clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Millennial Consumers Aren't Who You Think They Are

Even if you don’t quite get them yet, there’s much about the high school class of 2015 that should make you optimistic.

William Perugini/Shutterstock

Millennials continue to confound many marketers — to the point that they’ve attained an almost mythical stature in our industry. To some CMOs I talk to, that generation of 18- to 34-year-olds always feels slightly out of reach.

That’s because, of course, millennials are profoundly different from those who came before them. Their attention is fragmented across screens, and they’re inveterate cord-cutters who don’t understand the utility of paying for a cable TV bundle. While they can appreciate high-quality branded content, they’re far more likely than their elders to say they dislike advertising.

This combination of factors is frightening to marketers, which I was reminded of during many conversations I had at Cannes this year.

Millennials are a unique set of consumers, and it’s also important to keep in mind that they’re getting older. The youngest of them, born in 1997, graduated high school this year. And now that these youngest millennials are crossing over into adulthood and poised to have more spending power, it’s even more imperative for brands and agencies to have a strong grasp on what moves them and holds their attention.

Here’s something you may not know: Millennials are more optimistic and entrepreneurial than Gen Xers. (More on that later.) And the good news is that they can absolutely be marketed to — provided that they’re getting something of value that doesn’t feel like an interruption. The key is making them feel they’ve been entertained or enlightened by your brand.

Market without advertising

While millennials are harder to reach with traditional 30-second TV spots, pre-roll video ads and display formats, remember that they abound on certain channels where content has been tailored for them. Take new digital networks like AwesomenessTV (a joint venture of DreamWorks and Hearst) and Maker Studios (acquired by Disney), which specialize in video content for cord-cutting younger people.

Millennials also trust social networks more than older people do. We recently conducted research in partnership with the market-research company Ipsos to really understand what makes millennials tick when it comes to making financial decisions. We focused on a core group of affluent millennials with more than $100,000 in investable assets, excluding real estate, and found that they’re three times more likely to look to social networks to inform personal finance and investment decisions than their Gen X (35- to 49-year-old) counterparts. They’re also twice as likely to seek content from financial companies on social networks.

While these findings are specific to the financial services industry, I think the idea that social networks play an outsized role in shaping millennial attitudes will resonate with any marketer who’s had success reaching that audience.

Millennials also have a high propensity to enjoy branded content, so long as it doesn’t strike them as an ad. According to our research, 61 percent find educational content and information from the financial-services sector relevant, compared to 53 percent of Gen Xers.

So what I advocate to all the brands I work with is to initiate a dialogue with your younger target consumers with engaging content that nurtures their trust and affinity through social networks. If it sounds simple, it half is and half isn’t. The formula is straightforward, but content creation and distribution are both like muscles; you’ll need to truly invest if you want to make them strong.

What else is new with millennials?

Even if you don’t quite get them yet, there’s much about the high school class of 2015 that should make you optimistic. For one thing, they’re bright-siders. While you might tend to think of teenagers and twentysomethings as disaffected, millennials are actually confident about the country’s economic future and their place in it. According to our research with Ipsos, 47 percent of affluent millennials say they’re confident in the country’s economic future, compared to 29 percent of affluent Gen Xers.

They’re also more entrepreneurial than their Gen X counterparts. Three times as many affluent millennials have a life goal of wanting to start a business, and three times as many want to start a charitable foundation. They’re also seven times as likely to have a business loan. And, interestingly, they’re much more likely to say they plan to do more business with the financial institutions they already work with.

My takeaway from that last point is that millennials may be hard to reach, but the reward for making a connection with them is high. The notion that millennials love brands but hate advertising is oversimplifying a bit, but there’s truth in it: They tend to be loyal customers of the brands they like.

Of course, that reward will only grow as their spending power increases. So it’s time to figure out what they want to hear from you.

Penry Price is vice president, Global Sales Marketing Solutions at LinkedIn, leading the company’s global ad business. He joined LinkedIn from Dstillery, where as president, he provided direction for the ad tech firm’s partnerships and managed the revenue and marketing operations. Prior to Dstillery, he held top sales positions at Google, where he led the North American Sales and Account Management teams before leading business strategy and global partnerships with advertising agencies — Google’s business that represented 30 percent of its global revenue. Reach him @PenryPrice.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.