White Paper: Why the “Y”: Millennials and the Generation of Innovation

Millennials may be the most researched yet least understood generation in the history of marketing and communication.

why the y

Creative. Spoiled. Tech-savvy. Entitled. Innovative. Lazy. Alternative…

Everyone thinks they have their fingers on the pulse of who Millennials are, but very few people have an actual working knowledge of this dynamic generation, our drivers and our distinguishing characteristics. While analysts and prognosticators seem to grant that the Millennial consumer is driving the next wave of consumer products and innovation, they have almost no idea how to relate to us in a meaningful way.

Who We Are

who millennials are

While this pigeonholing surely happened to Baby Boomers and Gen X before us, this maddening habit of lumping an age group together and attributing overriding characteristics and behaviors to the entire cohort means that marketers miss some really important distinctions that inform how they interact with us, and how we do or don’t interact with them.  For example, while a large majority of us may use cutting-edge technology, how we use these digital tools in our daily lives, and what they mean to us, is not the same across our entire generation, yet marketers treat us as one tech-crazed monolithic army.

Picture the prototypical Millennial in your mind. What do you envision? Probably someone single, mobile phone in hand, texting a friend about what party to go to tonight. Did you know that 63 percent of us will buy baby supplies in the next six months? Yes, that’s right. We’re parents, and aunts and uncles, too. While that purchase is closely followed by alcoholic drinks at 57 percent, that doesn’t mean we’re all out partying until 3:00 a.m. blowing off responsibilities the next morning. Understanding and having a relationship with us? Well, to use the social media adage, “it’s complicated.”

But just because it’s complicated, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. After all, we outnumber Gen X two to one. With 80 million of us, we make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, following closely behind Baby Boomers in terms of sheer volume and influence. We are the innovators and tastemakers who are influencing culture in ways previous generations only dreamed of. 

Our generation not only created but embraced the idea of technology as inherently social. Digital tools connect us to our families and friends and to a larger social world, right at our fingertips. Yes, some of us may live with our parents longer because we’ve faced the worst economy since the Great Depression, but when we do move out, a large percentage of us prefer to reside in urban areas where social outlets are just steps away and hand-crafted, locally-made goods are ours for the choosing.

We have a higher level of education than any previous generation, which means we expect great things for our future. And yes, things are looking up. According to Nielsen, 69 percent of us don’t feel we currently earn enough to “lead the kind of lifestyle” we want, but 88 percent of us think we’ll be able to “earn enough in the future.” In fact by next year our spending will reach $2.5 trillion, and our income is set to exceed the Baby Boomer generation by 2018 at $3.4 trillion [1].

In terms of population, Millennials embody the definition of diversity. Early in the last century, America was characterized as a “melting pot,” but it’s our generation that truly embodies racial and ethnic diversity. While much of the Baby Boomer population explosion came from high birth rates, our diverse generation grows because of immigration, and our multi-ethnic background means that it’s even harder to try to create generalizations about us. 

While we’ve outlined some statistics and information to give you some insights into our generation, don’t think that alone will help you develop a marketing plan or brand to reach us. See, we’re not only the most highly educated and tech-savvy generation, we are using those attributes to change the rules of the marketing and branding game.

What We Want

millennials most important

As Millennials, we were the first to grow up as “digital natives” – with and on technology.  To us, technology is ubiquitous, and we spend an average of seven hours a day online. We want both the convenience and immediate access to technology. But it’s not technology for technology’s sake. We believe technology makes our lives easier and connects us to the people and things that are important to us, both near and far.

what millennials buy

Our generation has seen a lot. Our access to information is unprecedented. While seeing, living through, and accessing as much as we have might have turned us into pessimists, studies consistently show that we actually trend toward optimism. But we are critical optimists, and our skepticism extends to marketing.

As Millennials, we have been raised to believe we can be or do anything, and technology empowers us to do more and be more. We see everything, and can see through anything. The way to start marketing to us is to stop. Traditional marketing doesn’t work on us. You’ll have to develop a new model if you want to reach us.

what motivates millennials

In our digitally connected lives, we often see marketing as something to mute or fast-forward through; an unwelcome intrusion into our lives, interrupting us from what we were doing – work or play. That we see marketing this way doesn’t mean that it’s on the way out, though. It means you have a great opportunity to meet us on our terms, on our turf, if you do it right.

