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.

And, chances are, once the video-taking fan has shared his interest with the world, there will be some ripple effect within his immediate network—an invite to the driving range, questions about the Open, a quick spin to the USGA site, maybe.

But, instead, they banned this kind of powerful social sharing—this powerful kind of marketing—from the tournament. A tournament where — don’t forget — a 21-year-old stole the show. Millennials are a generation of sharing, and cutting them off from a critical touch point and forcing them to engage on the USGA’s specific terms is alienating countless young people.

And, without them, golf could be on its way out of the pop culture spotlight for good. It sounds dramatic, but smartphones, sharing and socializing are a massive piece of the brand experience for millennials, and organizations that don’t align are going to get left in the cold. 90 percent of millennials always have their smartphone on hand. Nearly nine in 10 take regular pics with their devices. 88 percent get news from Facebook—news that, in this case, could have been a video from the Open. But it wasn’t.

I completely understand the desire to control the image of your brand in the marketplace, so I understand why the USGA tried to push towards its mobile and digital experiences this year. I applaud the thinking—the app upgrades are solid, the content quality is strong and dropping the ancient ban on cell phones just makes sense.

But it’s key for organizations like this—and organizations everywhere, in all stages of their brand evolution—to remember that today’s new media is fluid and dynamic. Cutting off engagement or trying to control everything that enters the digital universe, simply, won’t work.

You can’t control what consumers do or say about your brand, you can only guide and provide direction and let them derive their own impression of the experience you’re delivering. Banning video sharing is a great example—it’s out of touch and clearly lacks the kind of awareness of the millennials’ new world order.

Everything is marketing now, so everything a brand does must be designed to engage and align with consumers and their specific real-time expectations. That can only happen when organizations stay in touch with the pulse of their audience or desired audience through feedback channels, focus groups, customer advisory boards and open, bi-directional social channels, among other sources.

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. Be where they are, engage on their terms and encourage ongoing reassessments and reimagination within your organization.

While it may not feel as clean, organized or controlled as in campaigns past, if it’s what your customers want it’s essential to roll up your sleeves and push ahead. Because if you don’t this vital audience will simply grab their smartphones and move on.

Brandon Hartness is an Adobe Marketing Cloud Evangelist whose work focuses partly on understanding and guiding the interconnectedness of Adobe’s marketing solutions and partly on working directly with Adobe’s customers to understand how their business challenges and strategies line up with Adobe’s roadmap and vision. Brandon’s digital marketing career spans more than 16 years.

Image courtesy of Jordan Spieth’s Facebook page.