Three Ways to Connect with Millennials

With legacy industries and organizations scrambling to retain profits and relevance in this age of constant category disruption, a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to explain Millennials to those who want to target or hire them. After all, Millennials, the generation that has most recently come of age, are the segment that businesses, whether disruptors and defenders, desperately need to get it right with, if they want to survive and grow in the future. With Millennials at an age when consumer preferences and career paths are still being forged (20-to-35-years old), now’s the time for brands and companies to connect with them if they want to encourage loyal bonds. Plus, at roughly one-quarter of the total U.S. population, Millennials wield tremendous influence and purchase power.

While so much has been written about them that many – especially among Millennials themselves – may be suffering from Millennial fatigue, it makes good business sense to be rather obsessed with this generation, formerly known as Y. (Since they came after Gen X, Millennials were originally dubbed Gen Y but given the name Millennials by William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1987).

And, though much is written about the group, myths and out-of-date or incomplete perceptions abound. That’s unfortunate, since oversimplified “insights” may actually lead businesses away from their goal of forming solid connections. My firm regularly updates qualitative fieldwork and conducts quarterly quantitative tracking among Millennials and Gen Z, and data from our Youth IQ survey is the source for most of the statistics cited below. Three key ways to get it right with Millennials are noted – along with fresh data on behaviors and attitudes and suggestions on how to get it right with Millennials.

First: Don’t overgeneralize

It should go without saying, but some people seem to forget that Millennials are not a homogeneous group. At 23 percent of the U.S. population, and spanning a 15-year age range that arcs over several key identity inflection points (school, work, marriage, children, etc.), Millennials are diverse in life stage. At the younger end (20-28 years old), twice as many – 40 percent – are currently living rent-free with family versus being on their own and married (20 percent). Of those who pay for their own housing, 70 percent are renters. By contrast, when we look at the upper age range of Millennials, we find that fully half of 29-35-year-olds are married and 86 percent are paying for their own housing. Half of those payers own their residence. Many are raising families. Obviously, applying broad generalizations to both a 22-year-old woman living with her parents in her high school bedroom and a 33-year-old woman living with her kids in the house she’s paying the mortgage on might be a mistake.

Looking beyond life stage, Millennials are heterogeneous in other ways. Their overall diversity and tolerance for diversity surpass those of all previous generations. Over half of Millennials agree that there are more gender identities than just male and female. Racially, they were the most diverse cohort ever – until eclipsed in that regard by the younger teen-and-under group known as Gen Z (who will the last majority-white generation in America, and just barely, at 51 percent). While over half of Millennials feel that “there’s too much political correctness these days” (68 percent of men and 57 percent of women) – indicating a desire for honest exchange – anyone who’s spent time at a college or graduate school will have seen that figuring out how to speak authentically about issues of race and gender in a way that doesn’t potentially offend can be challenging. Identity issues can be fraught with emotion and Millennials do not share a single identity. For example, almost two-thirds of Millennial women agree feminism is important (34 percent strongly agree), while a bit under half of Millennial men feel the same way (15 percent strongly).

Given all these differences, clearly, overgeneralization should be avoided, especially for a generation for whom diversity is a defining characteristic.

Ultimately, for companies who want to connect with Millennials, the question that needs to be asked is not “Should we connect with Millennials,” but “Which Millennials should we be connecting with?” Younger or older? Urban coast or heartland? In a first job or with 10+ years of experience? Single-guy gamer or overworked suburban mom? While there are certain characteristics that can be broadly applied to Millennials – at least relative to other generations – there is no one right way to be a Millennial, or to connect with Millennials. However, one “wrong” way is to put out communications and then not respond to feedback, whether positive or negative. Two-thirds of Millennials believe their opinion truly matters to those around them and three-quarters prefer brands that pay attention to those opinions. Given the target’s diversity, a brand may miss the mark. Course-correcting after a miss demands a thoughtful response to feedback – which Millennial targets will provide. Getting it right with Millennials requires empathetic targeting and an openness to having the audience provide input on how well initiatives work for them.

Notably, for those who seek to employ this audience, Millennials don’t just want to be able to give feedback, they depend upon on getting it. In the workplace, 62 percent want to get feedback on how they’re doing frequently. Older employers often seem to expect them to just “get with the program,” not realizing that what Millennials have been programmed for is regular feedback that can help them get and stay on track.

Second: Recognize that Millennials are engaged with technology but also ambivalent

An innovation can define a generation. The introduction of “the Pill” in 1960 was a key piece of what made the Woodstock generation who they were. In the case of Millennials, what most distinguishes them from those who came before them is that they were the kids that grew up as the Internet grew up, the first “digital natives,” the guinea pigs for a huge social experiment that is still unfolding. The massive disruptive influence of the Internet on the ways human beings communicate, consume, learn and live shaped the Millennial generation as much as their parents did. And, of course, their parents and grandparents got into the habit of asking them to explain and fix household technology, so Millennials, shaped by technology, helped shape previous generations’ understanding of and relationship with that technology – and became seen as leaders and peers in their childhood households as a result, on this issue if not others.

But, the stereotype of Millennials as phone-addicted, tech-obsessed social media mavens misses a key aspect of Millennials’ relationship with technology – their ambivalence. The constant feedback loop of the Internet is compelling and can be helpful but can also be exhausting. Millennials have a complex, first-generation relationship with technology. They’re just old enough to know that the systems they’ve become adept at are new (Gen Z sees technology as a given – like the weather).

