The term “millennial” was coined by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, but the media is largely credited for adopting the term and further helping to define it. Prior to that, the term “Generation Y” (as in, following Generation X, with a play on “Why?”), “Generation Me,” as well as some other terms were floated around. In the end, Millennial stuck.
Even the age range for Millennials is a center of debate. Generally, anyone born between 1984 and 2004 can be lumped into the Millennial category. But many argue that it’s not so much the dates that are important but rather behavioral characteristics. This would mean that a Gen Xer could be called a Millennial by virtue of his affinity for SnapChat, craft coffee, and tight jeans (especially if he had a tidy handlebar mustache). Needless to say, not everyone is in agreement with that definition, either.
But it does raise an important point for marketers: “Millennial” is a very complicated concept that they need to understand in order to connect with their clients. The people in this bracket are quickly becoming the key buyers and decision makers of today. The people in this bracket are quickly becoming the key buyers and decision makers of today. On a daily basis, they spend more than any other bracket.
A particular set of behaviors and interests define “Millennial” (which we’ll explore in this guide). Some historical context helps, too:
Let’s talk about how to reach them.
The Millennial generation shares common interests and perspectives worldwide, thanks to the internet creating global communities online (not to mention the international impact of the Great Recession). For businesses using digital marketing, this emphasizes just how important it is to understand them.
But it can be a little difficult. This is a generation that grew up immersed in cutting edge digital culture but also has a strong nostalgic streak. For example, digital music continues to gain popularity, and yet, Millennials love vinyl records and cassette tapes.
While outsiders see them as overly preoccupied with taking selfies, they are actually quite motivated by humanitarian causes, like protecting the environment or human rights issues.
They’re drawn to products that exude human craft and care, but rather than exit mainstream culture like the hippies of the 1970s, they’re quite content to balance that interest with mass-produced technologies.
And they love to champion small business.
This is where you have a very distinct advantage. And yet, only about 15 percent of small businesses actually market directly to Millennials. Small businesses are in a great position to grab their attention. Three qualities of small business that resonate with Millennials can be summed up as “craft,” “quirk,” and “pluck.”
Brands that demonstrate these three qualities in their company culture, their products and services, and especially their marketing, tend to attract Millennials.
We had the opportunity to sit with Brandon Leibel, a co-founder of Sand Cloud, a beach lifestyle brand that primarily provides stylish beach towels. His small business is growing at a rocket pace, and his prime client base are Millennials. Brandon—himself a Millennial—gave us a peek under the hood to see how his brand was able to connect with his clients, and what follows is an expansion of that conversation.
The first thing you’ll notice about Sand Cloud’s website—even before you see their product—is a call to protect the ocean: “Live to give.” Scroll down a few inches and you’ll see an initiative to #savethefishies and a declaration that 10 percent of their proceeds are donated back to the company’s marine life partners.
Brandon informed us that their cause is at the heart of their business and pervades every area of their marketing strategy. This kind of strategy is called cause marketing. Millennials love to “shop to support,” the idea that their purchase supports a cause, and that by supporting a brand, they can be socially responsible.
In fact, Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial survey, “Winning Over the Next Generation of Leaders,” found that 87 percent of Millennials around the world believe that business should be measured in terms of more than just financial performance.
Consumers are looking for brands that demonstrate social responsibility. Brands that fail to demonstrate that they back a cause will fall behind the brands that do. And in the long run, supporting a cause is good for small businesses for a number of reasons beyond marketing to Millennials.
We asked Sand Cloud’s Brandon how he came up with a cause for his brand. He told us that it was an obvious fit. They were selling beach towels on the beaches of Southern California. He knew their business needed a cause, so they chose to save the oceans.
They picked a cause that was quite natural to their brand, but it doesn’t always have to be so closely linked. TOMS, for example, began with founder Blake Mycoskie’s vision for delivering a quality shoe while also providing shoes to children in underdeveloped countries. TOMS began by donating one pair of shoes for every pair they sold. The cause was a natural fit with their product. Over time as the business grew, they added apparel and clothing accessories—even a specialty coffee package—to their product offering. At the same time, the mission for their philanthropic effort evolved to “Improving Lives,” which includes better access to water, safer births, eye care in developing nations, and more.
While cause marketing is powerful, it isn’t without controversy. Some have argued that cause marketing is exploitative because the brand profits from its efforts to give; however,advocates say that cause marketing is a great way for businesses to do philanthropic work in a sustainable way. TOMS was able to take the criticism it received for its efforts and use it constructively to evolve their efforts toward their cause, growing their business while widening their philanthropic impact.
