Chris Turner

Five Reasons You’ll Fail at Marketing to Millennials

By: Chris Turner | December 8, 2016 | 
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Five Reasons You’ll Fail at Marketing to MillennialsFor digital marketers, its impossible to go through a day without seeing advice aimed at finding, targeting, selling to or employing Millennials, as if this was the holy grail of any current marketing strategy.

We are all guilty of accepting unchallenged assumptions from time-to-time, but anyone who targets a specific age group as if they all behaved in the same way, Millennials included, will be wasting their time and money.

No amount of excellent creative, engaging content or cutting edge media placement will save a campaign if your audience categorization and understanding is flawed.

This is not to say there is no correlation between age and behavior, simply that using age as your principle segmentation tool is unlikely to provide the insight at the heart of any successful campaign.

Lack of Agreement

There is little agreement about who Millennials actually are.

The academic basis is provided by William Strauss and Neil Howe and their theory of Generational Cycles.

They coined the term Millennial and define the group as anyone born between 1982 and 2004, so now between 12 and 34 years old.

Wikipedia has a useful exploration of the theory and its shortcomings.

The Atlantic has a fun take on the idea.

But a much more commonly used range seems to be from 1990-2005, so people now aged between 11 and 26.

So, a 15-year range?

You can already see an issue.

What useful behaviors exhibited by a 13-year old could you map onto a 23-year old?

This goes to the heart of all age-related segmentation.

Demographics have been around for centuries, but became important to marketers with the advent of mass media in the 50s and 60s and the need for advertisers to use them effectively.

Perhaps society was more homogenous then and age, gender, and educational attainment were reliable predictors of behavior.

But now they are not.

The CEO under 30 is now as unremarkable as the 60-year-old surf bum.

Who Are the Millennials?

People think their kids (and their kids’ friends) represent this group and use that behavior to guide their Millennial marketing planning.

How many blogs or conference speeches have you seen where someone says, for example, ‘my kids don’t watch TV’?

Too many.

When trying to understand an audience, use as much data as you can find.

And, by the way, this Nielsen data shows how much TV people in their teens and 20s still watch.

Give Them Your Social Media

You employ a couple of Millennials and get them to do your social media.

You turn over communication channels used by customers, potential customers, and influencers such as the media and regulators to people with little knowledge of your brand and almost no business experience.

Do you know you can speak directly to all these important people using these channels?

When you see it in this light, doesn’t look like quite such a good plan, does it?

At the head of all your communication, you need a strategy overseen by someone who understands what they’re doing.

Taking an Age-related Approach

You assume this categorization works across widely differing countries.

It doesn’t.

Sixty-five percent of India’s population is younger than 35.

Forty-five percent of Mexico’s population is younger than 25.

These groups are much too large to target meaningfully.

At the other end of the scale, 52 percent of Germany’s population is older than 45.

Taking an age-related approach to marketing is almost bound to be misleading.

Millennial Marketing is Short-term Behavior

You project what may be short-term behavior into the future.

What we can say about this group of people is they are the first generation to grow up with no experience of a world without the internet.

We simply do not know what this means longer term for marketers.

We have been too ready to predict the demise of entire media based on the behavior of younger people, only to see them change their habits as they get older.

The movies, radio, books, and even TV have had obituaries prepared and there is no substantive evidence that any of them are about to die out.

Millennials don’t read newspapers.

True, but newspaper readership is falling across the board.

This is a definite case where internet unbundling has destroyed a business model.

Newspaper owners have, willfully or otherwise, misdiagnosed the issue with their industry and need to find a workable value proposition for the digital age.

It’s time to stop using the term Millennial as if it is useful in segmenting your audience.

It may be popular, it may be something your CEO has heard about (or they may have Millennial kids!), but its simply too fuzzy an idea to build a strategy on.

And, by the way, if you’re using something such as women aged 25-44 as a target audience, that’s equally unhelpful!

Take time to gather and analyze data on your customers and target audience.

One of the marketing revolutions of the past decade has been the explosion of available data.

Use that to inform your strategy.

Beliefs, values, mood, speed, and convenience are much more likely to influence someone’s behavior than the number of years they’ve been around.

About Chris Turner


Chris Turner is an experienced branding consultant who helps organisations make the most of the digital opportunity. He has board level experience at both agencies and client companies and a sophisticated understanding of new technologies including digital and social media. He has worked across geographies and cultures, from the US and Europe to China and India.

  • this is a fraudulent cottage industry in marketing. market by age not generation. so many ‘traits’ being touted are age and not generational. oh and they have no money!

    brands that have the majority of customers in 15-25 need to market to them. but that doesn’t change. Vans would die if they stayed generational vs their age target.

    great post!

    • turnerchris

      Thanks Howie, glad you enjoyed it. For most of my time as a marketer I’ve been resisting age-related segmentation!

      • Hi Chris. I meant more the cottage industry statements like ‘most social generation’ where as they age and they have families careers etc everyone has less time to be social so that is an age trait. 15-25 yr olds will always be more social than older people. Same age group will always be most tech savvy based on current technology.

        Depression era folks were frugal that is generational. GenY is learning they have no safety net after the GOP dismantled it all…things Boomers enjoyed. My dad has a great state pension. No one gets those anymore.

        I just find too much of GenY content identifies age traits as generational when they aren’t.

        Plus generational marketing makes little sense to me for many brands.

        • turnerchris

          Hi Howie, interesting thinking. I always think its better to try and find deeper motivations for behaviour than simply how many years someone’s been around.

  • AndiKahclamat

    There really isn’t confusion over the age range. Wikipedia and Pew Research Center are in agreement: Millennials are currently ages 19-35. Where did you get this 11-26 or 12-34 nonsense? It throws the entire rest of your article into deep question, if you can’t even do the simple fact-checking on what the generation range is.

    • turnerchris

      Hi there, please check the Wikipedia link in the article. The term ‘Millennials’ was invented by Strauss and Howe and their age range is 1982-2004. Thanks.

  • Dawn Buford

    I agree with Howie. Market to all ages, not just generation. 19-35, 12-34, 45-70….who cares?!! According to generational definitions of marketing demographics, Vans should only be marketed towards the skateboard crowd, yet my 70 year old father has been wearing them ever since I was a tot…and he still buys and wears them! While the younger gen may not have money to burn, their parents and grandparents do, and THAT is a huge, wasted marketing opportunity. People over 40 are not even close to being defined by adult diapers, too many pharmaceuticals to count and term-life insurance!! Where’s the fun stuff?? Buy what you like, regardless of age, generation, or ridiculous marketing tactics.

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