Business are afraid of millennials.
It’s sort of hard to miss. No matter where you turn, you find article after article gaping slackjawed at these mysterious, inexplicable people. They’re breaking all the rules and avoiding traditional rites of passage for adulthood. They aren’t buying cars. They aren’t buying houses. All anyone seems to be saying is just that millennials don’t make any sense.
If you buy into that analysis, of course you’d be worried. After all, it’s 2015, and the oldest millennials are in their mid-30’s – precisely the age you expect major purchases to be made. And, now that there are 77 million of them, as they’re the single largest generational cohort in the United States.
But let’s get serious. Millennials are buying; they’re just buying differently. Millennials have never, as a generation, seen a sustained period of strong economic growth; most are over-educated and saddled with student debt; most are terrified about their job security. Of course they aren’t buying houses or cars in large numbers; their experience of what is economically feasible for them has largely excluded these as options. It won’t last forever, and as they get more established, they’ll likely reconsider these decisions.
But they are buying. And if you want to successfully reach what we have already established is the single largest demographic in the entire country, you can’t sit around and wait for them to consume and purchase the way you want them to. You have to reach them.
Don’t advertise; engage.
Nobody likes to feel sold to – and this is doubly true for millennials, who are media savvy and know how much content gets massaged. And this is a generation that didn’t spent its life sitting quietly in front of the TV, but playing video games and chatting online, researching and learning and reacting in real time.
In other words, they aren’t going to be passive consumers, and you can’t market to them like they are. You have to engage them; they’re going to be going online searching, researching, and learning. So you have to get in front of that with great content that keeps them up to date with the things they care about.
Millennials don’t trust hype; they’re natural skeptics. So you have to provide awesome content that they’ll want to share around. Because when it’s coming from their peers – it’s seen as that much more reliable, meeting a high bar for quality and utility.
Help them to do something.
Where’s the beef?
It’s more than just a corny eighties reference (which millennials love, by the way): it’s the question millennials ask about everything they buy. What real problem does it solve? How does it fit into my lifestyle in a productive way? Whatever it is you’re selling, you can’t expect it to sell itself; you have to show how your product or service will improve their changing lifestyles. If you’re able to do that, you won’t just have customers – you’ll have enthusiastic and powerful brand ambassadors.
A great example of this is the Jambox. It’s a small, high quality, ultraportable speaker that solves a problem almost unique to millennials: I want to listen to music with my friends on the go, but my iPhone’s speakers suck. Marketing for Jambox hasn’t revolved around the product’s features, but on its usability; a clear message about how the product would fit into their ideal customers’ lives.
And Jambox’s customers are enthusiastic about the product. Not because it’s pretty (although it is), or because it’s really high quality (it’s that, too) – but because it fixed a problem, and did it well. They may not quite sell themselves – but the marketing happens on the peer-to-peer level. And peer-to-peer is where buying decisions are made.
Give them a voice.
They’re a market that’s worth $1.68 trillion dollars in purchasing power, and they’re spending all their time talking to one another on Twitter about what they should buy. Think about that – and adapt.
Millennials live on social media. This generation is so often criticized for spending all their time on their phones – but what they’re doing is communicating – about everything from where to eat, how to dress, and what to buy. You can criticize, or you can jump on the social media train, and leverage this intensely-interacting demographic cohort. So how do you do that?
First, you need to create content worth sharing – but more to the point, you need to make sharing easy. You want them to collaborate, and get involved, so find creative ways for your customers to participate in your brand and turn it into an interactive experience.
Coca-Cola, for example, had a really unique campaign where they re-labeled their drinks with people’s names – “Share a Coke with Kayla,” or “Share a Coke with Eric.” This made every drink purchase an interactive experience – and dramatically encouraged Instagram and Twitter photo sharing. It made drinking soda a sort of game in itself – and created a memorable experience.
Communicate their values.
Millennials aren’t just socially engaged – they’re socially conscious. They’re engaging in charitable giving in the same way they’re making purchases – in a participatory way, investing themselves emotionally.
You can leverage this by tying your brand to a cause – and using it to build emotional connection and brand loyalty. Think about the success of Tom’s Shoes, which gives away a pair for every one they sell, or Warby Parker, which does the same thing with glasses. People don’t just like the product – buying it makes them feel good and socially responsible. That’s a powerful force, and one you’ll want to take advantage of. You can build a brand based on social consciousness – and that makes you more than just another business for millennials and their trillions of dollars.
You also want your marketing to stay on message with millennials’ emphasis on equality and diversity; you can earn enormous amounts of good publicity by cultivating a diverse public face – and bringing it into your corporate culture. Building a brand that speaks to their values and communicates it back to them increases their investment in you – and makes them more likely to serve as brand ambassadors, which is the most powerful thing a millennial can give you.
Millennials are growing up, but they get to define what adulthood means for them. They’re building a particular vision of consumer activity and activism that is going to change how economy operates. If you want to stay on top of the most important market in America, you need to remember that, while they still need the basics, why they buy, how they spend, and what motivates them is changing. You need to change with it.