The TOMS cause is no longer limited to shoes, but that doesn’t matter to their customers. What matters is that every purchase supports a brand that’s willing to share some of its profit to make the world a better place. And most convincing of all, the brand shows passion and commitment to the cause.
What’s most important is that you show passion and commitment to the cause.
Brandon told us that the Millennial demographic is most interested in the “why” of a brand. Why are they doing what they’re doing? How do they impact the world?
Simon Sinek calls this the “Golden Circle,” in which he describes what sets brands like Apple apart from others, or why the Wright Brothers first achieved powered flight. Essentially there’s a pattern to the success of businesses and individual, which he calls the “Golden Circle.” Every organization knows “what” they do; some know “how” they do it. But very few know “why” they do it, the belief behind what they do. He gives a masterful TED Talk on this topic.
Millennial consumers want to know “why” you’re doing what you’re doing because they tend to support brands whose values align with their own. A cause helps these consumers have an impact on the world via the brands they support.
If your business is looking for a great cause to get behind, consider your clients’ values. Customer avatars are great tools to help you think through what kinds of causes your clients would get behind. The more your ideal client can resonate with your cause, the more powerful it will be for your brand.
One of the most powerful ways that cause marketing can work for you is by creating a rallypoint for your biggest fans. With a cause behind your brand, they’ll have an altruistic reason to advocate for your brand or to become an ambassador for your cause on their social media networks.
Consider Sand Cloud’s ambassador program. “Ambassadors create a community around your brand,” says Brandon. Sand Cloud engages with ambassadors in a number of ways, which in turn provides tons of opportunities for their ambassadors to announce their participation with the brand as they advocate for saving the world’s oceans. The result is to extend Sand Cloud’s social reach far beyond what they could do on their own. Ambassadors have a distinct role to play at Sand Cloud:
The fact that there’s a cause behind the ambassador program increases the excitement around the brand. The ambassadors love that there’s a powerful social dimension to the brand they can boast about.
Ultimately, your cause can be the central point for how you interact with your Millennial audience. The fans of your brand may love to spread the word about you, but there’s only so much they can say about your brand alone. When you support a meaningful effort outside of your own brand, you provide a way to make your fans feel good about their association with you. You give them a richer reason for preaching the good news of your brand.
There’s a funny acronym that might very well be the perfect nutshell descriptor for the Millennial demographic: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.
We can all identify—no matter what generation we fall into—with the disappointment that comes from missing out on an exciting event that our peers experienced. But the social media generation has a dilemma of its own: Their entire peer network is constantly online posting about the latest experience, and the constant social buzz creates a paranoia that exciting events could pass them by. FOMO.
Eventbrite produced a report on the subject of Millennials, experiences, and the fear of missing out. They found that a strong majority of millennials (69 percent) experience FOMO; moreover:
“More than 8 in 10 Millennials (82%) attended or participated in a variety of live experiences in the past year, ranging from parties, concerts, festivals, performing arts and races and themed sports—and more so than other older generations (70%). But Millennials can’t get enough. 72% say they would like to increase their spending on experiences rather than physical things in the next year, pointing to a move away from materialism and a growing demand for real-life experiences.”
Experiential marketing, aka engagement marketing, has been defined a number of ways, but Agency 451 describes it best: Experiential marketing is about “creating unique, face-to-face branded experiences.” Everyone loves fun experiences, but this aspect of marketing capitalizes on the Millennial appetite for them and provides opportunities to immerse people in memorable, entertaining, even rewarding ones around the brand.
Some big brands take this to a high level, even to the verge of guerilla marketing or jumbo-sized PR stunts, like Adidas having a public slam dunk contest with NBA superstar Derrick Rose or the Disney Channel creating a pop-up teddy bear clinic for kids to promote their show “Doc McStuffins.” The essence of the concept is to create a specific moment of experience that is exciting enough that the ones participating will feel compelled to share it online.
To be clear, experiential marketing includes participatory interaction online as well as offline. Let’s turn to Sand Cloud for some examples. Their business relies on Instagram and SnapChat to amplify the experiences they create (which we’ll discuss in the next chapter), but these experiences are the core of the interactions. Following are two experiences they create for their audience, one offline and one online:
If the Millennial generation has taught us anything about life in the internet age, it’s that humans are capable of experiencing life online and offline simultaneously. To keep up, brands need to find a way to seamlessly bridge the gap between online and offline. In the world of marketing lingo, this is affectionately known as “Online To Offline” (O2O). It’s the act of finding clients online and bringing them to physical buying experiences.
