Marketing To Millennials: Should You, Shouldn’t You And What Does That Mean?

Marketing To Millennials: Should You, Shouldn't You And What Does That Mean?

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Generation X. Generation Y. Millennials. Boomers. The Silent Generation.

Leave it to marketers to label and box everything – including people – into groups that make them feel better about their ad spend.

It seems as if you can’t run a business nowadays without someone insisting you need to “tap into the millennial” market – that demographic of human being that is apparently so uniquely snowflake-like that they confound the rest of us.

I’ve been percolating on this idea of millennials for a while so today I want to explore with you what that means, how it may – or may not – affect your marketing and what to do about it the next time you hear the word.

What Is A Millennial, Anyway?

To sum it up in fewer words than are used in this rather confounding Wikipedia article, a millennial is anyone born between 1982 and 2004, depending on who you ask, or, I suppose, who’s spending money on the ad campaign.

More specifically, and paradoxically more generally, it refers to a set of character traits that define a generation of people. What traits, you may wonder?

Well, apparently everyone else is wondering, too. Millennials have been called everything from civic-minded and collaborative to disengaged and lazy. From socially liberal to proudly conventional. From entitled narcissists to community loving altruists.

If you’re trying to reach that market it sounds like your job just got a whole lot more complicated.

But Does The Designation Matter?

I hate labels. It’s a personal thing and whether that makes me a good marketer or a bad one, I really dislike putting people into categories. I know it’s a sometimes-necessary evil. You need your avatars and your ad sets.

But do we really need those delineations to be based on the year we were born?

Think about the date range: 1982 through 2004. That’s nearly 25 years! Twenty five years ago there were no cell phones. I spent Saturdays at the mall or on the phone with the very long curly cord so I could lock myself in the bathroom and talk to my friends in private.

Now I spend more time texting than talking, sleep with my smart phone and have a lot more friends whom I’ve never met than I’ve ever had a cocktail with in person.

Twenty five years changes a lot – not just from generation to generation but within an individual person. Are you the same person that you were 25 years ago?

So to mash a group of people into a 25-year time span and call it a demographic seems rather arbitrary to me.

Think about this as a business owner for a moment. If you’re into this idea of generational marketing, you’ve got to cover a range of people from 11 years old through their mid-30s.

Your job just got really complicated.

I’m A Millennial, Too

Actually, my official designation is “Generation X” which was taught to us as “the Me Generation” back in the days before character limits.

But lately I’m starting to feel the years being stripped away.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with Kelly Kranz, a cohost on the Superheroes of Marketing podcast, about what it means to be a millennial and what they want.

She actually is one, according to her birth year, so where better to get insight than from the horse’s mouth?

According to Kelly, millennials avoid phone calls and prefer text.

I avoid phone calls and prefer text.

I even text my mom. And my husband, who sits across the room from me every day of my life.

Look at me being young!

Kelly also says millennials avoid meetings.

I avoid meetings.

I really, really avoid meetings. I like to have scheduled, structured meetings with my clients (which we call “workshops”, by the way, because none of us likes meetings) but if you’re a vendor, sales person or someone who wants to have a meeting with me I will remind you that God invented Skype for a reason.

I’m feeling 20 all over again.

Finally, here’s an interesting tidbit for you. In preparation for writing this article I took a quiz put out by the Pew Research Center.

It’s only 14 questions so go have some fun and then report back to me what you find.

Here’s what I found: on a scale of 1-100 where 1 leans toward “the Silent Generation” and 100 is millennial, I scored a 72.

I’m going to put on my dancing shoes right now.

In case you’re wondering, I’m also 45 years old.

If this isn’t starting to make your job as a business owner and marketer sound really, really, really complicated then I don’t know what will.

It’s About Values, Not Age

Times they are a-changin’.

No doubt people are growing into a more socially conscious age – and by “age” I mean epoch, not the physical date on the calendar.

