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Marketing to Millennials? Then Take Us Seriously

by Blair Reeves  |  
May 10, 2013

Let me tell you about one of the most amusing parts of my job. At the types of trade shows, user conferences, and marketing technology industry events I attend, the prevalent demographics are usually pretty similar: men and women in their 40s, 50s, and sometimes even 60s (almost all white and heterosexual). When you exclude the hired booth babes, interns, and event staff members, I am almost always among the youngest professionals there.

Many of those people at the events are extremely accomplished marketing professionals with a ton of creds---don’t get me wrong. But I’ve noticed that many seem to struggle with one topic in particular: How do marketers reach Millennials and successfully engage with them?

I’ve sat in many a packed convention conference hall while guys my dad’s age explain to their peers what Millennials are like. Everyone refers to what those kids these days do with their smartphones, with much chuckling in the audience. (I try to stifle a groan whenever someone makes a joke about how much his teenage son or daughter texts.) To save you the same fate, let me sum up the majority of what the marketing profession thinks about Millennials: They’re stupid.

Like, seriously, pants-on-your-head stupid.

What Marketers Think About Millennials

Millennials, we’re told, have the attention span of a hyperactive squirrel. They cannot think more than 140 characters at a time because they’re addicted to multitasking. They want mad lulz, not substance. They are overconfident in themselves and need constant stimulation and affirmation. And boy, are they into this social media thing.

Obviously, I disagree about much of that. In all seriousness, I submit to you that Millennials are different from other generational cohorts---not because of how we were raised or any inherent difference but rather because of how extensively we’re connected. We are connected not only to the web but also to one another and through various channels.

Millennials have adopted mobile devices, mobile internet connectivity, and social networking more than any other group. A recent report lays out these trends in fascinating detail and portrays a pattern that many of us are now familiar with. While my Boomer parents are now online and know how to "do the Google" and what-not, their peers have not broadly adopted mobile technology to a large degree nor have they fully embraced social media. (That results in some hilarious websites like When Parents Text and my personal favorite, Postcards From Yo Momma.)

That last part is key. Real-time interactivity with my hundreds of friends on Facebook or Twitter (where Millennials alone make up over 50% of the US users) means I can easily rely on crowdsourced input on my buying decisions, easily text friends for quick advice, and, of course, engage in showrooming---all on my smartphone. Older folks can do this perfectly well, of course, but haven’t shown a taste for doing so, and a majority of them don’t have the large connected social networks of their Boomer peers to tap for the same advice.

When you grow up with constant connectivity and social networking, wherever you are, you come to expect the same kinds of things from the companies you do business with. Millennials want to engage with your brand. We want to tweet you a complaint (or compliment!), and hear something substantive and human in return. We want to "like" you on Facebook to be a part of a shared experience---not just as customers, but as individuals with shared interests. (REI, you guys rock about this.) We want to pin your cool stuff on Pinterest, in part, to express who we are---and also to save it for later, when we’re prepared to actually buy. This isn’t about showing off on social media. It’s about the same kind of self-expression that every generation engages in among their peers---just our peers happen to be online.

In short, we want it fast, we want it now, and we don’t just want it online; we want it mobile-ready. I do not want to wait in a line down at your store, which is 25 miles away.

I can hear the eye-rolling from the Boomers reading this already. "Spoiled brats," they say. "When I bought things as a young’un in the 60s, it wasn’t this complicated!"

They’re right. The world has gotten more complicated. And now I’m going to throw another wrinkle at you, lest you get the wrong idea from what I said above. While immediacy and mobility is incredibly important, I think the most important part of this is engagement.

Why Engagement Is Crucial

Stay with me here. There is a widely held Commandment of Online Video prevalent out there that holds that to keep your viewers’ attention, you must not go over two minutes in length. By 2:30, you’ve lost over half of your audience. And at 3 minutes, you might as well be showing an epic film. And this is even more true for Millennials… right?

Well, except that last year, the Kony 2012 video, which clocks in at 1 second shy of half an hour, raced across the millennial internet in just a few days. In three days, 72 million people had watched the video (I repeat: They sat and watched a 30-minute YouTube video! When does anyone actually do that?), and by the end of the first week, the number was 112 million. Almost a quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds in the US had watched it. The organization’s email system broke, and their sales force was locked out of their own store by the crush of traffic.

The point is not that Kony 2012 was a great cause. (It’s worth noting that they were later revealed to be a slipshod, amateurish organization with a very shallow understanding of the causes they purported to champion, but, as much as this returned Peace Corps volunteer might relish it, a discussion of so-called “slacktivism” is for a different article.)

The point is that the video treated its viewers with intelligence. It offered not only substance, but an opportunity for people to join something---call it a movement, a shared experience, whatever you like. Viewers could be a part of this movement just by raising awareness of it, and they did so by sharing this video widely with their friends. And share they did. I don’t know about you, but my Facebook feed was pretty much chock full of it for a week straight. Naturally, those interested could also contribute money or buy Kony 2012-branded merchandise on their online store. (Well, they could before it crashed.)

