Millennials (born 1982-2000) are referred to in marketing and research circles as the largest and most elusive generation of all time. They are often painted as a group of self-obsessed, multitasking, digital natives with short attention spans, limited brand loyalty and a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds. In other words, a generation that seems like a marketer's worst nightmare.
While many of the descriptions above may, in fact, be supported by data, they certainly don't paint an accurate picture of this generation. But it's hard to get a complete picture when much of the data appears contradictory.
Focus on one data set and you'll hear that they are a generation of activists, uniquely equipped to join forces as a community and mobilize, more dedicated to making a difference and leaving their mark than any generation before.
Is this true? Yes. Does this mean that they don't also spend endless hours playing mind-numbing video games, partying and just having fun? Of course not—they're young!
Research continually shows that millennials are a generation more likely to be friends with their parents and eschew the "Generation Gap."
True? Absolutely. Does this mean they never act out or rebel against their parents? NO— that's part of what young adults do as they grow as individuals.
Probably most commonly, you hear that millennials are a generation obsessed with authenticity, that they demand it from brands, from celebrities and from content, and that without it you will never win their love.
Is there truth in this as well? Absolutely. Does this mean that they hate studio-created pop-stars, so-fake-you-can-smell-it reality TV shows and fantasy fiction? Come on. Check your Twitter trends.
Marketers Need To Decode Millennials as People
So how do you make sense of this seemingly contradictory generation? We believe the reason marketers find millennials so hard to decode is because they focus too much on millennials as "a people," and too little on realizing that they are in fact "people." People with varied passions. People with personal and contradictory views. People, like us, influenced by their time and life stage who are making the best of it. And, frankly, at more than 80 million strong, they're too big a cohort to pigeonhole.
Are we saying that generational insights are useless? Given what we do for a living, of course not. We are saying is that as an industry, we need to learn not to obsess over such finite extremes.
For example, just because millennials watch and share a crazy amount of short-form video online, that doesn't mean TV and long-form content is dead to them. These are people who marathon full seasons of Breaking Bad in two days and then find themselves in a video wormhole. So much for short attention spans.
Both a love of short-form and a passion for long-form can coexist in the same person—this generation, and the world, do not operate with an either/or switch. It's both/and.
The both/and can come into focus, though, when one realizes that both their short-form snacking and long-form binging are driven by the same undercurrents: a desire for control, the immediate availability of amazing quantities of great content (and even more crappy content) and a love of immersive entertainment experiences developed early on by their interaction with games.
Übertrends Fuel Contradictory Behavorial Trends
To break these subcurrents down: The desire for control is an übertrend not limited to millennials. Give people DVRs and remote controls, Google search and immediate gratification capabilities and you unleash the beast in us all: "I want what I want when I want it" (An übertrend we call IWWIWWIWI).
Short-form video gives the sense of control provided by less commitment. Binging on long-form allows people to refuse to participate in the cliffhanger syndrome. I WILL find out what happens next, and I will do it NOW.
The availability of content is also something that affects us all. It means we have more to choose from, so our menu of stuff that we like tends to grow.
For millennials, that means they're enjoying short-form and long-form content, just-made and re-discovered content, silly and deep content—as long as they like it. And bigger and better TVs, 3D movies, and—most of all—games spawned their particular love of immersion in entertainment. The high-quality long-form content created by networks like AMC, FX, HBO and Starz shares something with the short-form wormhole facilitated by Reddit or YouTube—the sense of total immersion.
The implication for marketers is to look not just at the behavioral trends, but also at the undercurrents that portend them, to think of millennials not as some weird group with seemingly contradictory behaviors, but as a huge group of individuals affected by the subcurrents of their time, and embracing the both/and of multiple possibilities.
Both short-form and long-form represent opportunity, if they are immersive, served up in a way that taps into consumers' desire for control and can rise to the top of the content heap for some group of people by speaking to their passions or hitting their hot buttons.
We spend a lot of time talking to people about their viewing and consumption habits, their values and beliefs, their self-definitions and dreams. Though they are as diverse as…well, as diverse as individual people, there are many common undercurrents that we've seen, the understanding of which can help marketers and programmers get smart about how to connect to this sometimes seemingly contradictory generation.
It's The (Passion) Economy
Millennials are people, and people are, of course, deeply affected by their circumstances. "The Greatest Generation" wouldn't have been tabbed that if they hadn't had a war to fight. For millennials, a key circumstance is that they are coming into their own in the workforce at a weird time (though it may be the New Normal). Income disparity is growing, global economic energy is moving away from the USA, diminished expectations are the norm and money has shifted into just-invented, technology-centric sectors.
The economy is slowly improving, but millennials are stuck dealing with a world in which the "next generation" can no longer expect to out-earn the previous one. Their results are, again, seemingly contradictory behaviors that make sense given the undercurrent: Tech entrepreneurialism lives side by side with anti-Wall Street activism. A person can actually admire celebrities who "sell out" and "get paid" and still buy into Russell Brand's call to revolution against income disparity.
