Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years (or even worse – offline *shudder*) then you’ve probably heard the term “millennials” referring to younger generations who have grown up in more tech-accessible times.
However, many of the stereotypes that get trotted out about millennials are a little odd. Insanely sweeping generalisations about their tastes in music and fashion, their shopping habits, and their relationship with tech.
Some of the more scornful content even goes so far as to say “they’re narcissistic selfie-takers”, “they’re self-absorbed, entitled adult children”, and “they’re lazy slackers who only engage socially through their devices”. All of which need to come with a massive “”.
Well I’m here to argue that this whole “millennial” thing is a load of rubbish. Lazy stereotyping of this ilk isn’t useful to marketers, consumers, or indeed society at large.
What is the Definition of a Millennial?
Trying to define a millennial seems to be the first stumbling block. Nobody seems quite sure how to qualify people as “millennials”. William Strauss and Neil Howe, who are widely credited with coining the term, have stated that millennials are those born between 1982 – 2004; but even then there’s still debate as to what actually counts as a millennial:
- Strauss and Howe said that those born in 1982 and the 20 year period afterwards are millennials, eventually capping the “millennial” bracket at 2004.
- This excellent article from the Slate states that millennials are those born “roughly between 1980 and 2000”.
- This Inc article counts those below 35 as millennials.
- The Statista data referenced later in this article counts millennials as those between the ages of 18 and 30 (in 2016).
- Millennial Marketing put millennials at being born between 1977 and 2000.
Which leaves us with quite a large margin for error. Millennials could be anyone between the ages of 17 and 40 years old. And those of us born between between 1977 and the late 1980s are sometimes thought of as millennials, and sometimes not. That’s over a decade’s worth of us Schroedinger’s millennials. Oh wait, there’s a word for us too. Sigh.
So How Should we Market to Millennials?
So there doesn’t seem to be a specific definition for them – we’re off to a good start. Let’s skip to the next question. What do we say about marketing to millennials? This is a very condensed roundup of what Hubspot, Entrepreneur, and Inc had to say:
- They use social media, especially on mobile.
- They don’t like grabby outbound marketing practices and hate a hard sell.
- They respond well to reviews, vouchers, and social proof that promotes a quality customer experience.
- They like visual content, especially that with a social or interactive element.
- They value authenticity and transparency from brands and love a personal touch.
- They respond well to tactics like influencer marketing that reach them through content they’re already consuming.
- They like frugal fun and are loyal to brands that treat them well.
Think objectively about these points. Don’t they apply to a lot of people… not just millennials? Many of us – people of all ages – are becoming more comfortable with technology, and less comfortable with the pushy marketing practices of yore. Therefore, it stands to reason that these core points are applicable to lots of people – yes, even those over the age of 35!
Why “Marketing to Millennials” is a Fool’s Errand
Well, we can’t agree on a definition of who is a millennial and who isn’t; and the basics of marketing to them can be applied to even marginally web-savvy folks of any age. It’s simple…
Millennials are people. They should be marketed to like people.
According to Statista, the UK population in 2016 was around 65.6 million, 11.2m of which were millennials. That’s 17.07% of the population – nearly a fifth; potentially a massive group for marketers to be tarring with the same brush!
Making marketing assumptions about 17% of the population just doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. Building up millennials in our minds as a scarily impenetrable market only serves to create a sense of “us and them” – something we certainly need less of nowadays. Think of all of the inherent differences in 11.2 million individuals – their upbringing, their financial situation, their preferences, what they want out of life; they are all individuals with their own ideas, responsibilities, wants, and needs. As the old axiom goes – “you’re unique, just like everyone else”.
Painting millennials as a special breed who require different treatment from their marketing detracts focus from creating a strong marketing message that’s crafted around your company’s core values and the factors that matter most to your client base.
So Where Does that Leave us?
Many seem to claim that millennials are becoming more jaded about traditional marketing. But when we look at it more objectively – who isn’t?
Most of us get up and make a cup of tea during ad breaks on TV; most of us are cynical towards companies who always seem to have a sale on (furniture industry I’m looking in your direction); most of us install ad blocking software on our web browsers; and most of us click “Skip Ad” on YouTube videos at lightning speed.
Don’t get me wrong, some companies do explicitly target millennials and get it right. But all too often, you’ll see a company trying to appeal to these whippersnappers with blatant lowest common denominator pandering. Any company who describes their next product offering as “bae” or “on fleek” just ends up ringing “How do you do, fellow kids”-style alarm bells.
Regardless of your age, nobody likes this kind of silly fawning. However, the problem runs deeper than looking a bit silly.
11.2 million people isn’t a very targeted demographic, so if you’re looking to pinpoint your ideal market then it’s likely to come down to more than just age. You need to identify select sub-groups within broad demographics like age, income, and location with a view to finding your ideal audience; and then work out how to reach that audience and appeal to them specifically. This is an approach that is always going to work.
Nothing is going to topple good old fashioned market research, just as no one piece of advice about marketing to millennials is going to get you in front of 11.2m individuals. It’s just another meaningless generational divide.
Therefore, I posit that choosing to “market to millennials” is a bit of a cop out. Why do all of the legwork associated with actual market research when one can lazily jump on the millennial bandwagon?
You need to delve deep into your own market and see what makes your ideal customer tick. How do they like to be spoken to? What advertising resonates with them and what doesn’t? If you want to try a new approach to get in front of a fresh audience, research the options available to you and make yourself aware of how others in your field take that tack, and the sort of interest this approach achieves for these other companies.
So to wrap up, do your own research into your customer base, and don’t rely on flimsy generational divisions to base your marketing around. You have the power to discover legitimate data about your audience and craft a powerful message around that. The power lies in good old fashioned marketing – rather than leaning on the latest buzzword du jour.
If you’d like some additional viewing, I highly recommend Adam Conover’s talk at the Deep Shift conference, entitled “Millennials Don’t Exist!”.There’s an inherent problem with blindly “marketing to #millennials”... Click To Tweet
I realise that this article is very much an opinion piece, and I would welcome your opinions in the comments section. Do you feel that the common presumptions about millennials are justified? Why? Or do you agree with me that the distinction of the generations is meaningless? Please let’s get a (respectful) debate going over on Twitter where I’m @JeniiLowe!