Insights for Companies from a Millennial in the Marketing Industry

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Best Way to Target Millennials? Ask One.

So far this blog has talked a lot about different marketing strategies that could be successfully used to target millennials. Now many of you may be wondering, who is the best person to recommend how to market to millennials? Furthermore, who in your organization is going to be in charge of this and other marketing initiatives aimed at millennials? Read on…

A recent Chronicle article entitled “The Millennial Muddle: How stereotyping students became a thriving industry and a bundle of contradictions” (Chronicle) states that “most renderings of Millennials are done by older people, looking through the windows of their own experiences. So in any discussion of generations, it's only fair to give a Millennial the last word.” I would like to take this opportunity to give my ‘last word’ on the stances taken by the various ‘millennial experts’ mentioned in the article (who by the way, criticize each other heavily).

Neil Howe, an author of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, looks at rhythms in history to determine the traits of each industry. He and co-author William Strauss identified seven core traits prevalent among millennials: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving. The ‘special’ trait has been given the most attention, though I would like to argue, who doesn’t think they’re special in today’s world? The traits arose through examining a group of upper-class high school students in Virginia and the historical events (such as the terrorist attacks of 9-11) that have taken place in our time, which he believes “shape people of a given generation in specific ways”. Although I agree with historical events impacting our mindsets, I think it is preposterous to generalize the findings from a small group of high-income families to an entire population.

Jean M. Twenge, the author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, claims that millennials "have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves." Instead of calling millennials ‘special’ as Howe and Strauss did, Twenge calls it narcissism due to high self-esteem, which she believes to be resultant of being raised a culture of constant praise. In return, Howe and Strauss were quick to criticize her findings. I would like to echo them in questioning her intentions, and wonder myself if there might be a twinge of bitterness in her work.

Mark Bauerlein focuses on the deterioration of intellect among millennials in his book, The Dumbest Generation. He cites studies that “affirmed that today's students were reading less and absorbing fewer facts than their predecessors had”. While this may be the case, is it such a bad thing? Perhaps having grown up with search engines and instant messaging may actually better prepare us for the realities of the workplace. Bauerlein sees less interest in culture among millennials, and considers students behaviour akin to that of ‘fussy consumers’. Both he and Twenge agree that the Internet is a “venue for self-absorption that their parents never imagined”, and “Facebook and other social media have fed a bonfire of vanity among young people.”

These ‘experts’ are profiting from their books, company talks that “explain how to make young workers happy and retain them”, and more. Yet each of these theorists is operating under “two large assumptions. That tens of millions of people, born over about 20 years, are fundamentally different from people of other age groups—and that those tens of millions of people are similar to each other in meaningful ways.” This fact has caused some people to stop thinking in generational terms. What about people from the upper and lower ages of a ‘generation’? Are they the same as those in the middle? It is hard to imagine that values and traits change drastically with the one year in age difference between one generation and another.

One thing is left to consider: are we a product of what these millennial experts have been saying? According to the Chronicle, article, Howe’s “recommendations have influenced the mailings admissions offices send, the extracurricular activities colleges offer, the way professors teach, and even the food students eat.” This leads me to wonder whether millennials (and other generations for that matter) are the way they are as a result of the widespread influences the so-called generation experts have had.

I disagree with the Chronicle article’s view that giving millennials the last word in discussions about their generation “is tricky exercise…After all, it's easy to find one who agrees—or disagrees—with the idea that students are team-oriented, or narcissistic, or anything. And many have given generational labels no more consideration than the ingredients of their breakfast cereal.” I, for one, am taking an interest in the generational labels applied to our age group, and I think I could find others who would be interested in doing the same. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy self-criticism. I can admit that many people my age have high self-esteem and prefer Google to encyclopedias. What is the problem? Maybe if a group of millennials were assigned to the task of figuring out how to market to our generation, at least we wouldn’t all disagree and criticize each other’s findings. After all, we’d be analyzing ourselves.

Companies in the business world seem to agree. When asked “Which of your groups is best equipped to help you with your social media efforts today?” 65.6% of the 114 CMOs in the CMO Club responded “In House” (Business Week), over choices including interactive agency, PR firm, social media agency and creative/ad agency. One CMO responded, “With all the chatter in the industry on social media and all the agencies scrambling to stay relevant through social media, the combination of our internal marketing expertise and hiring millennials in our group that understand social networks, is working well.” So if you want to find out how best to market to millennials…ask one!

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