Don’t oversimplify millenials

Microsoft's Alyson Gausby has news for you: that coveted Gen Y demo? It doesn't really exist. At least not the way you think.


By Alyson Gausby

The word “millennial,” whether it’s being used as a noun or adjective, is everywhere. So what I’m about to say might make me unpopular with some marketers: millennials don’t really exist. While the technologically astute, connected, self-expressive group of young(ish) people we’ve labelled “millennials” are out there, they’re not the pre-packaged, homogeneous group we’ve been led to believe.

Working in research/consumer insights, I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked for data on this segment to support a proposal. What IS a millennial though? Yes, they’re broadly defined as someone born between 1980 and 2000, but that encompasses a busy, 30-year-old foodie mom with three kids AND an 18-year-old student who spends six hours a day gaming in his parents basement and can’t boil water. What, exactly, do they have in common? And, if you can’t answer that question, how are you planning to reach and engage both of them?

There’s an old computing saying: “garbage in, garbage out,” meaning if your approach or input is flawed, your output or data isn’t worth your time. The same saying can be applied to marketing and advertising. We are in danger of generalizing this group too much, making assumptions that are too broad or, even worse, inaccurate.

Demographic stereotyping is overly simplified at the best of times, but it’s particularly flawed when you are talking about a generation that continues to evade stereotypes. Ironically, since this audience prides themselves on individualization, painting them with the same broad stroke goes against precisely what they value most.

Millennials have grown up in a society that is far more diverse and embracing of diversity than any generation before. This affects their tastes, shopping behaviour and ultimately how we need to market to them. From their coffee orders to their music playlists and even their Converse kicks, today’s consumer wants everything tailored to their unique tastes and needs. From Microsoft’s Digital Trends research, we know that half of Canadians aged 18 to 34 already expect brands to know and understand them as a person and to personalize and tailor communications to their values and preferences. That’s a pretty tall order.

So how can you capture this moving target? Behavioural targeting can be a great starting point for clearing some of these hurdles, but it can miss-fire too if you don’t also understand the motivations that drive what people do. Teenagers, for example, have fewer adult responsibilities so they spend a lot of time socializing online. New parents spend almost as much time online, but they’re looking for parenting tips or just relishing having grown-up conversation. While the behaviour may look the same, the motivation isn’t and if you want to actually engage both groups, you need to speak to them differently too.

The meaningful differences that help you effectively connect with young people today (and anyone else for that matter) are found not only in the who or what, but also in the WHY. If you don’t take a human-focused approach that is framed around a solid understanding of people’s underlying needs, how can you know where to place media and craft relevant messaging?

We live in a world where data surrounds us and knowledge is no more than a click or tap away. We need to do a better job of leveraging the various sources of information we have access to (both internal metrics and external research) and use them to answer the most basic questions: who is my ideal customer? Where are they? What are they doing? And, most importantly, why? Then, target those needs as they relate to your product or service, on the screens that makes most sense.

To engage any audience, you have to understand it. Millennials are growing up, evolving, and most importantly, fragmenting, so take a consumer-first approach and build relationships with them. Get to know your customers on a deeper level to create messaging and brand experiences that are relevant and meaningful (and leave the stereotypes for your competitors).

alyson gausbyAlyson Gausby is consumer insights lead at Microsoft Canada. 

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