How Do Brands Connect to Millennials, Anyway?

Two things PR and marketing professionals hear a lot about: sponsored content and the challenges of reaching a crucial and rightly skeptical Millennial demographic.

We recently had a Q&A session with Greg Shove to get his take on things. Shove is CEO and founder of SocialChorus, an “advocate marketing” company specializing in management software designed to help brands recruit advocates online.

When conducting their own survey to promote their offerings, the company recorded some interesting, if not particularly surprising, results:

  • 67% of Millennials reported that they have never clicked on a sponsored story- they don’t trust advertising
  • 95% of Millennials say that friends are the most credible source of product info
  • 98% of Milllennials are more likely to engage with a friend’s post over a brand’s post

About what we expected, no? Let’s see what Shove had to say about the implications of and solutions to those findings.

Since shared content is more trusted, how can brand strategists convince Millennials to pass content around without tricking them (beyond writing “share if you like…” copy lines)?

It’s important to provide content Millennials want to share. Ernest Dichter, known as the father of motivational research, found that when it comes to why people share, it all comes down to a few key principles:

  1. Content makes people look smart. Provide content that makes millennials look good. No one wants to share generic marketing jargon.
  2. Content is funny or entertaining to share. Provide content that is so funny, entertaining that millennials “have to” share it with their friends.
  3. Content is helpful to people’s friends. Provide valuable content that people want to share because it is helpful to others.
  4. Content provides a way for people express themselves. Provide content that allows people to express their views and values. Don’t be too prescriptive and allow for creative freedom.

So they’re skeptical of branded content, but at the same time recent research shows they’re more willing to share, even when it comes to personal info.

Millennials were raised in a completely digital generation, a generation that is defined by sharing. A recent study from USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future shed some light on Millennials views on privacy and why millennials share. Millennials realize that they need to give to get and realize that by sharing personal information, they will get something in return.

Do you take the results of your study to mean that sponsored content is NOT the future? 

Sponsored content on Facebook is not the future; it’s the past disguising itself as the future. Sponsored content is advertising in disguise, which doesn’t make it any more credible to millennials than it’s predecessor. Just because it’s on a social channel or a popular web channel does not make sponsored content cool or a better way to reach millennials.  Millennials are ad-adverse and “tricking” them with disguised forms of advertising is not the way to win them over as loyal customers or brand advocates. (Ed. note: few will parrot the following headline.)

A quote in your press release discusses the importance of marketing WITH Gen Y rather than TO them and “identifying Millennial advocates”. What does this mean, exactly? Does it mean paying a celebrity to mention your brand, or paying a non-celebrity spokesperson to share with his Friends?

Marketing with millennials does not mean paying celebrities. In our recent SocialChorus Millennials as Advocates survey, celebrities were trusted by only 7% of millennials as a credible source of product information. It also doesn’t mean paying Millennials.

What it does mean is that brands need to find creative ways to appeal to Millennials and empower them to share the brand’s story. Turning a millennial consumer into a brand advocate opens up the opportunity to create a lifelong customer.

Please flesh out two relationships: 1. the relationship between the advocate and the brand 2. the relationship between the advocate and the Gen Y public

1. This relationship is about perceived value exchange (see Ernest Dichter above).

When brands help Millennials meet their psychological goals, Millennials are happy to engage and share with brands on social, helping brands meet their business goals.  “Psychological goals” can mean any number of things from appealing to their need for belonging by offering them “exclusive” access to be part of selective advocate community or by boosting their self esteem by making them feel like they are unique and providing them with exclusive access to the brand.

Brands need to selectively build relationships with their brand advocates. Developing long-term relationships with advocates is much more valuable than having a person with thousands of followers tweet for your brand one time.

2. The relationship between a millennial advocate and other millennials is defined by trust. Millennials trust their friends over all other sources as a credible source of product information (95%). This percentage is staggering when compared to other sources of information, especially TV advertising (9%) or online advertising (6%).

What is an ideal example of a “Millennial advocate?” Could you name some brands that have succeeded with this strategy?

Kia, Toms, and Target are a couple of examples of brands that are doing a good job of connecting with Millennials.

Kia engages millennials by providing fun and engaging content like “Hip-Hop Hamster.” The brand recently released a new Kia Hamster video, which features the famous hamsters working out to Lady Gaga’s newest single. The fun ads appeal to the millennial audience and encourage Millennial brand advocates to share the brand’s story because they are entertaining.

Another successful tactic is to be a brand that millennials love and a brand with which Millennials want to associate. Millennials value corporate social responsibility and want to associate and advocate for brands with these values.  Toms and Target are great examples of brands that are appealing to millennials by promoting their commitment to social responsibility.

On a basic, day-to-day messaging level, what do these findings mean for people who write marketing copy, push content to various outlets and generally try to familiarize Gen Y with their client brands?

The world is of advertising is changing.  Those marketers that continue to market to, instead of with Millennials will find their audiences increasingly less receptive as forward looking brands continue to engage and innovate to deliver messages that Millennials are much more receptive to.

There isn’t an out of the box solution when it comes to millennials. Marketing to Millennials takes lots of hard work. It is important to create fun, educational and entertaining content to increase engagement with this generation.

In summary, brands should create easily shareable content that is either entertaining on its own or relevant to this audience’s life goals (primarily “making other people think I’m cool”), moving away from traditional marketing strategies without trying to trick audiences into thinking promo material is editorial.

Yes, SocialChorus pitches its product as an alternative to sponsored content, and we’d like to see more examples of successful campaigns aimed at Millennials. But they’re definitely onto something here.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.