Or, How Not to Market to Generation Y

Winning the Millennial

Your marketing budget is up … your social media game is legendary … and millennials still don’t care about your brand. Up your millennial marketing game, with our guide to the elusive Generation Y should we care?

Your marketing budget is up … your social media game is legendary … and millennials still don’t care about your brand.

The millennial – every marketer’s favorite buzzword and worst nightmare. A seemingly endless supply of revenue, if only you could get your hands on it. We’ve all seen the quagmire of blogs and articles claiming to have cracked the millennial code. Unfortunately for most marketing professionals, these valuable insights don’t seem to be achieving the desired effect.

So What’s the Answer?

How do you get a piece of that lush millennial dollar? More emojis? Better hashtags? Minimalist fauna illustrations?

As a millennial, I can say for sure, millennials are a tough market segment to crack – even for a narcissistic, digital native like myself. But why? And whose cruel joke was it to birth such a dispassionate, nonpartisan generation in the first place? Well after much tireless research and many expensive conference keynotes, I’m here to shed light on this universally frustrating experience. You can’t win the millennial market segment, because millennials aren’t a market segment.

Hunting the Magic Bullet

For a good many years now, marketing directors, brand strategists and professionals with a variety of long and interesting titles have labored to uncover the backdoor to the millennial dollar – to find that one golden insight that will win the undying brand loyalty of the nation’s most loathed generation.

When all along, the real problem is our lazy interpretation of proper market segmentation. If we want the millennial dollar, we have to earn it. And that means going beyond creating caricatures of millennials in our marketing.

Millennials make up some 80 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000. That’s a 20-year swathe. Surely across 20 years of birthing, there are bound to be a few differences (to say nothing of race, gender, socio-economic status, geographic location … you get the idea.). Not every millennial is a tattooed twenty-something taking selfies on a mountain-top and expressing their individuality. By speaking to 80 million people with the same strategy, we risk not connecting with anyone at all.

Millennials are a generation of different, unique, open-minded, intelligent consumers with their own individual tastes, preferences and aspirations (just like every other generation before them!). They don’t all think alike. They don’t all act alike. And they don’t all spend alike. If we want to win their dollar, we’re going to have to work for it. And that means gaining a nuanced understanding of millennials that transcends the year they were born.

Now you might be saying at this point: “Woah, woah, woah, there are definitely some commonalities between millennials.” Very true. While millennials aren’t all the same, most share a few common characteristics. These insights aren’t enough to adequately segment a market, but they can certainly help to inform a holistic strategy.

Let’s take a look at the truth behind three of these common denominators.

  • What it REALLY means to be a digital native – The term digital native is a bit of a misnomer. Millennials have never known a world without the internet, but that doesn’t mean we have a monogamous relationship with it. For many millennials, (myself included) technology is a means to an end. A necessary evil. We use it out of convenience – but not necessarily because we’re passionate about it. What we truly crave are experiences – stories. The internet just happens to be the easiest way to consume them. Use the internet to your advantage, but don’t build your entire strategy around it. Instead create analog stories and experiences for technology to complement. (HuffPost)
  • Social media matters…but not always for the reasons you think – Millennials don’t give a flying falafel about advertisements. In fact, only about one percent of the 80 million millennials in the US say that their trust for a brand is positively influenced by advertising. Friends on social media and favored bloggers are our trusted informants on the latest and greatest. This is important to know because it helps define the role social media will play in your brand promotion. The take away isn’t that all millennials LOVE social media and you should pander to us by enhancing all your corporate material with Instagram filters. The take away is simply that 99% of millennials trust their peers more than they trust you! (Adweek) (Online blogs like Thrillist.com have made a living leveraging this valuable insight.)
  • Authenticity is the key … so what’s authenticity? – Nobody likes a phony. Remember that girl in high school who pretended to be super cool and nice, but you could totally tell that she wasn’t? Well … a ton of brands are being that girl. And when brands are chasing after our money, we know it. “Millennials want to feel like your content was created with their interest (not their wallet) in mind.” (Hubspot) And when it comes to authenticity, don’t forget about the internet (we’re digital natives, remember?). Millennials can find out in a second if you really care about giving shoes to stray puppies, or support greater regulation of dihydrogen monoxide in schools. Whether it’s making a product, creating advertisements or caring about your employees, if you do a good job, we’ll know.

So we all agree now, stereotyping is bad practice. But how do we properly target our customers for marketing?

The key is in adopting a personalization strategy. “What the heck is a personalization strategy?!” So glad you asked. A personalization strategy goes beyond defining what your targets are, to tell you WHO they are. An effective personalization strategy consists of two key components: market segmentation and personas.

Market Segmentation

Market segmentation is the act of grouping different sets of like individuals based on specific needs or characteristics. This is usually accomplished through the use of large scale market research initiatives.

While grouping by age isn’t necessarily incorrect, it’s far too broad to be effective. For example, a single 25-year-old born and raised on the west coast will be vastly different from a married 25-year-old from the Midwest. To more effectively target potential customers, consider segments that transcend age to more narrowly focus your customer groups. “Segments are defined by a variety of demographic information like age, race or location, or psychographic and behavioral information like interests, opinions, values, lifestyle, risk aversion or life stage.” (Acquia)

A few examples of targeted segmentation include:

  • Stages of life – how can you speak to customers who purchase your product during a common milestone in life? For example, marketing refrigerators to young couples buying their first home.
  • Passion points – what common experiences and activities excite your customers?
  • Geography – what motivates customers to buy based on geographic location. For example, what might motivate a Texan to purchase a snow blower?
  • Social demographics – what are the average annual incomes of your customers, and how does that affect their purchasing behaviors?


Where market segmentation focuses on insights related to groups of consumers, personas bring marketing strategy down to an individual level. This is where you add the ‘person’ to your personalization strategy.

Based on profiles developed through research with real people, personas are fictitious characters created to mimic an actual customer within a particular market segment. These personas are given names, faces, personalities – even families – everything that makes a person who they are. While it may seem a little odd at first pass, this exercise enables brands to more fully understand the emotional and psychological motivations of their consumers. When we understand our potential consumers at this level, we create marketing with real conversion potential. (Acquia)

Used together, market segmentation and personas paint a comprehensive and actionable picture of potential consumers. No more homogenous groups for you! With a proper personalization strategy in your marketing arsenal, you’ll be one step closer to a millennial breakthrough.

So what are you waiting for? Lose those emojis and start winning some millennial dollars.

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