Because technology is such a part of everyday life, marketers might think to send their messages to us where we are, mobile and online, but not so fast! This technology we’re using is personal. It’s an extension of who we are, and we don’t want unfiltered brand messages bombarding us on our personal devices, in our personal spaces. If you want to connect with us, we must invite you in. 

We watched 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian Tsunami, and the hanging of Hussein on live TV, and have access to all information in the world at our fingertips.  We know real when we see it. To effectively engage with us, don’t fake “Millennialized” brands or products. Respect us, listen to us, even hang out with us. 

We want to be treated like people, not prospects. For you to be successful, give us real solutions for our real life situations.  Provide us good choices, but do good in the world, too. That means treating your workers well and caring what impact you have on the world around you. Because we are all connected in this transparent digital age, we expect companies to be responsive and responsible.

sleep with cell phone

Where We Are

Thanks to technology, Millennials are bombarded with information and connected 24/7/365. We find email too slow, texting is better, IM is best. We are tech-savvy, we grew up with technology, and we rely on it in our jobs and personal lives.  In fact, 80 percent of us use two or more digital devices simultaneously while watching TV [2]. We constantly multi-task with ongoing partial attention, in a world where 140-character tweets seem lengthy. So how do you get us to pay attention where we are? 

Because our devices are so personal to us, tread lightly with your marketing efforts. We want to interact with brands on our terms. Algorithms are great at knowing about us, but we have to be comfortable with you in order for you to be effective. Use your data to develop a series of messages that shows you understand our current stage in life and spread that message in our channels.

who millennials are

Reaching us requires more than posting your banner and telling us where we can find you. Communicate authentically, where we are, but don’t be a bull in a china shop. If we voluntarily opt-in and ask for you to communicate with us, use a direct, simple message that speaks our language. Remember, we must let you in. You can’t come barging through the door. 

Millennials crave social interaction. We want to share everything – things we care about or just find entertaining.  We are happy to endorse products we like, and want to share those products with our friends and strangers.  In fact, social activity is so ingrained in our DNA that a 2010 study by Elon, found that students who tried to “quit” social media showed the same withdrawal symptoms of a recovering drug addict. 

We’ve canceled land lines and cable TV, because we are always on the move. We can talk, text or chat from wherever we are.  Personal technology means that connecting with others is no longer tied to a physical location. In fact, our devices are so important to us and part of our everyday lives that we usually sleep with them.

Students who tried to “quit” social media showed the same withdrawal symptoms of a recovering drug addict.”

Where They Are

where they are

Millennials– Top 10 Markets

  1. Austin, Tx (16%, 120)
  2. Salt Lake City, UT (15%, 117)
  3. San Diego, CA (15%, 117)
  4. Los Angeles, CA (14%, 109)
  5. Denver, CO (14%, 109)
  6. Washington, DC (14%, 109)
  7. Houston, TX (14%, 108)
  8. Las Vegas, NV (14%, 108)
  9. San Francisco, CA (14%, 107)
  10. Dallas Fort Worth., TX (14%, 106)

Boomers – Top 10 Markets

  1. Portland-Auburn, ME (31%, 117)
  2. Burlington, VT-NY (30%, 114)
  3. Albany, NY (29%, 111)
  4. Hartford/New Haven, NY (29%, 110)
  5. Pittsburgh, PA (29%, 109)
  6. Tri-Cities, TN-VA (29%, 109)
  7. Wilkes Barre, PA (29%, 109)
  8. Charleston, WV (28%, 108)
  9. Boston, MA (28%, 108)
  10. Green Bay-Appleton, WI (28%, 108)

SOURCE: “Breaking the Millennial Myths,” Nielsen 2014

Baby Boomers have often been credited with the growth and expansion of the suburbs. While Millennials reside in many regions across the country, our primary places of concentration are in urban areas. Cities provide the most in terms of economic opportunity for us, so we are choosing to live in urban centers, over the suburbs or more rural areas. Today our generation lives in cities at higher rates than any other generation; it’s the first time since the 1920s where the growth in U.S. cities outpaces growth outside of the cities [3].

