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Targeted Marketing: Arms Open for Millennials but no Embrace Yet

May 4, 2016


We’ve all seen little figurines with their arms stretched wide standing on a pedestal engraved with “I love you this much.” That’s how I picture chief marketing officers when the subject of millennials is brought up. As Jennifer Kaplan reports, “The 83 million American millennials have become the country’s biggest percentage of working adults, making them prime targets for consumer brands.”[1] One would think that millennials are ideal subjects for targeted marketing campaigns. The problem, according to Kaplan, is that millennials are not rushing to get embraced in the open arms of adoring marketers. She explains:

“Companies bending over backward to sell to millennials are doing the one thing the cohort hates most: trying too hard. Attempts at wooing the emoji generation are often rewarded with a deafening ho-hum. Tic Tac put out a candy that changed flavours while dissolving (because millennials presumably get bored quickly); sales rose, but less than in the prior two years. Diet Coke put fan tweets on billboards (because Twitter is the millennial’s native tongue, the thinking goes); Americans still drink less and less soda. Banana Republic partnered with Hot Dudes Reading, an Instagram account, to create #HotDudesReadingForACause (because millennials reportedly want products with social conscience); net sales dropped 10 percent.”

Paul Angone (@PaulAngone), a millennial who has studied his generation extensively, told Kaplan that most targeting marketing comes off as inauthentic. “It’s as if your parents are trying to connect with you and they’re trying to do it by using the same language that your friends would,” he said. Being inauthentic, Angone claims, is one of the biggest mistakes marketers can make with his generation. Kaplan observes being inauthentic isn’t the only reason millennials aren’t running into the arms of marketers. “It’s not that the generation born between 1980 and 2000 doesn’t want to buy stuff,” she writes. “It’s that, mostly, they can’t. Seventy percent of the Class of 2014 took out loans to pay for college and owe an average of $29,000, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. In 1993, graduates owed an average of less than $10,000.” You also have to remember that millennials don’t yet form a cohesive group that can be easily characterized. After all the youngest members of Generation Y are only 16 and the oldest members are nearly 35. There is no single voice that speaks to both teenagers and mature adults. It also helps explain why there appears to be so many paradoxes when trying to characterize millennials.


Does that mean that marketers should ignore millennials until they mature a little more and start looking more like a cohesive generation? Shawn Casemore (@ShawnCasemore), President and founder of Casemore and Co. Inc., thinks that would be a terrible idea. “It goes without saying, he writes, “that if your customer growth and retention strategy doesn’t already address the preferences and influences of millennials; you might be heading for a world of hurt. Fortunately there is still time to turn the ship, albeit time to think about the direction and approach is dwindling.”[2] That begs the question: What direction and approach is best when trying to market to millennials? A better question might be: What targeted marketing strategy is best suited to reach millennials? By now it should be apparent that no single approach is going to work. If there was ever a generation that required proper segmentation, it is Generation Y. Big data, advanced analytics, and cognitive computing open the door to better segmentation for marketers. Cognitive computing systems can provide insights so granular that Murali Nadarajah, Head of Big Data and Analytics for Xchanging calls it creating a “segment of one.”[3] But creating a segment of one is only the foundation upon which a good targeted campaign is built. Content and customer experience are the essence of a good targeted marketing campaign. Casemore notes “an appealing customer experience” is essential “in order to ensure the sustained growth and profitability of your business.”


Providing customers with the right content and a good experience are harder than you think. A survey conducted last fall by Forrester Research found that marketers were more than twice as likely to rate their personalized campaigns “very good” or “excellent” compared to what customers thought about those same campaigns. Discussing this survey, Dan Berthiaume (@DBerthiaumeCSA) writes, “In addition, 40% of consumers say most promotions don’t deliver anything of interest, and 44% of consumers say they receive too many offers and promotions. Thus it is not surprising that 37% of consumers say they delete most email offers and promotions without reading them, while 40% have unsubscribed or opted-out because they feel overwhelmed.”[4] He continues:

“The negative impact of poorly executed personalization goes beyond driving consumers to ignore or opt out of promotions. Among those consumers reporting less-than-satisfactory personalized experiences, 61% said they were ‘somewhat’ or ‘much less likely’ to take advantage of future offers. Because consumers are sharing so much personal data with brands, they expect value in return — namely, in the form of transactional perks and improved customer experience. While most marketers seek to improve personalized customer experiences from this customer data, the study indicates their strategies are immature and their marketing efforts are falling short in this regard.”

Companies also need to understand how millennials connect with brands. You aren’t as likely to connect with on television as you are on their smartphones. Adrianne Pasquarelli (@SheLikesToShop) reports, “Younger generations are spending upward of 80 hours a month on their mobile devices. … With a growing population of mobile shoppers — 40% of consumers used their phones last year to search for what they wanted, compared with 36% in 2014, according to Accenture — there’s quite a bit at stake.”[5] Tanya Gazdik (@TanyaGazdik) notes, “Comfortable with technology, Millennials are generally more highly engaged in pre-store buzz than older generations.”[6] She adds, “Influencing Millennials before they make their shopping trips is even more important because they make fewer trips than their older counterparts. … So for retailers and manufacturers looking to engage with Millennials, the bottom line should be about focusing on a few key value propositions: authenticity, originality and value.” Today’s savvy consumers are looking for ads that inform more than sell. That’s why targeted marketing is increasingly referred to as content marketing. When marketing to millennials, finding an authentic voice to use is important. Use that voice to provide them with information they will value. Developing trust is essential if they are going to embrace your brand.


[1] Jennifer Kaplan, “Why millennials are crushing marketing directors’ dreams,” IOL, 1 April 2016.
[2] Shawn Casemore, “How Are You Engaging Your Next Generation of Customers?IndustryWeek, 25 November 2015.
[3] Murali Nadarajah, “Machine Learning and the Great Data Analytics Shake-Up,”Information Management, 2 March 2016.
[4] Dan Berthiaume, “Study: What do consumers think about personalized marketing?Chain Store Age, 14 December 2015.
[5] Adrianne Pasquarelli, “Why Retailers Are Missing Out on Mobile With Millennials,” Advertising Age, 22 February 2016.
[6] Tanya Gazdik, “Millennials Continue To Challenge Marketers,” MediaPost, 7 January 2016.

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