It’s not hard to find other examples as well. The point is that while quick, mildly amusing or clever “tagline marketing” is as relevant as it’s always been, Millennial customers---like anyone---also respond to substance and intelligence. And they’ve demonstrated plenty of willingness to carry your message for you, given the right campaign.

In short, you don’t need Buzzfeed-ify your marketing to appeal to us.

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Blair Reeves is a product leader for IBM's Enterprise Marketing Management group, where he focuses on marketing strategy for IBM’s Digital Analytics and marketing cloud software. He is a mobile technology enthusiast, avid outdoorsman and cellist. He lives in Durham, NC, and tweets at @Blair Reeves.

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  • by Bryce Propheter Fri May 10, 2013 via blog

    I couldn't agree more! I think the key is here:

    "We want to tweet you a complaint (or compliment!), and hear something substantive and human in return. We want to “like” you on Facebook to be a part of a shared experience—not just as customers, but as individuals with shared interests."

    I know I'm tired of being treated to Facebook posts with no substance. That wasn't why I liked your page!

  • by R McCabe Fri May 10, 2013 via blog

    wow the point you are trying to make is relevant, but I have to take exception with some of your assumptions.
    Please do not lump Boomers with the Gen X in dealing with Millennials, Boomers grew up with contact and communication, we just did not have the tools that are available now. Gen X on the other hand strove for independence and creativity, as a Boomer when we created marketing material we knew we had to connect with our target within the first two seconds and then reaffirm the connection continuously to be effective.
    I see every day Gen X people creating material that is creative and beautiful but just does not reach out.
    I have the feeling that Gen X people think that just because they created something people will want to read it, they never got the fact the real world is a competitive place, if you want my attention you need to prove it early or I have other thing I can do with my time.
    Remember it was not the millennial kids that took competitiveness out of school sports; it was their Gen X teachers and Parents.

  • by Michaela Mitchell Fri May 10, 2013 via blog

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! As one of the youngest professionals in a room, I've sat through those explanations of Millenials - as someone squarely on the line between Gen X and Gen Y, none of it sounded like anyone I know in my age group.

    Glad someone finally said it!

  • by JGD Sun May 12, 2013 via blog

    OK, I skimmed the post, and will focus on what I found to be a salient point: "I can easily rely on crowdsourced input on my buying decisions, easily text friends for quick advice, and, of course, engage in showrooming—all on my smartphone." I don't find this to capture an age-related point, so much as a tool-using point. I suppose more experienced marketers (read: those who have spent most of their time and money on things other than mobile marketing) would argue that the influences of your influencers (your mobile-connected network, to which you turn for advice when you are about to buy) go well beyond that tool you find so useful, the smart phone. For example, I doubt your friends, if you asked them for advice on buying a "green" car, would think of Prius primarily because of any mobile marketing they received. I also submit that your friends are probably not a particularly good source of information for your more focused interests: good international scuba spots, Tuscany vineyards, Brooklyn coffee shops, tips on defending your man in a pickup basketball game, etc. Your network of friends is too narrow, and always will be, for doing that. That leaves you once again relying, through your phone, I admit, on the crowd, but that crowd - whatever its age - is quite susceptible to influence through mass media (read: content that is in the top 1% of popularity, measured however you would like: Nielsen ratings, hits, or, gasp, likes). What's old is new again.

  • by Quay Morris Sun May 12, 2013 via blog

    Is it possible to love this article? Because it is so spot on. We aren't dumb, but man do I feel like maybe we are when I attend conferences, networking events, etc.

  • by Lindy Mon May 13, 2013 via blog

    I understand - you object to broad generalizations. But, hey, so do Boomers. Bet I'm your dad's age - yet nearly all of my peers are connected to the world and each other using exactly the same devices and SM platforms Millenials use - for the same reasons and with the same frequency. We are not the exceptions. And Millenials aren't the only generation for which this is the norm.

  • by Carolynn Tue May 14, 2013 via blog

    Loved this! It does seem that the "previous" generations don't get how to communicate in our generation's channels. And that's not a knock on them--I don't know or understand all the channels currently out there!

    I think that the main "gap" is the mindset of the older generations. I've seen this with business professionals. They want to tell their audience, and our generation sees the need to connect with the audience. My parents (who do a pretty good job of embracing/using technology and social media) don't really "get it." And it's something that we'll face with our own children's generation--we'll be in the position of not getting whatever "it" is for them.

    Anyway, kudos on this! It was great, and I hope that it helps at least one person change their thinking of our generation.

  • by JB Reeves Wed May 22, 2013 via blog

    Yo Blair,
    Interesting. Anyway, after I got my new-fangeled Medicare card, I bought some overalls from our trusty Sears catalog. You know, in this #1 farming county, us teenagers of the 60's still sorta regard technology as being that mechanical/process stuff crammed into our heads at our land grant college. But at least, I don't lecture folks about your "cohorts". blessings, D

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