How do you market to Millennials?

Justin Daab

Over the past 18 months, whether from existing or potential clients, some variation of the following question has been posed: “What do we have to do to attract more Millennials?” First step, in our experience, is to understand why any difference in approach might be required.


First, some background

For previous generations, in the U.S. at least, affiliation, membership, defined status. What school you attended. What clubs you belonged to. At what company you chose to spend your career. Hence, affiliation had inherent value of its own. As generation X came of age, possessions defined status and the social currency was the outward signaling of that ability to consume. McMansions. BMWs. Branded clothing, e.g.: Polo, Izod, Hilfiger.

But as Millennials came of age, the security once offered by corporations was an historical relic and the traditional economic safe harbors (e.g.: housing, bonds, et al) were in collapse, threatening to take down the global economy.

The assumption that traditional institutions, including corporations or large public institutions, would be around to take care of them in any way seemed imaginary. And the ostentatious symbolic consumerism of the 80s seemed hollow.


The generational shift in cultural currency

Given the circumstances, it was unsurprising, that out of this emerged a trend among Millennials to put less value in institutions or material possessions and, by proxy, less value in the social status afforded by them.

Further, Millennials who attended college, more so than any previous generation, were confronted with higher debt levels and fewer job prospects. And, as mentioned earlier, the feeling remained that once they acquired a position, there were no guarantees that job would remain in place, regardless of their performance.

The long term became wildly unpredictable. Which led to an entirely predictable cultural reflex to assigning greater social value to experiences. The future could take away a house but it could never take memories or past experiences.

And, finally, came the rise of social media as a ubiquitous marketplace upon which those experiences could be showcased and their inherent value determined an open exchange of “likes” and “re-shares” made gaining status from photos of a trip to Bhutan more compelling than posting the earning of a new professional certification. So what’s a marketer to do to appeal to this generation?


Elevate the individual experiences

If affiliation with a brand and of itself holds little incremental value to Millennials, brands will need to improve on delivering something that does—experiences.

Take, for example, a B2B company seeking a rise in connections with Millennial-aged buyers at a trade show. Where once a basic beer and wine reception in a hotel ballroom would have sufficed for a networking event, today to successfully compete for free time, the company may have to plan something more like a behind-the-scenes evening tour at a local craft brewery. And food and beverage choices now require sensitivities to a variety of diet schools of thought, from vegan to paleo to gluten-free.  

This first generation of “digital natives” has grown accustomed to continuously improving, technology-facilitated customer experiences. You had better serve up a totally friction-free shopping experience. Millennials are not going to wait around to complete an overly onerous checkout process. And that attitude expends to every transaction.

Millennials cannot understand why anyone would put up with having to stand on a street corner, hand in the air waiting for a cab to pass by—they open Uber on their phones. They don’t head to for news, it appears constantly in their Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram feeds. And more than 50% of Millennials cite their smartphone as their primary and only personal computing device. They won’t sit down to consume content, they’ll multitask and graze on information as they go through their day.

Given that, it’s not surprising Millennials generally will not take it upon themselves to slog through an arduously designed web experience or overly long editorial content. They expect providers not to serve up information, but rather to give them control over that experience. Therefore, modernization of web experiences (e.g.: mobile-first design, more short-form content, social integration, personalization) will be paramount in establishing and maintaining ongoing online connections with Millennials.


Create opportunities to form relationships

Millennials can exhibit a tendency to approach building relationships with greater caution. On the flipside, they are open to making themselves more available online. Marketers can capitalize on both of these tendencies by creating more robust tools for online interaction and community building around the brand, e.g.: user forums, communal hashtags, etc. In categories with a large number of avid consumers, they will gladly add to the conversation, as long as users feel they have sufficient controls over privacy and levels of sharing. 


Reward participation

76% of Millennials have joined some form of loyalty program. That is a much higher level of participation than their parents’ generation. However, they expect those programs to be free, easy and fast. Associations could leverage that behavior by rewarding members with points for participating in, recommending or growing the member community. Points could potentially be used for reduced fees or VIP experiences at events.


Emphasize your greater social good

A third of Millennials will choose or abandon a brand based solely on causes. And nearly two thirds place high loyalty value on brands that engage in causes, philanthropy, or endeavors that reflect their beliefs/values. Therefore it’s fair to assume brands that can effectively communicate their greater social value, both among their existing customers and the general population, will have a greater chance of attracting brand evangelists and maintaining loyalty among Millennials.


When in doubt, ask

Whether you’re focused on creating or delivering content, increasing the value of a transaction, or creating new online experiences, perhaps the most valuable activity in the development process is engaging and understanding customers. Engage the market through focus groups, ethnographic studies, one-on-one interviews or surveys. Get an understanding about what your company or brand does well, what you could do better, or what customers valued most about their relationship with you. 


Or, just treat them like everyone else

Often, the generational affiliations used by marketers as a predictor for behavioral or purchasing habits, when focused on too precisely, can greatly miss the mark. In some markets, the smartest and most efficient segmentation is a generationally-agnostic group. Increasingly, due to the wilds of the internet, an increasing percentage of cultural references are shared amongst chronologically separated cohorts. Increasingly, we can use technology and big data to define consumer groups that are similarly culture-hungry, up-to-date and are better identified by their behavioral and psychographic similarities, rather than their age.

Sources and further reading:  

1. contact us. Or, click around our site to see all of the other ways we help we help our clients outsmart, outmessage and outmarket larger competitors, to steal their most profitable customers.


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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