The Marketer’s Guide to Reaching Millennials

They are the medium

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Much public hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth have been made of late on the subject of brand marketers targeting millennials and their appetite for the use of digital channels to connect with the demo.

Recently, former Condé Nast editor Bonnie Fuller, who now presides over an original content webloid called Hollywood Life, wrote an op-ed titled “Baby Boomer Marketers Misreading Millennials” in which she made a plea for marketers to fully embrace digital as the holy grail to “own” millennials, because “millennials spend a huge amount of their time online.” In related news, water is wet.

However obvious (and self-serving) Fuller’s observations are, the bigger issue is that her single-channel solution completely fails to take into account the defining media-behavioral characteristic of millennials: interconnectivity.

To “own” millennials, marketers will need to understand how they link with each other, with brands, with influencers, with media platforms and their devices. That starts with understanding millennials on a far deeper level than quoting Forrester stats on the time they spend on smartphones, tablets and laptops. Unraveling the complexity inherent in millennial behavior for our clients was the impetus for PHD’s Creative Collective, a partnership with the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication that allows us frequent and deep insight into the evolving behavior of millennials.

Now in its third annual cycle, establishing a direct and ongoing connection to this group has afforded us a nuance in our understanding of millennial media behaviors not discernible in third- party research or industry reports. As the results of our most recent deep dive into the millennial media mind-set demonstrate, the group can’t be defined by any single medium, In fact, with an insatiable need to be connected and continually validated for their level of “insider” status, millennials are their own medium.

Consider the way they interact with celebrity spokespeople as one example. Our research showed that while millennials get starstruck like the rest of us, a celebrity endorsement that can truly influence their brand perception often involves nontraditional tastemakers like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert—a concept that the Creative Collective dubbed “The Appeal of Similar Strangers.” These media figures stand out from simply “famous people” primarily because of their everyman relatability.

We saw also that millennials have distinct relationships with each of their devices. Here again, amount of time is less interesting than the role of each piece. Millennials see their laptops as retail portal and catalog, their toolbox, information curator and also their preferred device for viewing TV shows; their tablets as a luxury that falls somewhere between a downsized entertainment center and an iPhone on steroids; and their smartphones as a fifth limb and fail-safe antidote to FOMO (fear of missing out).

However, nothing proves the fallacy of the single-channel approach more than what we learned about millennials’ attitudes toward reading magazines and watching TV.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Creative Collective saw magazines reemerging among this group as the preferred “screen” for beauty categories and a luxury/reward. Similarly, the assumption that millennials don’t watch TV fails to take into account the fact that while marathoning/bingeing is big and getting bigger, Gen FOMO is drawn like a moth to the TV flame by big events, sports, premieres and finales­— proving once again there’s no such thing as “conventional wisdom” when targeting millennials.

Marketers are unlikely to score points with millennials by just shifting budgets to digital on their flowcharts. Rather, they need to view marketing to millennials more in terms of a symphonic orchestra, with themselves as the conductors.

If not, they’ll quickly be tuned out.

Craig Atkinson is chief digital officer, COO of PHD U.S., a unit of Omnicom Media Group.

Illustration: Dale Edwin Murray