Marketing to Millennials: Are Digital Natives Really So Different?

Jan 02, 2012


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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. As new articles in the series are published, they will appear at the bottom of this page.


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. As David Gautschi and Darius Sabavala write in their paper "The World That Changed the Machines," published in Technology in Society (1995), "The engine of change is the people who populate the market -- the world -- rather than the technologies and products-machines." So, while a great deal of focus has been placed on the technology this group has grown up with, marketing fundamentals still hold sway. This is not to say that differences don't exist. They do, but we're in dire need of some perspective. If companies are to develop successful marketing strategies, they need to have an accurate picture of the market.

Are digital natives (millennials) really so different?

The Cooperative Institute for Research Program (CIRP), which has been studying incoming college freshmen since 1966, has made some findings that contradict the blanket statements about the Millennial generation. CIRP shows that the top five life goals for college-bound students have not changed much over the years. For a group that is supposed to be wired so differently, their synapses are firing in a way that leads to similar outcomes.

CIRP tracks a variety of activities (socializing with friends, exercising or sports, watching TV, student clubs/groups, reading for pleasure, and housework/childcare), and since 1994, there has been virtually no change among college-going students in the time they spend on these activities. This would contradict the notion that digital natives are over-scheduled and are more focused on school and social activities than previous generations. With regard to the hypothesis that digital natives are less individualistic, according to Richard Hesel and John Pryor in their 2007 presentation at the American Marketing Association, "Marketing to the Millennial Generation: Beyond Howe and Strauss," there has been no change in first-year college students' self-ratings of cooperativeness or competitiveness from 1990 to 2001.

Let's debunk another myth: Digital natives are considered to be the savviest of all tech users. However, the 2009 Accenture "Consumer Electronics Products and Services Usage Report" found that although current thought has digital natives utilizing the technology they were born into at a high level, Baby Boomers actually embrace consumer technology applications nearly 20 times faster. The number of Boomers reading blogs and listening to podcasts increased 67 percent from the previous year, 80 percent faster than Millennials. There was also a 59 percent increase in Boomers' use of social networks, a growth rate that was 30 times faster than that of Millennials.

Nielsen's 2009 report, "How Teens Use Media," disproved the notion that teens' TV viewing is declining. The reality is that teens have shown a 6 percent increase in their TV viewing over the past five years. Ball State University's 2007 "Center for Media Design Study" explored the common belief that teens use media multiple screens at a time. The work revealed that teens viewed two or more screens at once only 23 percent of the time. The other 77 percent of the time found them viewing media one screen at a time. These partially founded beliefs are no doubt adding to the confusion of many executives as they attempt to develop a strategy to address and win the business of this sizable market. Yes, there are additional channels to establish and navigate, but meeting the wants and needs of the market is still paramount to earning their business.

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


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