We’re seeing a shift in attitudes towards race, sexual orientation, family, religion and lifestyle choices.

This is where we typically expect older generations to lament the good old days while the younger ones come up to usurp our dominance of the cola market.

But I know plenty of “older generation” folks – from mine in our 40s to my parents in their 70s – who have adopted similar changes in attitudes.

We live, we learn.

My grandmother, who was 94 when she died only a few years ago, left us insisting that it’s important to enjoy your life, that dogs are people too, and that if you’re gay then so what? Live your life and be who you are.

This from a woman who grew up before women were seen as anything more than child factories with cooking skills and when “gay” was something you were on a Saturday night with your friends at a dinner party.

Twenty five years ago it didn’t occur to anyone to give a crap about the planet, except maybe to stop using aerosol hairspray. Which we did – all three generations of my family.

Today, one might think that “environmentally conscious” is the domain of the young.

Twenty five years ago it didn’t occur to us to have “relationships” with brands. Without access via social media or email, our comments and complaints were constrained to the living room.

Today, my “Silent Generation” mother is the first person to go to Twitter with her annoyances when she wants a company’s attention.

These attitudes are generational insofar as they shift over time. Some values we’re born into and some we learn as we go.

But ultimately if you’re a business owner looking to market to a “younger” generation then it might be time to stop thinking about their age and start thinking about their values.

Your Brand, Your Values

I don’t have an answer to the “how to market to millennials” question because it’s more complicated than drawing a line on a calendar.

People are more complicated than that.

I hope I’ve given you some idea of how values, expectations and attitudes cross generational lines and how difficult it would be to use that as your marketing baseline.

But here’s what you can do: target values, not generations.

Decide what it is that your product or service does. What problem does it solve for your customers? Does it save them money? Does it appeal to their social consciousness? Does it improve their lives? Does it make things simpler for them? Does it appeal to their sense of the world and how they fit into it?

And remember that you can’t target values that your company doesn’t hold, no matter how badly you may want to tap into a specific market. Ultimately you have to be true to yourself and your company. You have to know what you stand for and what you can add to people’s lives, whether they are 30 or 70.

Don’t Be Lame

Is it cool to say lame these days? Is it lame to say cool?

My parents said, “Groovy.” My friends and I said, “Like, totally awesome.” Today’s whippersnappers say things like “Fleek” or some such nonsense that I’m too old to master but am smart enough not to try.

And this is where I think businesses and marketers go awry. They think they need to hit some “young” market – which as we’ve already demonstrated can mean anything from wheelie-popping eleven-year-olds to career oriented 30-somethings.

That leads people to try to do things, say things and be things are not – namely cool, hip, young, trendy or whatever word is on fleek these days.

That leads inevitably to a glaring inauthenticity that will get you zero sales – from young or old or anywhere in between.

So while it would be foolish and just bad business to think that people today are exactly the same as they ever were, that doesn’t mean you have to obsess over whatever it means to tap into a millennial market.

In my opinion, you’re better served looking inwards rather than outwards – at who you really are as a business, how that has evolved – how it can evolve – and how you can best express that to the world to build a fan and customer base around your true values.

You’re better served, if you’re going to be categorizing, by knowing your avatar – and you can have more than one – and what each one wants and needs from you.

Talk to your customers. Listen to your prospects. And treat them as people, not as age groups.

What do you think? Have you done anything specific to appeal to a “younger” generation? Have you even defined what that means? Can you think of ways to evolve your brand to be more inclusive and to adopt and express the cultural values that are true to you and your audience?

I’d love to hear your opinion. And if you take the quiz, I’d love to hear the results and whether you find that being a “millennial” is more a state of mind than an age.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • I’m 66% millennial and I’m older than you, Carol-Lynn. Marketing to labels will never be as effective as telling people about the stuff you have that might help them.