Under a number of notable millennial behavioral "trends" lays the economic reality as an undercurrent—often in combination with several other undercurrents. For instance, millennials are, in fact, likely to keep shacking up at mom and dad's home to save cash. It's a good thing they also tend to like mom and dad. Millennials are buying fewer cars, which are expensive and less necessary than in the past, which is driven partly by simple economics. That, by the way, creates a market for other sorts of proofs of adulthood and rites of passage, such as learning to cook (millennials are big foodies), or buying oneself a watch to reward a personal achievement.
One of the most interesting things that we've seen among millennials as a result of the undercurrent of diminished economic expectations is what we call the rise of The Passion Economy. One might even call millennials "The Passion Generation."
With less of a go-go economy (and a lot of millennials underemployed as baristas or "task rabbits"), career has become less important as a source of identity to millennials than to previous generations—even for those tech entrepreneurs.
That perhaps explains why millennials are far more likely to define themselves by their passions, whether completely individualistic and idiosyncratic (that's what the Long Tail phenomenon is for) or popular and trendy—or both. They participate in, trade and barter in, and both create and consume in a "Passion Economy" of products, services, ideas and memes. From Kickstarter to Quirky to Reddit to Twitter to Etsy to Potterworld, and on and on—brands, platforms, and channels that "get" the Passion Economy will do well with millennials.
Geeking Out for Fun and Profit
In the "Passion Economy," geeking out is cool. In fact, geeking out for fun and profit is one of millennials' favorite sports. People used to be generally smart, and specifically stupid. A competent adult couple could kill a deer and gut it, break it down and cook it, plant a garden, build a wall, school some kids, make some clothes, write letters, sing a song and play the piano.
Now we are generally stupid and specifically intelligent—and thanks goes to Colin Collard for this idea. We "outsource" competence in killing and gutting and raising our food, educating our children, and making our clothes and our music.
We focus on being specifically intelligent in whatever thing we make a living at, or get our jollies doing (which might be making or collecting music, of course). As the fire hose of Internet content has given us more and more opportunity to become more and more specifically intelligent, geeking out on passions has become a cool way to express one's identity. You know more about sports drinks than anyone else? Great! Tell me about that! Whether geeking out about barbecue, Breaking Bad, Big Data, or butterflies, it's all good, and gives you cred in the Passion Economy.
Many millennials would love to—and even expect to—make a living from their passion(s), if not soon then down the road. Their make-up videos, cooking or nutrition blog, content creation, Kickstarter idea, Etsy store, etc., are what they "see themselves doing" down the road.
Will they succeed? Well, certainly not all of them. But we can expect their infusion of passion into the corners of the world to result in some interesting consequences over the next decade. And if they don't make money, they still get the satisfaction of expressing expertise and creativity, achieving status and recognition and having influence by cultivating and sharing their passion.
Doing > Owning
In the Passion Economy, experience is valued more than objects. Ben Hindman, a brilliant millennial tech entrepreneur told us, "If someone posts a picture of themselves on Facebook standing by the car they just bought—that they OWN—I would think that was sick. But if they show me themselves driving it, or show how much expertise they have about it, that is cool."
Over and over, we see among millennials that even though they can probably multitask you under the table, they're also striving more to actually focus (and even unplug) to dive deep into the things they really love. When something truly matters, they will both immerse themselves in it with focus, as well as explore all the fringes of it available in our long tail world.
For marketers and content publishers, the Passion Economy invites you to tap into organic communities of passion to sell your wares. It suggests that you connect millennials to the content they need to geek out over your brand. It implies that you should invite them to express their passion through their own creativity—after all, we can thank passion for content phenomena like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Mortal Instruments, which started out in the fan fiction world—a Passion Economy if ever there was one.
Market Your Own Passion
Most importantly, as a marketer or brand-builder, if you want to connect with millennials, focus on your own core meaning. We're not talking about a meaning you've "created" to match some trend-spotter's idea of what millennials want, but a meaning that makes you feel passionate, and that your people are genuinely passionate about.
Don't worry obsessively about millennials' generational differences, but do study and embrace the passions and idiosyncrasies that can connect them as individuals with your unique offering. Make sure also to get to know the millennials that really "get" you—they are uniquely equipped to spread a meaningful message to millions.
To think you can reach "millennials at large" with any message or idea is unrealistic—there are just too many of them, and they are just too diverse. But if you make sure you know who YOU are and can express it authentically and with passion, you're likely to make the connection.
Oh, and don't forget to thank each and every one of them, personally, later. Is that really too much to ask after everything they do for you?
Open Mind Strategy is a New York-based target audience research and brand strategy consultancy specializing in the evolving multiscreen marketplace. Hafitz and O'Keefe together have conducted extensive qualitative and quantitative research with young consumers around the world, and have developed audience insights for a wide range of consumer brands and entertainment content companies—among them, MTV, AMC, Yahoo, Comedy Central, Amazon and EMI. O'Keefe is a millennial; Hafitz is not.