The Sweet, Funny, Listy Ways of Getting Millennials to Love You

Content strategies from BuzzFeed, College Humor and Flavorpill Media

Their lives are tough, so they want content that's funny and optimistic. They're young but already nostalgic. They're naturally engaged and will quickly share your best work. They'll fight with you on occasion. They don't care if it's branded content, as long as it's good content.

The mind-set of millennials was dissected for the umpteen-millionth time during an Advertising Week panel on Monday—as Elizabeth Spiers of Flavorpill Media, Susanna Wolff of College Humor and Jonathan Perelman of BuzzFeed discussed their sites' strategies for drafting content with strong appeal for that generation.

Working on the assumption that millennials are not, in fact, coddled, entitled and impatient but instead smart, resilient and adaptable, the panelists suggested the generation is open to all kinds of content, from highbrow to lowbrow, as long as it resonates with their worldview.

BuzzFeed divides its content into "nutritious" and "delicious" stories, from long-form pieces about Syria to listicles like "Basset Hounds Running," said Jonathan Perelman, vp of agency strategy and industry development. BuzzFeed's version of the latter type of content, he said, resonates more with the site's audience—60 percent of whom are millennials—than other "leisure" content out there.

"Look at The New York Times's Travel section, or the Home & Garden section," he said. "The most indebted generation in history doesn't care about a $12,000 trip to the south of France. It doesn't compute with who they are. So, the leisure content that they're looking for is basset hounds running."

Millennials also want "uplifting stuff," Perelman added. "It's something they want to put their name behind and share across the Web. They say, 'I'm going to post this link to Facebook because it's going to be some sort of currency, some sort of gift to my friends.' … They also care about news. They care about the world. They care about what Russia's doing with gay rights. They just like to see two kinds of content."

Wolff, the newly appointed editor in chief of College Humor, said she has seen great results from feel-good content, too—including the recent subway prank video produced for Vitaminwater.

"This was an idea we thought of in advance," she said. "Then Vitaminwater came to us with their 'Make boring brilliant' slogan and asked us if we had anything that could work with that. This is one of four stunt-y, relatable videos we did where we took a very familiar situation and spun it. It's a happy, uplifting video, and people are very into that right now."

Not that College Humor always coddles its audience. "It's a mixture of making funny pieces of content that people like with pissing people off. A lot," Wolff said of the site's content philosophy. "There are a lot of millennials who completely lack all irony or ability to get a joke at all. And they can get so angry, and we laugh and laugh about it."

Spiers, the founding editor of Gawker who is now editorial director of Flavorpill, said nostalgic content does extremely well with millennials—and pointed to a recent popular Flavorwire photo feature titled, "Photographic Proof That Your Awkward Phase Won't Last Forever." "Our audience has a lot of nostalgia for certain time periods—primarily, for when they were between the ages of 12 and 18, which is when I think is when a lot of your big cultural milestones happen," she said. "Anytime you do something that reaches a nostalgia-based emotional touch point, people really respond to it."

Perelman agreed, pointing out that BuzzFeed has its own nostalgia vertical called Rewind.

There are also, of course, the dreaded lists. Millennials love them, the panelists agreed, partly because of mobile.

"The Ten Commandments were a list, and they've been around ever since then," said Perelman. "Search results are a list. Everything's a list. With a list, you know exactly how long it will take you to get through."

"Lists are just a simple way to do it," added Wolff. "We do a lot of opinion-driven things. I wrote one recently that was '8 Fictional Girls You Were Supposed to Like but Who Actually Suck.' And it was really just a fun way for me to get to rant about how Andie MacDowell is unpleasant. But we got such a huge response from people. People wanted to share. Either they also hate Andie MacDowell and have just been waiting for someone to say so, or they love her and want to argue about how she was so good in Groundhog Day. Wrong!"

Finally, moderator Will Pearson, co-founder of Mental Floss, asked the panelists how they create branded entertainment—and whether editorial is involved in those pieces.

Spiers said lifestyle brands can get away with blurring that line more so than news outlets. Wolff said her edit staffers do contribute to ad projects but that she has two writers working exclusively on branded content. And Perelman said there is a strict church-and-state division at BuzzFeed, with the guys who are writing stories about Syria expressly forbidden from doing lists about funny-looking dogs.

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