Engaging Millennials: How Marketers Can Break Through

‘What will break through?’ is a question I am often asked. My very first post on this blog in (“A Collective Chill”) reported about the comments of a Millennial panel at a marketing conference I attended in New York last Spring:

The audience was ANA members gather to discuss “Innovations in Marketing”. The panel was impressive, brand managers from Mercedes, Unilever and Lincoln Financial. But their answers to questions about their media use sent a collective chill through the room. They don’t watch TV other than NCAA Finals. They don’t see online advertising thanks to blocking software. They don’t want ads on their mobile devices, facebook pages or IM. They don’t even like ads. This should not be news to anyone. However, it was shocking coming from Millennial Marketers. They seemed as stumped as the moderator as to how marketers could reach them most effectively. Ah…..with relevant content? Reaching Millennials with messages they want to hear, in the format they want to hear it is going to be a challenge!

After nearly two years of thinking about this question, I have distilled my advice to one not-so-easy-to-accomplish formula:

Engaging Millennials = Enabling Discovery + Energizing Experience + Encouraging Advocacy

Of course, this formula presumes you have a relevant product and positioning. If not, you have more problems than simply breaking through. But assuming for a moment you have cleared the Product, Placement and Pricing hurdles, how should you go about Promoting your brand to Millennials? Let’s unpack this formula a bit:

Enabling Discovery

No one wants to be told what to do, what to like and what to think. That is especially true of Millennials, who have an instant aversion to anything that smacks of ‘marketing’. They want to believe that they have uniquely discovered the things they like. That’s not to say that mass brands are not appealing, as Obama can tell you. But mass brands don’t start with any advantage. The ideal way for a Millennial to first experience a product or service is to discover it for themselves. Think of ‘Stumbleupon’ as the model.

This feeling of ‘discovery’ underlies the success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog and Tom’s Shoes. Discovery is social currency, you can spend it with friends (or wider) and increase your personal brand. Discovery is the dynamic that drives marketing for restaurants, music, wine and microbrews. (For more on the social dynamic behind wine’s growing popularity, see my earlier post, “A Perfect Pairing”).

Achieving a sense of ‘discovery’ is no accident. It means creating events where Millennials can meet the brand, as Red Bull has done so successfully. Or creating a smash viral video. Social media, social media, product placement, and sampling are all good ‘discovery’ media.

Energizing the Experience

This is literally having a brand experience worth writing home about, one that not only meets the minimums for efficiency, personalization and value, but that goes over and above expectations. Success with Millennials requires being distinctive; they love ‘shiny‘ things.

Marketers at Apple, Nike, Zappos, Jamba Juice, Red Bull, Zipcar, Vogue magazine and other beloved, ‘iconic’ Millennial brands understand that to be remarked upon, you must literally be remarkable for something inherent in the user or customer experience. This can be accomplished through customization, design, ease of access, or price (free works especially well). However it is accomplished, it must be both authentic and fresh to overcome the impressive filters Millennials have perfected. The experience must be fun, compelling or unique or you will never get to the third and final step of the formula: advocacy.

Encouraging Advocacy

If this was a real formula, ‘advocacy’ is the variable that would have an exponent after it. Advocacy is the thing that makes Millennial marketing unique today, and is likely to be the biggest change to mainstream marketing in the future.

Yesterday I had a wonderful conversation with Sarah Newton, a radio celebrity, Twitter friend, and author of the blog, GenYGuide.com. Sarah lives in Northampton, England. Despite the being oceans apart, we agreed on many things, above all that Gen Y is unique. We also speculated the thing that makes them unique, perhaps in all history, is access to platforms to broadly communicate and share their ideas. This ability alone may make the gap between Gen Y and earlier generations more striking than any previous gap, or possibly any to come (profound thought isn’t it?). A new global study of 9000 -27 year olds by YouGovStone reached a similar conclusion: “The digital revolution has not only given this generation of young people access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale, but it has also given them massive influence.”

Mobilizing that influence requires making it easy to access and share information with peers. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, topic-specific blogs, and opinion sites like Yelp are all ways to encourage Millennials to talk to each other about your brand. Of course, talking about brands is not something Millennials are inclined to do without good reason. That’s why so many brands have found success by associating with worthy causes, or highlighting their support of environmental or humanitarian initiatives. Advocacy efforts take many forms, both long term and short term promotions (Starbucks Project Red, Taco Bell Feed the Beat). For more immediate sharing, brands are experimenting with mobile applications and widgets, like DryncWine.com. However it’s done, advocacy via social media is now a critical part of any youth marketing effort.

My final words of advice on reaching Millennials is much simpler: take time to get to know them. If you are over 30, the worst mistake you can make is thinking they think like you do. Listen to Millennials, at home and in the office. They will give you the best advice about how to reach others like them.