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As if the internet needed another article about what the heck is up with millennials, here we go.

I totally get why everyone is asking, though, because millennials are the single largest demographic in the United States today.

It’s this endlessly vexing question, because millennials don’t seem to behave according to the patterns established by their parents and grandparents, and to a lesser extent by Generation X. As rough and imprecise as these designations are, they definitely track cultural attitudes and patterns of behavior that seem to set one generation apart from another.

And nothing quite encapsulates these changes among the current crop of young adults as much how they respond to advertising.

The old attitude was that, well, if you reach them young enough, and if you put enough messaging in front of them, you’ll get them. And maybe that was true when mass media was primarily television and radio, passive mediums you didn’t interact with featuring content that was solely consumed. Advertising then was seen as so pervasive and effective that Generation X’s more cynical members regarded it a social evil, enslaving the masses in service of some mighty brand.

That’s not really true anymore, though, because the internet broke television’s stranglehold on our attention. Interactive, engaging, and communicative, it quickly supplanted television as the dominant form of media. And what it supplanted it with was something entirely surprising: relationships.

Like their predecessors before them, millennials are on an endless quest for authenticity and legitimacy. It manifests in some as a love for artisanal bread and fair trade coffee. In others, it’s about political activism. But in the generation as a purchasing demographic writ large, it’s a desire not to be taken in or sold to.

It’s about autonomy.

And that’s something you need to wrap your head around if you want to market to millennials effectively. They’re not some mysterious cohort that makes inexplicable decisions. Once you understand their motivation, reaching them is easy.

The key isn’t to tell them you’re selling a new product. It’s to give them the tools and information they need to make the decision on their own, without feeling like they’ve been manipulated into purchasing.

And here’s the second most important thing: autonomy cuts both ways, and millennials are GREAT at shutting up unwanted messaging. So you need them to want to hear from you, instead of getting in their faces with your rad new app or whatever.

But you’re in luck, because those two elements are what make inbound marketing a ridiculously-effective way to reach millennials.

It’s just about the only thing they respond to. Mailers and cold calling don’t work, and most of them are using adblockers online and skipping over television commercials, or avoiding them entirely by using paid streaming services.

But if there’s one thing millennials are all about, it’s finding stuff online.

We’re bombarded with messaging constantly, so the only way to cut through the noise is to be relevant to their needs. That’s not to say millennials have unique needs; they’ll depend on where they live, what they do for living, all the usual stuff. But you don’t reach them by jumping into their attention, but by being easy to find when they need you.

The basic big picture shape of inbound marketing is sort of perfectly primed to reach an audience expected to make up 75% of the workforce by 2020. Traditional selling is simply ineffective at reaching an audience that values its own autonomy to the point that they’d rather do their own product research. They’re actually really good at detecting BS, because they’re kind of naturally suspicious – precisely because they grew up in an advertising-saturated environment.

That suspiciousness sends them on information gathering quests that will lead them directly to the vendor who puts the right content out there to reach them.

So it can be done. You just have to do it right by paying attention to how millennials actually make purchasing decisions.

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