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Are Millennials Human?

Every 10-20 years a cohort of kids turns 18 and become part of the “it” generation for marketers: the most coveted, prized media target valued for its spending habits. They’re treated like special, mystical, but naively wise creatures and assigned a name – Gen X, Millennials, Boomer. They’re researched more deeply than Margaret Mead investigating native Samoan culture. Brands seek likes, follows, and adoption by them all in pursuit of street cred. And like hiring McKinsey, no one ever gets fired just for trying to reach the latest “it” generation.

But here’s the thing: many of the insights I’ve read about millennials, the generation of consumers generally born between 1981 and 2000, describe needs that are not uniquely millennial. What’s good for millennials is usually good for all of us. The article entitled, Brands Woo Millennials With a Wink, an Emoji, or Whatever It Takes that appeared in the September 27th NY Times, brings this to life, although maybe not in the way the author intended.

Below are some of the insights reported:

  • “Brands need to figure out how to add value to a consumer’s life”. Because those millennials have such unique customs? Or is that maxim fundamental to any brand’s promise to its customer, whether it's a millennial or a boomer?

  • “Emojis, a pictograph-based language (are) important to millennials”. It seems our curious millennials insist on using their own tribal language. But what emojis really tell us about people is that they like engaging in a 2-way conversation that’s fast and easy. That pictures and emojis bring emotion to a dialogue that technology can strip out. But we all like pictures, and the most successful products in modern history are easily explained by this very same benefit: enabling fast, fun 2-way conversation. Think social media, texting, hotmail, and way back when, the telephone. It’s not millennial marketing. It’s human marketing.

  • “This is the most challenging group to target because they really are the first demographic group that isn’t as predictable as others”. I’m not so sure. Technology has enabled advertising to be vastly more measurable and customers more easily profiled than ever before. It helps us better predict the actions of a cohort. So why is it that we think millennials are so unpredictable?

  • “They spend so much time on a mobile device”, and “traditional banner ads do not appear so well on a mobile device”. While millennials love their technological totems, they spend less time on a mobile device than gen X, according to a recent study by MobilePathtoPurchase. And display ads on mobile don’t work for anyone, which is why click-thru rates are less than .4% and iOS 9 is now enabling ad blocking. They don’t work because they’re not useful, inspiring, entertaining, or even relevant. So they’re not memorable. Do you remember the last mobile ad you’ve seen? Neither do I. They’re one way, interruptions to your life while you’re simultaneously doing something else. And if you’re over 40, reading mobile ads without fumbling to put on glasses is virtually impossible. Yet, mobile ad spend on display ads is projected to increase 61% this year.

That being said, here are a couple of ways that marketing to humans HAS changed:

  • Technology now enables what we have always wanted to do with most of the ads we see: fast- forward, close, turn off the sound and scroll past or otherwise avoid a self-serving, interruption -- an ad.

  • The democratizing power of social media enables individuals to become their own brands each with their own platform and audience. And with that power comes the ability to co-create other brands.

To be sure, screens are smaller and media platforms are changing at a faster pace. But we expect our marketers to be agents of change and our agencies to be engines of innovation, in other words, to deal with it.

So here are the questions that weren’t asked, but maybe should have been:

  • With all the data we have on engagement, conversion, and in general, on our customers, how come we’re not smarter? Why don’t we have more inspiring, entertaining, useful, or relevant ads? Ones that we want to watch. All of this data should be enabling the next golden age of advertising – the big idea that transcends platform. But it’s not. We continue to annoy our customers with bad ads on small screens, and we’re confused by it. We’re enabling “whatever”, but certainly not “whatever it takes” as the title of the NY Times article suggests.

  • How can we become co-collaborators with our customers – on message, product, and platform? Glenn Cole, the chief creative officer of 72andSunny, an agency in Los Angeles, describes his approach in the NY Times as, ‘Let them help build this brand with us.’

  • Is it a challenge with millennials, or is a problem with us?

  • And every generation’s holy grail: how can we build new ways to have faster, more entertaining 2-way dialogues with our customers? Not because they’re a fashionably exotic tribe to be marketed to, but simply because they’re human.

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