Talk vs. Text: How Digital Content Affects Millennial Friendships

Posted by: Olivia Ledbetter

Zac Efron. Pole Dancing. Well, “dancing” may be a bit of a stretch, but this video has connected many on Facebook over the god-like chisel that is Efron’s sculpted abs. It also points to the phenomenon that has occurred as a result of today’s digital age. With the entrance of smart technology and  ever-increasing digital enhancements came the entrance of digitally driven relationships, sometimes fueled by seemingly pointless links to pop-culture, á la Efron videos. The long-distance friendships that once seemed fated to be reduced to postcard correspondence can now be maintained by a steady stream of likes and ever-important flying cat videos (much to grandma’s surprise).


Can Real Life Happen with a Filter?

Marketers can see from the sheer amount of energy Millennials exert cultivating their online identities and personal networks in this way that digitally driven friendships are not merely an outlet for sharing really good Onion articles — Millennials find genuine value in these online relationships.  Yet, in contrast, The Washington Post noted that “many belong to vast social networks, with ties that span multiple countries and life stages; but they don’t, on any given day, have anybody to hang out with.”

Is it because they no longer regard what in-person connections can bring?

We don’t believe that is the case. Millennials actually prefer connecting in-person, where they can “can gauge reactions and intentions, (and) communicate holistically by using more senses,” according to a recent report by Meetings Mean BusinessResearch by Keith Hampton, the Co-Chair of the Social Media & Society program at Rutgers University, also shows that the decline in the number of physically close friends is not due to a lack of effort. Hampton explains that as cultures become more affluent, the size of social circles typically decline. Between the normal progression of industrialized culture and a shift in how people choose to relate due to technology, Millennials are simply navigating more virtual territory than tangible, in-person territory when it comes to who they can ask to happy hour on a Friday night.

If brands invest the time to better understand the tension between consumers wanting to feed their valuable online relationships while balancing their desire for face-to-face connection, they will be in a better position to create online content that is relevant and capable of creating those desired connections.

And, essentially, brands can avoid being a force of distraction by giving people something share-worthy to engage with through an authentic and endearing brand voice, as well as carefully curating their online content to better serve consumers seeking to solidify their own digital identity.  We know that Millennials desire authenticity from others online,  but we often forget that they still feel the pressure to put time and energy into perfecting their own online presence. In fact, some 22 percent of online daters have asked someone to help them create or review their profile.

This leads to another pressing question – what happens when the preeminent cultural expectation is no longer true identity but filtered authenticity?

This confusing mashing of ideals leads to some unmet suppositions, as many Millennials report being misled or disappointed when an online friend wasn’t what they first appeared to be.  Perhaps more interesting, many feel as if people will eventually reveal their true selves.  This underlying optimism shows how Millennials see their own online presence: even when perfectly curated, it is still meant to be an honest reflection of themselves.

Brands can hit the digital sweet spot by helping Millennials connect through genuinely understanding their struggles and helping to fix them. Sometimes, they do want specific information about a company, but other times Millennials just want to be able to see values they agree with when they look at the content brands produce. Long-term brand loyalty stems from more than facts, and it’s up to brands to create something engaging enough to last in the age of 10-second Snapchat stories.

The Market for Authenticity

In all, marketers can be confident that a desire for authentic face-to-face connection does not magically skip this digitally driven generation. While Millennials find and foster friendships online, they still want people they can invite to chat live over their cold-brew coffee (and they appreciate the ability of digital technology to help them do this). They see online personas as being largely honest and the catalyst for wanting to discover deeper aspects of individuals in-person. Meeting Millennials where they’re at by engaging them and their peers via online content  –  even if it may seem out of a company’s usual realm – will help overall brand perception. Brands that are perceived as representing greater values, such as identity creation and relationship building, rather than just a good product will be one step closer to becoming an ambassador for modern authenticity.

So, go ahead and send that GIF just make sure it’s in your genuine brand voice and on-strategy with these greater values. And yes, sparking a midday smile can sometimes count as a strategy.

About Olivia Ledbetter

As the 2017 Editorial Intern for Barkley, Olivia understands that great thinking needs a groundwork of solid strategy before it can become truly visionary. Her background in copywriting and creative writing has cultivated her belief...See Olivia's full bio.