this hard-to-surprise-and-delight audience. It also argues for the absolute need for a fully integrated cross-channel approach. In other words, when deciding whether to invest in a given channel to reach Millennials, follow this simple rule: yes.

Myth 5: Millennials are all about values, not value

I hate to sound cynical (aw, who am I kidding: I savor cynicism like it's a cherry Lifesaver), but if Millennials only favored sustainably produced products, they would be using approximately 0 percent of the aforementioned digital devices. Their main form of communication would be banging locally harvested, free-range rocks together. But to temper my cynicism ever so slightly: A Pew research study showed that more than one-third of Millennials purchased a product because of a brand's values, so you can legitimately expect some scrutiny from this segment. And authentically mission-driven brands can realize some lift from making their values part of their brand story.

But Millennials, like the rest of us, place a premium on price. In fact, they cite it as the top factor in product selection. These priorities are not necessarily contradictory. Any demographic with a healthy suspicion of marketing claims and a high propensity for online research is going to scrutinize price carefully, and a brand's willingness to deliver value for its price is to some degree a measure of its ethics.

Plus, the last time I checked the leading economic indicators, they did not seem to indicate that many Millennials are taking jobs that allow them to splash around in swimming pools of cash, Scrooge McDuck-style. (Most are probably unaware who Scrooge McDuck is -- that's how bad things have gotten.) The primary lesson for marketers is that Millennials demand price and value transparency as a matter of course, and that ignoring this tendency is like building a paved road leading straight to your competitors.

I hope that when I am in my dotage, and Millennials are running the marketing world, that they will write articles (or as they'll then be called, "word pods") puzzling over how to market to my aging generation, given our quaint habit of clicking on ads rather than having them transmitted directly to the cerebral cortex. But chances are, they'll have forgotten about us geezers and turned their attention to the elusive and exciting post-Millennial generation, which will be known as Lost Generation II: Generation Loster.

Eric Anderson is VP of digital at People to People Ambassador Programs.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Pot of gold" image and "Image of a magical unicorn" image via Shutterstock.