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.