Don’t Ignore Millennials: What the U.S. Open Taught Us About Digital Marketing

Choosing stagnancy or limited, controlled change won’t connect with consumers, especially not with the always-on (and always on to the next thing) millennials.

I’m always amazed when a brand or organization rests on its laurels way after it’s appropriate—long after they’ve alienated critical audiences, after their once-steadfast audience has begun wavering, and past the point that they can reasonably justify sticking with what, clearly, isn’t working.

No matter your brand, heritage or past successes, it’s essential to evolve with your customers constantly, and continue on a journey of revisting, reimagining and, even, reinventing, whether you’re at your highest high or lowest low—because, by the time the demand for change is pounding down your door, it’s probably too late. Your customers have, likely, found other avenues to explore.

This past weekend was the U.S. Open, so the theme’s definitely top-of-mind. The tournament and the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) in general seem to be stuck in this strange push/pull between wanting to cater to younger fans and players and, still, hanging on to old ways.

It’s interesting—golf has always been littered with incredible tales of unknown 20somethings bursting onto the scene and dominating in a big way. Look at Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and, this year, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth who’s already two-for-two in the Majors.

But despite the almost-rock star status of these young prodigies, golf and the USGA is sorely losing with millennials, and it’s costing them millions. They aren’t constantly evolving with the needs of a critical audience base — those millennials who now make up nearly one-fourth of the population—and they’re losing out on sponsorship dollars, brand extensions and overall engagement.

Just looking at the numbers and it’s clear how essential this ongoing evolution really is for golf in general. The National Golf Foundation cited 400,000 fewer golfers in 2013, and attributed 50 percent of golfer decline to millennials—and since they make up about 25 percent of the population, it’s particularly damaging. Sure, younger people don’t play golf for the same reasons 20somethings haven’t for decades—it’s expensive, slow-going and time consuming, for starters.

But, for this generation of millennials, there’s more to it than that—and that’s where golf missed the marketing and relevance delivery mark. This was the first year cell phones were allowed at the U.S. Open, and the organizers even went so far as to provide wifi for attendees. USGA also pushed to their recently-upgraded app, leading Mobile Marketing Daily to dub this the “new mobilization of the Open.” Seems like the USGA got the memo, right?

But, remember, everything is marketing. So while the Open and the USGA could have scored points with millennials for being more of-the-moment and relevant to their always-on lifestyles, they didn’t really take a gut check before implementing these specific marketing strategies.

Sure, you can have your phone, but you can’t create or share content, CNN noted before the event:

Tournament ‘enforcement officers’ will…also be on the lookout for fans who live stream or post videos of the tournament with their phones…USGA officials will also be monitoring social media sites like Periscope and Meerkat, along with Facebook and Twitter, looking for fans that might stream or post video despite the ban.

The punishment? Any offenders were kicked out of the Open, on the spot. The USGA came back and said that this was merely an effort to push fans towards their three channels of live streaming for a “much better viewing experience.”

It makes sense, in a vacuum—every brand wants consumers to engage with their specific platforms and extensions but, remember, everything is marketing. And that includes user generated content and organic buzz. Those banned videos are marketing—and, because they’re organically coming from a fan, they’re likely positive and engaging enough to drive incremental eyeballs.