Marketing to Millennials: Mobilizing the Message

Feb 13, 2012

Article ImageThe following is the first in a series of eight articles on Marketing to Millennials (aka, Digital Natives), and is an excerpt from a chapter in the book, Dancing with Digital Natives: Staying in Step with the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business is Done. The full chapter is titled: "Adapting Old-Fashioned Marketing Values to the Needs of the Digital Native," and is written by Michael P. Russell. The book is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers in e-book and print format. See the end of this page for related articles.

Millennials are a driving force for mobile services and will increasingly be so as they move into the world and take on more responsibility for their own lives. According to Nielsen's 2009 "How Teens Use Media" report, 77 percent of teens in the U.S. already have a mobile phone. Wireless communication, a constantly evolving space, presents a big opportunity for companies. Mobile marketing and its promise has been hyped for a number of years, but only recently has it shown signs of delivering on that promise. There have been a number of hurdles holding back mobile as an effective channel: privacy concerns, the expense of data plans, ease of use, speed, and consumers' not wanting spam on their mobile devices, to name but a few.

The addressable market is growing though, as Millennials adopt mobile data in larger and larger numbers. According to "How Teens Use Media," 37 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers ages 13-17 access the internet on their phone. The report also found that more than half of teen mobile media users are open to mobile advertising. Teen mobile media users were roughly three times as receptive to mobile advertising as the total sub- scriber population. In addition, they demonstrate a willingness to use mobile devices to spread the word about a company or product.

BIGresearch's December 2007 "Simultaneous Media Survey" showed that more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds communicate with others about a service, product, or brand via cell phone, second only to face-to-face com- munication (66.9 percent). Digital natives are also taking advantage of location-based services that leverage mobile handset technology to determine where a customer is located at a given time. An October 2010 report by Pew Internet, "Americans and Their Gadgets," found that 96 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds own a cell phone of some kind ( In its "Mobile Access 2010" report, Pew also notes that young cell phone owners are significantly more likely to use mobile data applications, such as texting, social networking, playing music and games, watching videos, and making purchases (

For many people, digital natives in particular, mobile phones are considered as essential as an appendage. It is coming to light, however, that Millennials view their mobile phones as more of an entertainment device, while older cell phone users still see mobile devices primarily as a tool that blends work and personal communication. In any case, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones, companies are no longer limited to specific times and places for reaching customers. That said, however, it is crucial that mobile ads be relevant and offer benefits to the consumer if companies hope to gain a positive impact through this channel. Harris Interactive's "Mobile Advertising" research points out that mobile ads need to appeal to "real interests." Younger consumers are more susceptible to mobile ads that are geared to their areas of interest, such as sports and entertainment. They are also interested in location- and time-specific ads.

BIGresearch's December 2007 "Simultaneous Media Survey" reveals that the 18- to 24-year-old segment, more than any other age group, is swayed by video messaging on their mobile phones. This type of message influences purchases across the board, from electronics, apparel, and home improvement to medication, telecom services, and eating out.

Photo courtesy of r.f.m. II, Flickr Creative Commons.

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With the emergence of digital natives, companies are questioning how best to gain brand awareness with this sizable new group. As Celia Goodnow of the Seattle PI noted in her article "Millennials Thrive on Choice, Instant Results," Millennials are the second-largest generation in U.S. history after the Baby Boomers. They are coming into their own and companies want to determine how best to market to them and generate sales from them.
There seems to be a great deal of uncertainty about how to tap into the digital native (the Millennial generation) market. Take a breath -- the task is not as difficult or as different as some would have you think. Digital natives may be a new crop of potential customers, but many of their core drivers of demand are similar to what motivated previous generations. It's important to remember that when establishing a marketing strategy, the first step remains the same: Start by understanding what it is that the market is looking for.
It is helpful to keep in mind a simple adage coined by Ray Krok, the founder of McDonald's: "Look after the customer and the business will take care of itself." This is true for any generation (or population for that matter). Understand your customers, what motivates their demand, and meet those needs. The fact that Millennials now use multiple means to obtain and share information creates both a challenge and an opportunity. For a long time, marketers took a broad approach, as the channels available to them were geared toward a mass market strategy. The message could be targeted, but the medium reached the masses. Contrary to some current beliefs, those avenues are still available.
A number of companies have taken the "we know our market" approach by using a simple demographic definition of the market, as opposed to defining the market based on an understanding of the drivers of demand. Knowing these drivers offers far more insight when establishing a market strategy.
A global study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), titled "Maturing with the Millenials," claimed that more than half of the executives polled had not yet developed a way to target, attract, or retain Millennials as customers. This is a significant insight, since this generation is and will continue to be a formidable purchasing body. They are just beginning to graduate from college, enter the work force, and establish lives of their own. With those life steps comes the need to make purchases, including the most basic ones such as a car, furniture, and food. Digital natives didn't just appear on the horizon, and it is surprising to see that companies are, to a great extent, still up in the air about how to go after this audience.
Digital natives have a heightened expectation of immediacy in their desire to gain information and be able to react to it now. A key element in gaining and keeping the attention of this generation is to regularly modify and update your product and message. Don't be stagnant. Keep the message simple and to the point. Accustomed to the rapid evolution of the tools that they use, digital natives want something fresh from companies trying to market to them.
In the information circulating about digital natives, there are many references to the idea that older generations always think the upcoming generation is different from previous ones, but that this generation of digital natives really is different. They have more communication devices at their disposal. They are much more comfortable with them and much more adept at using them. Having grown up in a tech-heavy environment, they are quick to pick up on new technology and expect improvements or new offerings to come rapidly.