Advertising, News

Marketing to Millennials

Written by Tim Edmundson

Millennials might be the most stereotyped generation of all. They are, depending on whom you talk to; narcissistic, lazy, tech crazy, entitled, and hopelessly obsessed with their smart phones. They rarely pick up a book or a newspaper. They’d much rather text than call. They value fame over real accomplishment.

Or not.

Okay, there’s some truth to the generalizations – which often come from the millennials themselves – but not enough to define an entire demographic. In fact, many of the under 30-crowd cringe at the dismissive labels that tend to get attached to them. Even Saturday Night Live has jumped on the bandwagon this week with a skit called “The Millennials.”

But the truth is, millennials are more varied than most people believe. They can be as curious, entrepreneurial, and hard-working as any generation. “There’s a tendency to lump them together and think this is how people who’ve grown up with this technology behave,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. “This generation is not a monolith.”

We as marketers must tread carefully if we want to engage millennials with any success. What we thought was true, may not be. Or even if something is somewhat true, we may still want to think carefully about their marketing approach. Here are the top five Millennial stereotypes and how they can lead your campaign astray:

Millennials are not well informed. According to the new study this year by the Media Insight Project 85% of millennials say keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them. Additionally, 69% say they get news daily.

The comprehensive study looks closely at how people learn about the world on these different devices and platforms and finds that this newest generation of American adults is anything but “newsless,” passive, or civically uninterested.

“While these folks live a lot of their life connected on digital devices, they are interested in the world probably in similar ways to previous generations, and maybe even more so,” Rosenstiel said. So a marketing campaign that pitches to disengaged, slacker attitudes may well turn out to be a big turn-off for a millennial audience.

They’d rather look at a screen than a human face. It’s a sore point for the many millennials who strongly deny such a preference. But the scene in any waiting room: “everybody with their faces down, looking at their phones,” as my daughter puts it, tells the real story. “People in my generation would rather take out an iPhone than ask directions,” she says.

But there’s a backlash afoot. Millennials themselves are the strongest critics of this avoidance of human contact, and many are putting aside Facebook and Twitter to spend more time with people. Ben Zahirpour, a 27-year-old electrician from Silver Spring, Md., talks about his disenchantment with social media after watching friends in desperate search of “electronic stimulation” while they could be having conversations. “I don’t want to sit staring at a phone hour after hour,” he says. So, the portrayals of screen-hypnotized young adults, whether they’re in a sitcom or a marketing campaign, may not be as funny as they used to be.

They’re preternaturally tech savvy. Yes, millennials have been using computers since they were toddlers. They’re more comfortable with apps and software than the average Baby Boomer or Gen-Xer. Human resource experts marvel at the electronic capabilities of Gen-Y employees and advise (as one put it): “Take advantage of your millennial employee’s computer, cell phone, and electronic literacy.

However, a U.S.News report this year found that a familiarity with social media does not necessarily give them the expertise to apply these skills in a corporate environment. “Millennials are no more inherently equipped to excel at your social media work than they are at your public relations or accounting work. They need training.” And most millennial job-seekers are, despite their great confidence quotient, aware of their shortcomings in this regard. 

They’re entitled and not ready for the realities of the job market. Like entry-level workers in any generation, there are some aspects of the workplace for millennials to get used to. But many fresh-faced young workers have come onto the employment scene at the worst possible time: a recession-bitten job market, huge student loan debt, and dim prospects all around. “Most of them are desperate to pay their dues,” says U.S. News, “if only someone would let them.” Emphasizing that misguided “sense of privilege” in your campaign could cause it to backfire with a millennial audience.

They’re narcissistic and fame-obsessed. One word: “Selfie.” A couple of years ago, Time magazine exposed millennials’ self-centered obsession with photographing themselves, citing National Institutes of Health figures showing college students in 2009 scored 58% higher on the “narcissism scale” than those in 1982. But less disapproving researchers cite other statistics suggesting self-centeredness is a phase we all got through.

“This leads to the conclusion that every generation is Generation Me” University of Illinois researchers wrote. And a campaign with clumsily fashioned references to the selfie habit may prompt a lot of negative feedback from tired and worn out humor.


The Punchline: All of this may bring us to an indisputable truth about millennials: They value individualism. Most take pains to establish an identity separate from the masses. Millennials, who all seem to have a gift for self-parody, are their own worst critics. If you create campaigns that celebrate unique perspectives and show how your products can be customized or used by different types of people in a variety of locations and environments, then you’ll appeal to the millennials and more. It’s about being authentic, unique, and genuine, something any audience can appreciate.

For more strategies on how to capture the attention of the millennial audience check out last month’s Advertising Week panel entitled “Owning Millentials,” with Chris Innes, SteelHouse’s SVP of Client Services.