It can be flipped the other way, too, to mean taking offline, physical experiences and turning them into online moments worth sharing.
Think about it: You have a mobile phone on your person all the time; you wear a Fitbit, or an Apple watch. Your car instantly connects to your devices. Millennials have no problem taking the physical world into the digital. In fact rather than being wowed by tech innovation like older generations, they just expect it.
Brands that connect online and offline experiences will be the biggest winners with Millennials.
Small businesses aren’t somehow at a disadvantage when it comes to merging online and offline experiences. It’s not about having a big budget or a super high-tech product integration. In fact, as a small business, you’re in a position to make your O2O experience more authentic and personalized. Some things to keep in mind:
Ephemeral content simply means content that exists for a period of time and then disappears. Millennials have latched onto ephemeral content, and it’s quickly become a powerful way for marketers to connect with Millennial audiences.
Think for a second about how Generation X and prior interacted with photos: it was an analog process—you had to shoot the whole roll of film (generally 24 shots/roll) and have it developed before you could ever see what you’d captured. Images were about past experiences.
Along comes digital and now you can take a nearly unlimited number of shots, and you can share them with as many people as you’d like in real time. Image sharing on social is about what’s happening now.
From a behavior standpoint, ephemeral photos reflect the way we normally share on social media. But disappearing media add some advantages that Millennials want.
Privacy is one. If a photo is a little embarrassing, it won’t resurface in an uncomfortable setting. A potential employer won’t find it when they search your name during the hiring process. This means people are freer to create ephemeral content, they can be more spontaneous and less inhibited with consequences.
Second, it adds urgency. Be there, or you’ll miss it. Check it out before it’s gone. It’s what keeps Millennials glued to their phones.
Disappearing content emphasizes the moment, making it feel more natural and off the cuff. Millennials see this kind of content as offering transparency in their experience.
Transparency refers to having a sincere, visible, and accessible online presence for the person’s social following to engage with. People trust their peers to deliver the most honest information because, in a relational context, they are “transparent.” That is, they don’t hide true feelings or knowledge from one another.
Consider: in 2013, Nielsen ran a poll asking what forms of advertising people trusted. The majority (84 percent) said they trusted a recommendation from a friend. As a brand, you can create the perception that you are a member of a network of friends, transparent, and trustworthy. Ephemeral content is a powerful tool to create that impression.
Internet video encompasses a wide variety of applications, from live streaming videos on social to webinars and other recorded videos. It can be embedded in an email, shared on social, or found in search. It can be created by a 7-year-old on a smartphone, a Fortune 500 company with a big budget, and anyone in between. In fact, Millennials are used to discovering video that competes for their attention against a wide variety of content in a number of contexts.
As a result, Millennials tend to lean toward video that is easily and quickly consumed. The best video:
In a way, live video streaming was always inevitable, given the Millennial interest in authentic social media interactions. With live video, users can stream an event and interact with the audience as they post comments and other kinds of responses. This type of video provides immediacy, spontaneity, and instant feedback.
The big, familiar platforms offer live video streaming: Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Periscope for Twitter. But they’re not the only ones that offer it. You may want to explore the field to see which platform would work best for going live with your audience.
Instagram and SnapChat offer ephemeral video, which gives users an even stronger authentic feel, because they can behave freer on the video knowing that it won’t last forever. It promotes more emotion, more edgy content, and especially a sense of exclusivity that contributes to FOMO, since your audience could miss out on the video event.
It’s really about immediacy and being able to share real experiences with your network in real time. This appeals to people who are used to experiencing the world through phones—and through other people’s interpretations of their experiences. Being live works exceptionally well when there’s an event associated with it, though live interviews can also be fun.
Following are some helpful tips for successfully running a live video:
Fundamentally, marketing to Millennials is really about staying current with the trends in a personalized and authentic way. If you want to market to Millennials, you have to market like a Millennial. Take a page out of Sand Cloud’s book: “Millennials like simplicity; they don’t want your brand in their face,” Brandon said. They aren’t into gimmicks or kitschy offers. They want to be involved with a brand that makes them feel good, that syncs with the social media streams they’ve carefully crafted. They don’t want to follow brands that produce uninteresting content any more than they would want to follow a stranger with vastly different political views.
Despite the cliche, Millennials aren’t kids anymore. They’re making buying decisions. They run businesses. They’re the ones that make or break social media platforms. It’s OK not fully understand them. But it’s not OK to ignore them. The longer you go, the more outdated your business will look.