Millennials 101

Based on my notes from the opening presentation at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) World Conference, Hilton Hotel, New York City. Not all insights belong to me.

In the mid-2000s, I used to work for a car insurance brand that was solely aimed at younger generations, and it was in that role that I heard the term ‘Gen Y’ for the first time, or ‘Millenials’ as the northern hemisphere seems to call them — those who it is generally agreed having been born from 1983 to early 2000s. Back then, many colleagues were trying to get their head around who they were, and why they mattered.

In the years since, lots but little has changed. Much conversation time, research, and effort seems to go into talking about Millennials, and whole new generations will probably have come and gone before we have ‘worked them out’. So why are they such a significant group to marketers, and what needs to be considered when communicating with them?

The afternoon plenary session of the IABC World Conference featured a panel of experts who specialise in communicating with Millennials, all there to share their experience and provide some ideas about how to communicate with this group.

The experts were:

A marketing snapshot of this generation

So why are they so important, or interesting?

This generation has disrupted how we are doing marketing — Sandra Lopez

  • Early Millennials (those who are late-20s to 30 years of age) are about to have a lot of spending power — buying houses, having kids — and are a profitable group for marketers. Except for one industry: compared to other generations, Millennials don’t like cars very much.
  • Their defining characteristics are peer-to-peer influence and 74 per cent believe they influence the purchasing decisions of friends and family — mainly because they believe they are a brand.
  • If you think of the Boomers as being Janis Joplin; Madonna being Gen X; and Lady Gaga being Gen Y, you can see the progression. What Madonna took 10 years to do, GaGa can do in 10 minutes.
  • Millennials are in a permanent state of beta — nothing is finished and there are always versions of everything: from their assignments to their Facebook page and smartphone model. Even their tattoos.

There is no brand loyalty. If you have a brand, you have to know who you are an be authentic. If not, they will ‘smell the fake’ in a heartbeat; and make fun of you — Michael Lewis 

The cultural context

For the northern hemisphere, they were coming of age during the 2008 economic downturn, but also the Obama ‘Hope’ campaign (for Australians, they spent high school years under Howard, and then saw ‘Kevin07’ — a campaign like no other Australian political leader had presented before; it was night and day). They were no older than 18 when 9/11 happened, and probably watched environmental documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ at high school.

When asked what shapes their views, they say: 1. Terrorism, 2. Environment, 3. Economic factors 4. Technology.

They were parented differently

Unlike previous generations, they were raised in egalitarian, ‘nice’ home environments where they were part of the decisions. As Shore put it, he never would have been asked for an opinion on the purchase of a family car as a child, now the kids come to the car dealership and have a say. Because they have always been asked for their opinion, they can have problems with hierarchy (at work) — not because they don’t have respect but because they are used to being in the conversation with the senior people (their parents). This new world of parenting has also done its best to worry about children’s self-esteem and mental health, focussing on self-confidence more than skills to sew a button or repair a bike tyre (which previous generations of parents would have believed more important to getting through life). They are also more likely to have grown up in with separated parents.

When it comes to technology in the home, they have a lot in their own possession. Remember the scene in the Australian TV show ‘Puberty Blues’, where the daughter has to take a call from a romantic interest in the kitchen, in front of the whole family, on the only house phone — a land line? Now they would have their own phone — a mobile that they could take to their bedroom and or send text messages from in front of the television (which they also have one of their own in their bedroom; which they don’t share either).

However, this happy, democratic domestic world can go too far and ‘velcro parenting’ is a problem — parents not keeping the boundaries clear and trying to be friends. Not only does it skew relationships, the kids don’t like it. Look at Facebook — it was cool, then everyone’s parents joined up, so a lot of the kids ‘left’.

They work differently

I’ve had more than one manager whinge better than a Pom about Gen Y in the workplace — how they want to be promoted before they complete probation, their request to sit-in on management meetings, and their insistence on flexible hours and fairtrade fruit-box deliveries. But go back to how they were parented are you can start to understand. Not only were they told they were great, they were asked for their opinion and their feelings on things all the time. That is what they want at work. Think about FB and Twitter and its immediate feedback loop of ‘liking’, ‘favouriting’ and ‘retweeting’. This group are used to, and like, feedback. As Nick Shore said, for his generation, one performance review with the boss each year is painful enough for his generation — but the Millennials, they are probably open to, and comfortable with, weekly performance reviews.

Innovation and experimentation are attractive, and they are excited by being challenged, and part of change — so throw some problems at this generation and let them show you what they can come up with. The culture and mission of an organisation is also critical to this group and they want to know what a company stands for, what its values are (remember — this group is very tuned into ‘brand’). In the future, more of them will be contracting and working for themselves as they want work-life balance, so this flexibility for the workforce will need to be more common place.

The big takeaways

To be honest, I could have listened to the panel talk all afternoon — they were great. For me, big points were:

  • They understood brand before they filed their first tax return so be authentic; they will see through you otherwise.
  • Talk with them, give them feedback, challenge them, let them feel like they are on The Apprentice and they will thrive.
  • If you are going to communicate with this age group, get some Millennials on the team.
  • Work with them, not against them — it is to your advantage in the long run.
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