Millennial Impulsivity: How to Stop Hating and Engage for the Long Term

A few weeks ago I published did a post about intergenerational politics, specifically between boomers and millennials.  Things have evolved since then, so the time has come to reheat it a bit.

First, the New York Times broke with their streak of millennial shade throwing and published a more-scientifically backed article than mine about how each generation pretty much hates their grandkids’ wok ethic, dating back to ancient Rome.  You can read that one at your leisure here.

Second, I spent the better part of 5 days at South By Southwest Interactive trying to suss out more substantive data on millennial engagement than I’d been able to track down.  And by data, maybe I’m using the wrong word.  Something less quantitative and more qualitatively concrete, non prescriptive and non-outsider based.

There were a couple of false starts.  One, never take the time to go to a session headlined by an actress who is promoting a movie.  When people are passionate about things they’re not actually there to talk about, things go down a rathole fast.  Two, pretty much anyone who starts up with millennials in the third person is probably about to read from the existing Media-Vs.-Millennial script.  I’ve already discussed why it is I find that unproductive to the work of building a community.

I have started to come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a guidebook as to how to engage a millennial audience.  No panel, no book, etc. is ever going to overcome the “outside advice” obstacle.  However, the third panel, “Do you even know how to engage a millennial” – lead by Brian Reich of Little M Media and Kari Dunn Saratovsky of KDS Strategies– had a point of view that was a great deal more nuanced and on-point than I’d seen thus far.

I’ve struggled with trying to “blogify” the collected points from this panel for weeks.  Time and events wait for no man, so  I’m giving up that struggle and just presenting them  – and my thoughts – in blended bullet form.

  •  Too often we place labels on this generation, when in fact they came of age in a time of incredible change. Accelerated change has had a huge impact on this generation, more so than others.  Examples being experience of events like 9/11, Katrina, and the 2008 election at a young age.
  • Most diverse generation – 43% are people of color.  A very large percentage of those are Hispanic.
  • Also an extraordinary age range, creates number of cohorts. Younger ones graduating college, older ones married with kids
  • Why is it that everyone loves to hate millennials? Because they make organizations work hard for limited time, limited dollars and limited attention spans
  • The extent to which a millennial will get excited about a product is directly related to the genuineness and directness of experience
  • Millennials are not going to take your word for it that this is a great product or important news event. [It’s going to take more than generational print]

Who do millennials really trust? The short answer is “not that many people.”  Innately they  trust their closest circle of family and friends. They trust people they have never met but have credentials.  Latter trust is almost a red herring for those who do communication – that trust is fleeting. Won’t take much to undermine it.  This is the first part of why we struggle to sell to millennials.  There’s an excellent radar for the genuine with this group, and the act of selling  struggles with authenticity.

  • Second part of why we struggle to sell to millennials – delayed purchases.  Graduating 10k dollars in debt, underemployed means that they are not doing the normal “coming of age” purchases, such as homes and cars.
  • Very careful about large ticket items. It’s not just the economy…need to reach a threshold of genuine.
  • Not going to see an ad and impulse buy
  • Need to be able to act on fact finding impulses right away, need direct impact of time, energy and dollars

First, it’s key to note that the demand for on demand is not exclusive to millennials- we have all been transformed by style buying expectations.  No longer are we willing to sit and wonder what out catalogue purchases are “really” going to look like when they eventually  show up.  We expect to be able to scope them out from every angle, read customer reviews, and then click a single button and know that it’ll be sitting at our door stop within 48 hours.

Impulsivity, however, comes in two forms.  There’s the impulse to buy, and the impulse to act.  There’s no such thing as a product without a website – even if the product doesn’t yet fully exist.  Beta sites – where you can learn everything there is to know about a product and then join a waiting list to get it when it comes out – abound.  We need to know everything immediately.  We need to be coaxed into buying.  This distinction is key when we think about how to harness impusivity.  We use the need to know as the opening gambit to create a relationship between consumer and brand.  And we continue to delivery on that promise as we work to seal the deal.

  • First touch, expect to spark a relationship, don’t expect purchases.
  • The purchase is getting engaged and getting married – lot more work to create a relationship. No one night stands  Take opportune moments to advance relationships. May be in for a relationship that will take time

Probably the best metaphor of the panel involved molecules.  Molecules, full of energy, have a tendency to bounce off each other. The call to action here is that we hardness the energy of these molecules bumping off each other into a cause.

The short of how you engage a millennial: Recognize that they are cause and idea driven, vs. being driven by institution.   Your product [or services] needs to lay out a clear relationship between purpose and action –  Here is how you take action, get involved and stay involved.  No narrative that starts and stops with purchase will be viable.


Intergenerational Politics – a report from the neutral zone.