So, on the one hand, over half of Millennials agree they rely too much on their phones (53 percent of males, 62 percent of females) and over 40 percent admit they’ve literally run into something or someone while walking because they were looking down at their phone. But almost three-quarters – 72 percent – feel that it’s important for them to sometimes disconnect from technology and fully half say they’re trying lately to focus on one thing at a time rather than multitasking. We’ve heard Millennials talk of ending dates if a partner looked at their phone during dinner and of groups of friends making the first person who pulls out their phone pay for drinks. There’s a desire among many in this generation to not always be connected and thus to feel like masters of their tech, rather than mastered by it. Millennials explain their famous passion for some of the analog aspects of life – cooking, crafting and conversation, for instance – as fed by a hunger for “real” experiences. This hunger has also driven strong business for live events and pop-up retail spaces among Millennial audiences. So, while it’s true that Millennials are comfortable with, habituated to and dependent on technology, they simply do not want it to be on all the time or have it in their face all the time. They want to be seen as human beings. Of course, after having put the phone aside to make a meal, many Millennials will then post pictures of that meal (almost half of Millennial guys – and a bit less than a third of Millennial women – say they sometimes do things just to create something to post about). So they go back to the phone. But what they’re documenting is their non-tech side, and proudly.

When it comes to social media, Millennials are, indeed, mavens. Over three-quarters of female Millennials and 65 percent of male Millennials say they use Facebook at least a couple of times per day (Facebook is eclipsed by Snapchat for the younger Gen Z set). Over half like something on social media at least every day (that goes up to seven in 10 among women) and three-quarters have followed a brand on social media. Clearly, social media is part of the fabric of their lives and should be a key part of brands’ strategies to connect with them. But Millennials are also cautious in this space and concerned about oversharing. Over 80 percent say they are “very careful with what they post on social media.” The happy-to-show-everything attitude of young people during the early days of the Internet has evolved. Many Millennials feel they made mistakes on social media when younger and have grown more wary.

As Millennials have started having children, this attitude affects how they parent. Millennial parents – especially moms – are more strict with their children over technology use than Gen X parents of children of the same age. (Dads can’t wait for their kids to start gaming with them.) While Gen X parents may feel that if they deny their children access to technology, it will cause them to “fall behind,” Millennials are more likely to take the attitude of: “I know what I did; I know what you’re going to do; I’m not going to let you. And you’ll be better off because I’m putting my foot down.”

So, while Millennials enthusiastically use technology, they’re ambivalent about letting that aspect of life take over. About two-thirds admit they waste time on the Internet often or all the time but roughly the same percentage say they often/all the time spend time with family and have face-to-face conversations. Almost two-thirds of Millennial women and 58 percent of Millennial males even say they cook often/all the time. Nothing is more analog than the sense of taste.

What Millennials’ ambivalence means for brands and businesses that want to connect with them via technology and social channels is that there’s an opportunity to do more than just show up in the right social channels. Recognizing Millennials’ ambivalence about technology, and their hunger to experience “real” connections as well as digital ones, might encourage offering not just digital content but live events or opportunities for people to touch, talk and connect in person. It could mean recognizing that the highest-tech solution is not always the one that most Millennials will want. Technology is in their DNA but it doesn’t impress them. Use it to make things easier or better and to facilitate feedback but not for its own sake.

Third: Don’t think that once you “get” Millennials you “get” youth

Finally, our data suggests strong caution about applying the lessons learned as you master Millennials to the generation coming up behind them. There are overall megatrends that are embodied in Millennials and amplified among Gen Z (we research 13-19-year-olds), including “digitalization” – with its benefits and pitfalls (such as anxiety), diversity and individualism. However, there are also powerful examples emerging of how Gen Z is very different from their immediate elders. After a childhood of being told they could do and be anything, Millennials entered adulthood during a recessionary period, where the gap between dreams and reality forced these idealists to develop a “passion economy” in which social status was based less on career than on successful expression of passion. They invented the “side hustle,” whether coder, DJ or Lyft driver. They worked on their bucket lists and tried out new things to discover their true passions.

Gen Z is showing clear signs of backlash against that Millennial mind-set. They’re practical instead of idealistic, cynical instead of optimistic, snarky and polarized instead of inclusive and liberal-leaning. They’re an even larger portion of the population, just as influential and connected to their parents, more economically ambitious and a few of them are now able to vote. Sharp attitudinal differences based on gender emerge in this cohort, whereas Millennial males and females are largely aligned. Marketers and employers who confuse their Ys and their Zs face the risk of getting it wrong with both.

Influential and powerful

In summary, three mistakes to avoid with the large, influential and powerful Millennial audience are:

  • Overgeneralizing about this incredibly diverse audience, rather than choosing a clear target focus. Proudly individualistic, this audience also expects to both give and get feedback on how they’re doing and brands that ignore that feedback do so at their own peril.
  • Oversimplifying Millennials’ relationship to technology to a belief that all tech is good tech or that the most high-tech solution is always the best. Millennials are tech mavens but are also ambivalent about technology, hungry for “real” experiences and seeking analog connections in their own lives and from brand relationships. Brands that are both high-tech and high-touch, and respectful of Millennials’ analogue aspirations, will win with this audience.
  • Confusing Millennials with youth. The generation following Millennials in some ways amplifies their traits but in other ways are anti-Millennials. Brands and companies that get it right with Millennials will get it wrong with Gen Z if they stick to the same script.