    • Well there you go. Now if only I had gotten that tattoo, we might be onto something. By the way, having your ears double pierced should also count 🙂

  • Amen to all you said. Funny enough, I’ve been a business coach for over 25 years now, and the message you just shared is what I’ve been saying all these years. Market to the person’s WIIFM. Solve a problem. People buy for only 2 reasons: to avoid pain or enhance pleasure (you can’t imagine the number of times I’ve said that opposite in presentations, which always gets a laugh). Know your customer…singular, not plural. Cheers! Kaarina

    • I’ll second that motion, Kaarina! “WIIFM” will always be the foundation of marketing, no matter a customer’s or client’s age.

      I’ll go one step further and say I believe marketing bridges generational gaps. 🙂

      • I’m so with you Melanie 🙂 And we’re both more Millenial than our birth dates would indicate, right?

        • We are all young at heart!! I feel like age is such a state of mind that it is almost insulting to try to do or be something “young” or otherwise. I guess I’m just not convinced that this is a thing your average small biz has to obsess over.

        • Yes, we are, Kaarina! And darn proud of it. 😉

  • A score of 35 puts me in the Gen X-er range. Yes, I’m an old fart. But at least I didn’t score in the Silent or Baby Boomer categories. LOL!

    After taking the quiz I’ve concluded millennials must love sending text messages, getting tattoos, and having their body parts pierced — and that’s “like, totally awesome”. 😉

    I don’t get the marketing to millennials thing, either. But I’ve noticed more businesses getting on board with campaigns targeted to millennials. (I guess it would make sense if you’re, let’s say, a tattoo artist, but even old farts get tattoos.)

    Just this past week “Blue Bear Creative” started following my boards on Pinterest. Their biz blurb: “Blue Bear is the premier digital marketing agency targeting the millennial consumer.” Good luck with that, Blue Bear! Personally, I’d put my money on Web.Search.Social — the premier marketing agency for ALL AGES. 🙂

    • What a great comment! I laughed out loud (see the age’ism of laughed out loud vs. LOL, hahahahaha) when I got to the text message/tattoo/piercing being the criteria for millenialism. And yes…I just made that word up. Always great to “see” you, even when it looks like I’m MIA 🙂

    • Totally agree on that point, Melanie. If your product/service is geared toward an age subset then by all means, use that as a defining factor. See, I looked at that Blue Bear site and I find it so offensive. They are young so they have fresh ideas? They love all things digital and creative? Well, sorry to be born so lame :/

      Guess I’d better pack up my 20 years of experience and go home because… millennials.

      So yeah, guess Im not their demo, huh?

      That kind of marketing appeals to people who are focusing on the wrong things. PROBLEM. SOLUTION. That is all.

      • Too bad you wasted a minute of your precious time to check out Blue Bear Creative (although I had a feeling you would cause … curiosity) 😉 You’re so much like me sometimes, Carol Lynn, it’s scary. LOL

        “Offensive” would be the very best adjective to use here. I don’t wish them any ill will but I feel, strongly, they’re just jumping on the [millennials] bandwagon from a shallow intent. I’m definitely not in their demographic and I don’t give a hoot! For the life of me, I don’t know why they had an interest in following me on Pinterest. Go figure. Makes no sense.

        • Here is another thing… WHO are they targeting? I don’t think they are targeting actual millennials because wouldn’t millennials kind of already know themselves? They don’t need another generation to explain it to them. I suspect they are targeting “me” – you know, the old, slightly out of it, not having the good ideas kind of person who needs to THINK YOUNG. I suspect they are targeting people they consider old people who want to “get it” but don’t. And that’s what I find insulting.

          • Yep. You nailed it … right to the wall! That type of arrogance is NOT going to serve them. Of course, we EXPERIENCED, MATURE individuals already know that, don’t we? 🙂

          • Also as an aside, I bet you ARE their target audience…. or they think you are because…. old. I mean, ANCIENT! I bet you’d like to be cool, too.