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Targeted Marketing to Millennials: Inform don’t Pander Them

March 2, 2017


I have heard people state that we live in a world in which everyone wants instant gratification. Some marketers may believe that assumption to be true and, as a result, pander to their targeted audience. According to AJ Reardon, a content creator and project manager at Ani Marketing Service, that assumption is flawed and can have negative consequences, especially when targeted marketing to millennials (aka members of Generation Y). Reardon, a millennial herself, explains, “People like to be catered to, but they tend not to like being pandered to. That’s doubly so when they’re being marketed to. A campaign that leaves people feeling like they’re being talked down to or patronized is not going to inspire a lot of brand loyalty. We Millennials are especially quick to notice when advertisers are pandering to us. We’ve grown up surrounded by advertising, and we’ve seen the dozens (hundreds?) of think pieces written about us and our buying habits. So this Millennial is here to give some advice on how to actually reach the young customers you want to attract.”[1] I’ll discuss some of her advice below.


The Myth of the Millennial Segment


The only accurate description of a “generation” is one relating to familial relationships. We all like to generalize, however, and have found some useful insights by grouping people tied to specific historical eras — especially members of the Greatest Generation who were born before and during the Great Depression, fought oppression during the Second World War, and were aspirational enough to put men on the moon. As Reardon notes, people have tried to find useful insights about people born between 1980 and 2000, who have variously been labeled Generation Y and/or millennials. As they age, this group of people may share some common traits; but, as of today, it’s hard to believe that the youngest Generation Y members (who are just turning 17) have much in common with the oldest members of that group (who are in their late 30s). Marketers trying to find a campaign that appeals to both teenagers and mature adults are headed for disappointment. The myth of millennials as a homogeneous segment evaporates even quicker when you look at members of that age group from different countries and cultures.


The point I’m trying to make is that targeted marketing to a large, diverse group (like millennials) has its limits. To be effective, much more granular segmentation needs to take place. Reardon explains, “Millennials contain multitudes. We’re students and entrepreneurs, swinging singles and young parents, introverts and extroverts, planners and free spirits. You can’t shove us into a single box based on our age group and expect to market to us based on that fact alone.” One of the reasons marketers like to lump people into generations is that it gives them an idea of how many potential consumers that group contains and how much they have to spend. Looked at in those terms, millennials appear to be tempting targets for marketers. Atul Jain (@atul03jain), COO of LeEco India, labels millennials “the ‘Me Me’ generation” and notes their “spending power is reportedly set to surpass a formidable $1 trillion by the end of 2020.”[2] As a result, Jain states, “This group is the Holy Grail for every marketer.” My advice is look beyond the millennial myth and find more meaningful segments of that age group which to target.


Targeted Marketing and Cognitive Computing


In order to discover more meaningful segments within Generation Y, marketers need to delve into the mountains of data they generate each day. As so-called digital natives, millennials have been generating data about themselves their entire lives. IBM Chief Marketing Officer, Michele Peluso (@michelleapeluso), and her colleague Laurence Haziot (@LaurenceHaziot), IBM’s General Manager in the Global Distribution Sector, insist “next-gen” shoppers “embrace, and are empowered by the latest wave of technology advances and have a strong appetite for a more personalized shopping experience.”[3] Among other things, that means they will continue to generate data that can help marketers provide a personalized shopping experience. As one might expect, IBM believes cognitive computing is one of the best tools to help marketers do just that (and — surprise! — as President/CEO of cognitive computing firm, I agree). According to Peluso and Haziot, a recent IBM survey found marketers have a lot of room for improvement in this area. They explain, “Even though over half of the brands [surveyed] were rated very good or excellent for their digital experience, research shows that it remains inconsistent. The study also found a mere 19 percent of brands offer more than a basic level of personalizing the online experience — which is far less than what today’s customer expects.”


If personalization is important to millennials, Peluso and Haziot believe it will be even more important to the following generation (i.e., Generation Z). “A frictionless shopping experience,” they write, “is particularly important for brands that want to appeal to the next big buying tribe: Generation Z. The births of U.S. Gen Zers outpaced millennials by 3 million.” In order to appeal to both Generation Y and Generation Z, they insist, “Retailers must evolve from emphasizing transactions to focusing on building intimate, unique customer relationships with each individual consumer. … If you fail to engage your customers, someone else will.” How does cognitive computing help in this effort? Peluso and Haziot explain, “Cognitive computing is able to comprehend both structured data, such as customers’ past browsing history, and unstructured data, such as images, videos, and bodies of text — and learns over time from previous interactions. In essence, it builds the capability to understand and reason much like humans do — through senses, learning and experience — to personalize the customer experience.” Reardon cautions, “The first and most important step is to remember your market segmentation. Millennials are no more a monolithic group than any past generation of 18-34-year-old consumers has been. What appeals to one group of us may outright offend others.”


Inform don’t Pander


Despite the fact so much has been written about millennials, Seshu Madabushi, a serial entrepreneur, believes more can be done. “Millennials are a prime focal group for targeted marketing,” he states, but targeted marketing is “a relatively untapped approach that marketers are slowly lining up to use for this 18-to-34 age demographic.”[4] He reiterates an important point that many other analysts have made, including Reardon. He writes, “This generation demands a toned-down, conversational marketing approach over direct sales pitches.” In other words, they want to be informed not pandered to. Reardon adds, “The key is to give us ads that we actually want to see. … Make your advertising mean something, whether it’s funny or touching or thought-provoking. That’s how you get anyone, Millennial or Gen X or Baby Boomer alike, to pay attention! Flashing lights, bright colors, and catchy jingles are old news. We’re all used to it now. Give us something we can really engage with.” She adds, “In the end, the most important thing is to remember that Millennials aren’t that different from how you were at the same age. We may have different tools at our fingertips, we may have some different concerns and ideas, but we still have the same basic needs and wants. We want to be respected, we want to have fun, and we want to buy products that will make us happy and make our lives easier. So sell us that.” Jain concludes, “These are exciting times. As millennials evolve, they will continue to push us marketers to craft strategies which will shape up the next wave of consumer marketing.” One of the best ways to engage them is to provide information they both want and need to make informed choices.


[1] AJ Reardon, “How to Market to Millennials Without Pandering,” MarketingProfs, 16 September 2016.
[2] Atul Jain, “Mining the middle of the pyramid: Millennials will like what a friend talks about, rather than an ad,” The Financial Express, 31 January 2017.
[3] Michele Peluso and Laurence Haziot, “Engaging the New Next Gen Shopper with Cognitive Computing,” CIO Review, January 2017.
[4] Seshu Madabushi, “How do millennials love thee? Let ’em count the ways,” QSR Web, 11 October 2016.

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