We’re also transforming those cities. With the immediacy and convenience that technology has afforded us, we want our physical environments to be just as accessible and responsive. 62% of us prefer live-work-play communities where we can live close to where we shop, eat and work [4]. We prefer walking over driving and want access to public transportation both for our convenience and health and for the well-being of the planet. The New York Times even coined this movement as “Hipsturbia.” [5] 

We like brands with a social purpose.  One in three Millennials looks for brands making a positive impact on the world.  Eighty percent of us donate time to philanthropic causes and community giving [6]. We are eager to assist our friends by sharing experiences that will help them and advocating for the brands behind those positive experiences.

Remember that social media is not for marketing in the traditional sense. It’s for connecting.  Millennials opt in because they want to connect, not because you trick us into it. The most successful marketers treat their Facebook friends and Twitter followers like friends with relevant posts and conversation starters updated regularly with relevant and trustworthy communication, coming from a real person, not a faceless corporation.

Defining Generations

defining generations

When to Shift

We used to think adoption of technology was a systematic and predictable process. Innovators developed it, early adopters jumped because it was new and novel, others eventually came on board becoming the early majority, the late majority made the technology nearly ubiquitous and the laggards being resistant to change would hold out as long as possible. Our generation of Millennials has overturned the apple-cart. 

Millennials are 2.5x more likely to be early adopters of technology [7], being both drivers and consumers of it. We want the latest and if we don’t like it, we drop it for something newer and more resonant. We are often leading the tightrope walk across “The Chasm,” which is the cliff most technologies never cross [8]. Thus, Millennials can represent the tipping point for a brand’s success—yet another reason to covet our approval.

innovation adoption lifecycle

Evolution is the name of the game. Keep up with us or get lost. As soon as the mainstream fully embraces something, we’ve already moved on. Not because we shun the popular, but because there’s already something better around the corner. From MySpace to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to SnapChat, technology is a mirror that reflects the rapid pace of change that we crave. This model has become the new status quo. 

Further, technology is inherantly social. Social media allows us to see the world, interact with it and put our own version of it back into the world. It’s a constant process of creation, consumption, integration, and recreation. This lends to its power, and it’s not slowing down any time soon. That’s why it’s important for you to understand how Millennials integrate technology into our lives and how you can be part of that advanced and highly-personal process. There’s no time to waste!

Why Millennials Matter

millennial spending

In days past, marketers could simply study an audience and drive their idea of relevant messages toward that group by highlighting a few common characteristics. But today, consumers talk back. They expect conversation. Our generation perfected that model. We can Google you and your brand and find out all about you. In fact, we may already know you better than you know us. That information we find, we use to embrace and endorse you or push your brand aside for one we like better.

In the end, it comes down to value.  Millennials are smart; we will pay more, do more, become loyalists and advocates as long as you provide what we consider added value.  Authenticity allows you to engage with us, immediacy provides compelling content and social relevancy keeps you competitive.  Marketing to Millennials is about advocacy, not advertising. Conversation, not clichés. And it’s the consumers, specifically these Millennial consumers, who are shaping your brand and defining its success.

millennial buying power

Even in this new of responsive, personal technology, the famed purchase funnel – Awareness to Consideration to Purchase to Loyalty – still holds true; it’s just the journey that has changed. 

AWARENESS– is no longer print advertisements, radio or TV commercials, or billboards to influence us, but strategic product placement and integration and word of mouth buzz and recommendations.

CONSIDERATION– isn’t endorsement from celebrities, but from our friends and online communities populated with consumers who have actually used your product.

PURCHASE– isn’t spontaneous and random but researched and informed.

LOYALTY– the golden ticket, only comes from genuine demonstration of intrinsic value, aspirational association, and ongoing rewards.

How do you know when you’ve won that? 

It’s easy: we’d recommend you to a friend.

millennial marketing rules


[1] “A Survey Report on Gen-Y Banking,” Efma & Oracle
[2] Nielsen Cross Platform Report, Q3 2013.
[3] “Americans’ Views” Urban Land Institute, 2013
[4] Vishaan Chakrabarti, “A Country of Cities: Urban America” 2013 
[5] Alex Williams, “Creating Hipsturbia”, New York Times, 2013
[6] “The Millennial Survey” Deloitte 2014
[7] “American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation” Barkley, SMG, BCG 2013
[8] “Born This Way: Millennial Loyalty Survey” UC Berkley 2014

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