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Marketing to "Millennials": You're Doing It Wrong

Published: June 25, 2018

Author: Kelly Whelan

Millennial. A term you can’t avoid even if you want to. It seems no matter where you look these days, there’s an article trying to help us understand what millennials want.

As a so-called “millennial,” I have to admit that I hate the term “millennial.” For starters, the most common use of the term seems to be some 50+ year old woman on Twitter named Carol complaining about lazy, Tide Pod-eating, participation trophy-receiving teenagers and 20-somethings who are definitely destroying America with their smartphone, Snapstigram obsession.
Newsflash, Carol: hating on people younger than you isn’t exactly an original concept. When you were a bright young 20-something, rocking a perm and shoulder pads getting down to some Bowie, there was some 50+ year old woman named Bertha somewhere who was just as positive that YOU were the death of America, and some 50+ year old before Bertha was certain her generation was the worst yet…

But I digress. I’m not here to crusade for my “generation”, and the point of this blog is not for me to vent about the hypocrisy of older generations using Twitter or Facebook to complain about Wifi-laden millennials, while connected to (you guessed it) Wifi.  

The point I want to make is, there is a lot of buzz about millenials and a lot of people trying to jump on the bandwagon to profit from it, and the result has been oversimplification and mass-generalization of a very large group of people. As marketers, we have to be above preconceived notions and assumptions, because if we’re too quick to buy into the rhetoric, it can be very costly. We know digital advertising costs continue to rise, and millions can easily be spent on campaigns targeting the wrong audience. For this reason I want to take a step back and examine the mania from a marketing lens. Instead of giving you “Reasons millennials like to date significantly older men” or “10 ways to appeal to millennials,” I’d like examine whether or not you should be marketing to them at all.
So let’s apply some of the most basic principles of audience targeting and see how our millennial segment holds up.

Make Sure You Know Who Your Audience Is

To start, we’ll examine who millennials are and who they are not. This should be an easy enough question to answer, right? If everyone is trying to target millennials, it’s a safe assumption that it should be a defined demographic.
As Phillip Bump explains in the Atlantic article, “Here Is When Each Generation Begins and Ends, According to Facts”  the US Census Bureau stopped defining the date ranges of generational groups after they coined the Baby Boomers.  As far as how the other generational groups are defined, Bump goes on to point out that generational groups after the Baby Boomers are more or less set by the media and exist only to the extent that people accept them.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennials

And boy, have we accepted them. Ignoring the fact that there is not one single governing organization categorizing millennials, let’s look at how they are generally defined. According to the Pew Research Center (arguably one of the more credible sources on millennials), as of 2016, millennials represent about 71 million Americans, roughly 22% of the US population.


The Pew Research Center defines millennials as people in American born between 1981 and 1996. I have, however, seen the term applied to other parts of the first world (because insulting people younger than you isn’t just confined to the Carols of America) and I have seen that date range vary. According to the Pew article referenced above, “The millennial generation continues to grow as young immigrants expand its ranks.” This is an enormous group of people already; now add in young immigrants, from all cultures and backgrounds, from all across the globe.
Again, there isn’t one organization categorizing millennials, so the definitions can get hazy. But for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with the Pew Research Center definition, which includes people in America born between ‘81 and ‘96, or those between the ages of 22 and 37, as of 2018. This is a massive amount of people.
All right, now that we know (roughly) who our audience is (but do we?), let’s talk about what they want.

Don’t Assume You Know What They Want

If we believe the news articles I posted in the first picture, millennials want new Diet Coke flavors and IRAs, but they aren’t super into Harleys.
What do all millennials have in common? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure we could come up with a product that almost every millennial would benefit from, but should we be trying to force all of these people into the same segment?
Let me put this into perspective. When the first “millennials” graduated from high school in 1999, the Billboard Top Hit was Livin’ La Vida Loca by Ricky Martin. When the youngest millennials graduated in 2014, the Billboard Top Hit was “ Fancy” by Iggy Azalea (featuring Charli XCX). Those two groups of people are barely comparable.
If we’re looking at a 37-year-old in America, we might be thinking about someone who has been working for 19 years or more, may be married or have children, and uses Tide Pods for their intended purpose. A 22-year-old in America may not have even graduated college yet (assuming they went at all). Even the profiles I just presented are vastly overgeneralized and undervalue how different the motivations and interests of people within these ages can be based on location, income level, ethnicity, family status, etc. Now let’s layer on people from across the world immigrating to America. How does a 23-year-old college student from Yemen compare to a 33-year-old tech CEO from Poland?
As marketers, we can force people into groups, but to what end? What do we achieve? Millennial is a buzzword, and there’s value in its clickbaity charm, but other than that, it’s really quite useless in terms of appealing to the audience it supposedly encompasses. If you are going to use it, I encourage you to think about who you really have in mind. Maybe it’s 22-27-year-olds in tech. If you’re like Carol, maybe it’s teenagers. Millennials can be broken down into thousands of segments. Which are right for what you offer?
Figure out who your audience is, and understand what they want. Rather than guessing, follow the data.

Let the Data Guide You, and Let Experts Interpret That Data

Every company is different, and every company’s segments will look different. It’s necessary to take the time to truly understand who yours are, as opposed to jumping on the bandwagon of a demographic that everyone is is saying is important. This isn’t necessarily easy to do. It requires having a sound data foundation in place to collect the right information on your audience, and then interpret it. What do you need, and what does this process look like? I’m not going to go into depth in this post, but stay tuned for tomorrow, when our experts from the 3Q Strategy team will be going more in depth about how to build sophisticated audience segments beyond demographics. 

Focus On What You Know

People adapt and change to their environments. With current technology trends, there certainly is truth to some of the common adages we apply to millennials, such as addiction to devices and feeling a constant need to be connected, shortened attention spans, etc., although I’d be quick to argue that these shifts are not confined to just millennials; they are happening to everyone who spends significant amounts of time on the internet. For Wednesday’s blog, the 3Q Social Team will be looking at these changes and explain how to create compelling social ads to complement the biological trends we’re experiencing.
Finally, on Thursday, we’ll be shifting from biological changes associated to millennials to cultural. 3Q CEO David Rodnitzky will be giving his insight into what has changed in the workplace.
As marketers, we can’t know everything. But we can follow some fundamental principles about audience targeting to create better experiences for our customers. Or you can write another article about how millennials are, “ignoring cancer warnings to pursue the perfect tan.” Your choice ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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