The Millennial marketing myth

By Jennifer DeRome | March 31, 2016
The Millennial marketing myth

It’s hard to go a day without hearing the term ‘Millennial.’ By now, it may feel like you’ve heard everything there is to be said about this generation. So why are we still hearing about it? One reason is their size and spending power. It’s estimated that Millennials will eclipse the Baby Boomers' spending power by 2018. That’s a huge market—and a lot of opportunity to engage with customers. So it’s only natural that companies are hyper-focused on learning more about this segment so they can design their products, campaigns, and experiences to build lifelong relationships with them and attract all that spending power. In fact, many companies have completely revamped their marketing strategy to cater to Millennials. However, a one-size-fits-all approach is likely to not only overgeneralize your target audience, but alienate everyone else who doesn’t fit into that category. In today’s article, we’ll discuss some of the characteristics (or myths) about Millennials and how you should—and shouldn’t—use these insights to better market to your customers.

What makes a Millennial a Millennial?

Part of the challenge with marketing to a specific demographic is accurately identifying that demographic. Millennials are typically identified by age group, yet there seems to be little agreement on the parameters. Some sources consider Millennials to be born between the early eighties and early 2000s, while others start the Millennial clock in the last seventies. That means the generation spans about 20 years, even though two Millenials born 20 years apart may seem to have very little in common. I got my first smartphone when I was in my twenties when they first came out, but some of my colleagues have had smartphones in their lives since they were in high school or earlier. So which one of us is the true Millennial? I’m still just as attached to my favorite devices as my younger friends and colleagues even though technically I don’t fit into that category (according to some definitions) as a child of the seventies. Is it really the age group or is it the behaviors of a tech-savvy society that defines a Millennial? And what does this mean for marketers? Does the Millennial generation really have reliable commonalities, or are we looking at a wider demographic that can't be summed up in a list of traits and buzzwords? Micah Solomon suggests that there are five traits that define Millennials:

  1. Millennials expect technology to simply work
  2. Millennials are a social generation
  3. They collaborate and cooperate
  4. They’re looking for adventure
  5. They’re passionate about values

Do any of those traits seem like they’d fit with other generations, too? Chances are many of your customers will identify with most, if not all, of these traits. In other words, Millennials don’t “own” these attributes.

The danger of overgeneralizing your customers

The biggest mistake a company can make is assuming too much about their customers. Millennials tend to get overgeneralized a lot, sometimes to the detriment of the brand. Take Marriott Hotels, for example. The company recently decided the “mobile generation" spent most of their digital time on couches or beds and didn’t really need the desks they provided in rooms. So Marriott decided to remove them, which wasn’t well-received by their customers—Millennials or otherwise. Or consider Entenmann’s use of a trending hashtag to get the attention of Millenial Twitter users. On the day the company launched a campaign to encourage customers not to feel guilty about indulging in one of their snacks, they neglected to notice that their chosen hashtag, #notguilty, was actually being used in relation to the verdict in a high-profile murder case. Mistakes like this can damage a brand's credibility, especially with the audience they were attempting to reach in the first place.

Avoid assumptions by doing research

Millennials may be vocal, and many in number, but they’re not really expecting anything different from the rest of your customers. And that’s good news! By using Millennials as a starting point for your user research strategy, chances are you’ll touch on topics and pain points your other customers experienced but never complained about, or simply didn’t realize could be improved upon. This is your chance to delight your customers by staying ahead of their expectations. So, how to do it?

Conduct regular user research

The only way you’ll know if your message is resonating with your customers is if you test it on them early and often. Millennials are said to have high expectations and little patience. If that’s true, then they’ll be your most brutal critics—which is extremely helpful for optimizing your campaigns.

Honest feedback is the marketer's best friend, and your Millenial customers can be a great source of feedback.

The next time you're ready to roll out a new landing page, redesigned site, or major campaign, run a quick study to get user feedback on it before it goes live—and make sure to include Millenial participants. If your messaging misses the mark, you'll be able to make changes before it's too late. For lessons on conducting user research on your marketing campaigns, check out our eBook, The Marketer's Guide to User Testing.

Have conversations with customers

There’s nothing like taking the time to actually listen to your customers describe their thoughts, feelings, and problems. While it may be widely accepted that most Millenials use technology or social media in a certain way, you shouldn't assume that the same applies to your customers without talking to them first.  [clickToTweet tweet="There's no substitute for actually listening to your customers." quote="There's no substitute for actually listening to your customers."] Schedule one-on-one interviews with individuals in your target market—including Millenials. Get to know what messages and campaigns resonate with them, and which ones sound hollow or trite. You'll pick up on the words they use to describe their situations, and you'll also develop a healthy dose of customer empathy.

Observe what customers actually do

Don't rely on focus groups or surveys alone to get to know your customers. While they can be a helpful addition to your suite of customer insights, they're no substitute for observing real user behavior. This is important because what people say they’ll do often differs from what they actually do Compare the conventional wisdom about your target market with the actual behavior of your buyers, which you'll find in your analytics, through user research studies, and through plain old-fashioned observation. Getting away from the office to observe your target demographic in their natural environment will help bridge any gaps in your understanding of customer behavior.

Base your marketing decisions on empathy, not stereotypes

No matter who you’re trying to reach with any given campaign, it’s important to have empathy for all of your customers.  Perhaps the only sure thing about Millennials is that they’re just as unique and varied as any other generation. While there are insights and trends that tend to surface more often with this group, they are by no means written in stone. By continuing to understand your audience and develop a relationship with them, you’ll help establish a brand connection that can endure any generation.

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About the author(s)
Jennifer DeRome

Jennifer is a Senior Content Strategist for UserTesting. When she's not dreaming up new ways to connect with audiences, you can find her traveling around the world or enjoying a glass of wine with friends.