A few years ago the New York Times published an article that left pretty much everyone who read it outraged.  It was the story of a college graduate, living with his parents at the time, who had turned down work after 18 months of job searching because it wasn’t in his preferred field. The collective cultural gasp at the level of entitlement – both his parents and his grandfather had paid his tuition and and co-signed his student loans – has touched off a continual discussion about how quickly the world will end once it’s turned over to this <insert belittling adjective, remark about helicopter parenting, or just cut to the chase and use the word ‘spoiled’> group of kids.

I find this unproductive.  If you’re in the business of working with, selling to, or marketing towards a group of people, it’s best not to come to the table with the attitude they’re all a mess.  It’s not a recipe for success.  No one wants to give their money and time to someone suffused with that level of condescension – just think of that scene from Pretty Woman.  You know the one.

In the spirit of doing one small thing to change the dialogue, then, I’d like to introduce a couple of items.

1) Millennials aren’t ‘kids.’  I’ve seen studies that kick off the age range of the millennial generation anywhere from 1978 – 1984.   I prefer the earlier year because that just manages to nip me into the millennial fold.  But think it through.  That means you’re talking about people who are starting to hit their mid-thirties.  Odds are they’ve been employed for at least five years, owned a house, and are circling the landing zone of starting families of their own.   Remember this part of your life? Remember that you thought you were an adult, too? Truth: Millennials…they’re just like you.

2) People thought the baby boomers were a bunch of spoiled brats, and they were right.  I want to say the official cut of year for the baby boom was 1962.  But the general state of things is that boomers were born to parents who had suffered through the Great Depression, World War II, or both.  They were the first generation of whom it was expected nationally that they would graduate high school, thus delaying their entry into what their parents called “adulthood,” much like we accuse millennials of today.  They had toys, for god sake.  Huge amounts of toys designed to look like the cartoons on that new-fangled thing called the television. Their homes all had dedicated telephone lines. They would never know what it was like to see a movie that had no sound.  So when we sit around whimpering about ‘kids,’ all we sound like is our grandparents. Truth…boomers were entitled.  No one wants to sound like grandpa unless they actually are.

3) Millennials are coming of age at an unfortunate intersection in the American economy.  We’re expected to buy more than we ever have before, with less money than we’ve ever made.  Credit Cards. Variable Mortgages. Student Loans. Car loans.  All of which were force fed to many of us as the table stakes of being able to hold your head up outside your heavily mortgaged McVilla.  There was no one minding the store for quite a while over at debt-dole out headquarters.  And full time job opportunities are at an all-time low.   Add to that that good old American adage that we need to do better than our parents did, otherwise we simply don”t have our shoulder to the plow in a way that matters.  That’s not, as my British friends would say, quite cricket is it? Truth…At this age at this time, you’d probably feel pretty trapped too.

4) Much ado is made of stories about Millennials ending up in therapy because they’ve been coddled all their lives.  Much is made about the connection between this coddling and something called helicopter parenting, or as I like to think of it, Skinned-knee phobia.  I can buy it that it might sound a little funny.  Then you think about all the 40 year old men we saw in the 80’s – both in real life and parodied in film – who were having a “mid-life crisis.”  I’m not sure why getting hung up thinking, “Is that all there is,” is more socially acceptable at 40 than it is at 21.  But Chevy made an awful lot of money on Corvettes for just that reason. Truth…emotional flailing isn’t funny, no matter when in life it hits you.

By the end of 2015 this group will account for almost 50% of the workforce.  At a certain point we’re going to have to stop generalizing milliennials and just accept that their true role in our lives will be, “My Boss” and “My Boss’ Boss” much sooner than we expect.  Almost 40 years after the baby boomers took over, so too will this generation.  Not coincidentally, this effect is being acutely felt in the tech world, as people who watched the birth of the personal computer, servers that could fit in racks, and the term ‘terabyte’ are naturally pretty proud of what they’ve produced. We’re reluctant to admit that how we used to sell doesn’t work anymore, that it’s all about webpages and not shoe leather and golf.  We’re reluctant to accept that we can’t rely on a centralized iconic brand to do all the necessary talking for us, when branding has taken on a passion level so steep people tattoo themselves with logos.  We’re reluctant to pass on our so-called ‘tribal knowledge,’ and more than a little hurt when it gets scoffed at- which I’ll talk about later in the context of Pulse- but get happy Peanut Gallery.  It’s time.

P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did include my birth year in this post.  But most studies would label me outside of Millennial and nowhere near Boomer.  Officially I am Generation X as one of my parents is a boomer [and the other one is older, but she’d kill me for telling you that] but I’m a young one because the US experienced a population trough after the oil shocks.