Creative analysis, Marketing and PR

The panic about marketing to millennials (an insider’s view)

I got a new phone yesterday and it coincided with reading an article on millennials just before heading out to get it. I think I must see several articles pop up a week, talking about marketing to millennials/Generation Y in either the B2C (business-to-consumer) space or B2B (business-to-business). The number and tone of these articles makes me feel like there’s a sudden panic taking hold, as US brands (especially) realise that something like 70 million of the US population falls within the millennial band (at its broadest, defined as people born between 1980-2000). It’s a significant proportion of the country’s population. I haven’t seen UK brands and marketers panicking to quite the same level, but we’re talking about it.

I suppose that TIME article by Joel Stein, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation”, in 2013 started the panic, though that was more of a moral one. Most readers of it only stayed around for the bits where Stein seemed to confirm this image of Generation Y as self-obsessed, lazy, entitled asshats and forgot to stick around for the parts where Stein talks about how this large demographic is often “probusiness” and “financially responsible”. But the stereotypes, backed by some data, have persisted and there are so many analyses out there that stick with Stein’s opening lines that trying to find articles as insightful as IBM’s “Myths, exaggerations and uncomfortable truths” can be hard.

Okay, maybe the panic is justified, to a degree. Like how nearly half of all B2B researchers are millennials could probably affect how businesses do business. If you’re not appealing to Generation Y now, things could begin to get a tad sticky for your business.

But why would I care about all of this? And how is it that I’m an insider?

Two things. One: I am a diagnosed millennial. Two: I’m a marketer.

I just can’t leave this stuff alone. If it’s not affecting me in my day job, it’s affecting me when I want to shop for small and large purchases.

I can’t quite deal with the looking glass that’s being handed around

Let’s talk about selfies. Yes, let’s. If there’s one thing that seems to gel together the idea of millennials in the minds of older generations, then it’s taking selfies. Apart from it being a behaviour more prominent among the younger end of Generation Y (as far as I can tell, us millennials born in the 80s prefer to take pictures of things and places), it’s still a rather crap observation. My parents have way more photos of themselves together from before they married than I do of me with my partner of 10 plus years. In their early years, if those hard copy photos are anything to go by, my parents were obsessed with taking selfies or letting people take photos of them. Generation Y isn’t self-obsessed, it’s just that digital tech made it easier to notice.

But perhaps one thing that keeps cropping up is the lack of research and organisational understanding behind figures that suggest millennials are less trusting and so on, especially of advertising. The one article that tipped me into writing what you’re reading now was this blog post over on Distilled and this:

Sceptical and less trusting than older generations: only 6% of Millennials in the US consider online advertising to be credible.

And I want to say right now that online advertisers brought this situation upon themselves by not cleaning up their act early enough. Consider how I’ve grown up with advertising and the internet: I started accessing the internet in 1996, not long after, pop-up ads became a thing and this was before you could really do anything about them. Banner ads looked foul and dodgy, and I mistrusted them. And then my mistrust grew over my teenage years and twenties as friends and family members who clicked on any advertising, from pop-ups, to banners, to Google Ads, seemed to be more likely to fall into some kind of malware trap, rather than actually ending up on a landing page for something they were interested in. I was never the infected one, always the one who had to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Geez, I wonder why a millennial like me might be less trusting of online ads. To me, the things have never had a positive image. The amount of mental checks I go through, if browsing without AdBlock on, before clicking on an ad are numerous and most times even what was probably a genuine ad doesn’t get clicked on.

Of course broadcast toy ads from the 1990s that over-blew the functionality of toys may have begun my mistrust, but witnessing a virus make its way down to the BIOS level on a PC would be a pretty big deterrent too.

So how do you market to millennials?

You don’t broadcast at us. You give us something we’ll want before we buy-in to your product or service. You do some cat videos or GIFs, but mainly content marketing, which is, as defined by the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

(My emphasis.)

Now, what is valuable or relevant will vary between B2C and B2B. But it all needs to be consistent and part of being consistent is being authentic. Seriously, if a brand feels authentic then millennials like me are more likely to want to associate with it and buy-in to what it has on offer. Kyra Kuik points out in that Distilled article that:

Valuing authenticity means that Millennials have a good nose for it, and can easily pick out brands who are being disingenuous. Many brands have been met with angry backlash as consumers see their marketing ploys as phony.

I want a blog post about what goes into making your craft beer and experiences of it, not why your craft beer is excellent and better than your competitors’. I want to read a slide deck that gives me a new angle to consider aspects of my day job, not a 30 minute webinar that discusses how to overcome an issue in my job for only the first 10 minutes before a 20 minute discussion about a product. Put your audience’s interests first.

And then rather than putting this content in Google Ads, or in banners or pop ups, put it out there, reflecting it in-store, and on social media (I do sometimes click on paid social ads, because it’s usually easier for them to pass my mental malware safety checks). But don’t spam us with it. Instead, curate, post and engage with us and know how to take criticisms and compliments. And maybe, if you do all of this, you’ll get a Tweet like this:

Yeah, I used some marketing speak, but at least I got a smiley back.


3 thoughts on “The panic about marketing to millennials (an insider’s view)

  1. This was a well written post Emily, something that should make it to a news website in my opinion, you brought up some good points and you gave some good advice.

    About malware/phishing/spam/scams/et cetera in/through pop-up/banner/et cetera ads, thank goodness for ad-blockers like uBlock, they have helped decrease the number of infected computers (family, friends, coworkers, et cetera) that I have to deal with and they have helped reduce the distractions/clutter on websites; and so hopefully more people will learn about and decide to use an ad-blocker after reading your post.

    Hopefully more companies will take your advice, and hopefully this post will help some people realize the flaws in their stereotypes of people born within that 1980 – 2000 time period and of stereotypes in general.

    Keep up the good work :) ,
    -John Jr

      • You are welcome Emily. :)

        Definitely, if only more people knew about them, and if only more advertisers would stop using those negative tactics.

        -John Jr

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