How to Use Authenticity, Brands, and Visuals to Engage Millennials


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Article ImageProven sales pitches and promotional tactics that register with Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can bomb when directed toward 18-34 year olds. That's because, whether it's due to intrinsic fickleness, innate skepticism, or vexing demographic complexity, Millennials can be downright difficult to market to. But if you can speak their language and attract their eyeballs, you stand a better chance of engaging this increasingly populous and powerful consumer segment.

To ponder how challenging and rewarding it is to reach Millennials, consider what we know about them:

  • "95% of Millennials say that friends are the most credible source of product information, and 98% are more likely to engage with a friend's post versus a brand's post," according to "Millennials as Brand Advocates" by SocialChorus.
  • "Millennials (58%) expect brands to publish content online before they make purchases and regard authenticity (43%) as more important than the content itself when consuming news (32%)," per "Millennial Consumer Trends" by Elite Daily.
  • The Elite Daily study indicates that "Millennials want brands to engage with them on social media and to be part of their product development team; 62% of Millennials say that if a brand engages with them on social networks, they are more likely to become a loyal customer; 43% say that Facebook is the social network that most influences their spending habits, followed by Instagram (22%) and Pinterest (12%)."
  • Nielsen reports that American Millennials comprise 24% of the population (77 million), and according to the Boston Consulting Group, they possess approximately $1.3 trillion in annual buying power.

What is it about Millennials that makes them difficult to reach? Tony Uphoff, CEO of Business.com, says it's their built-in B.S. meter. "Millennials are inherently skeptical about marketing. They have grown up with an overwhelming amount of marketing messages and have a finely tuned radar for marketing-speak," says Uphoff. "They search out authenticity in their sources, brands, and relationships."

Mark Harrington, VP of marketing at Clutch, says what adds to a marketer's difficulty is that this generation lives in an "always on" state, with real-time connectivity. "The crux of this challenge is the personal nature of this generation, which has constant access to product comparisons, pricing engines, and customer reviews, which often serve as detours to a brand's path to purchase," says Harrington.

Additionally, "their disinterest in one-way communication and their hesitancy to share what they consider ‘too much' personal information with companies makes Millennials unique," notes Matt Krebsbach, director of global public and analyst relations for Bazaarvoice.

The solution? Millennials want authenticity, insists Jason Parks, of The Media Captain. "If an advertisement feels too ‘sales-y,' it is not going to entice them, as they'll be able to see right through it. Marketers have to make sure their advertising message is genuine," Parks says.

Indeed, credibility and relevancy are at the core of many Millennial buying decisions, and the ability for a brand to provide authenticity is critical in its strategic approach. "This can be achieved by providing advisory content, tips and best practices, customer referrals, and user-generated content," Harrington says.

Many believe that user-generated content has become the proxy for firsthand, real-world experience among this demographic. "Millennials trust content from friends far more than content from brands, which makes content created and shared by consumers much more meaningful," says Katherine Hays, CEO of VIvoom. "But this requires more than simply taking user-generated content and putting it on a brand's own site or social channels. It requires relying on branded user content, which takes the best of brand-created content and combines it with the best of user-generated content-including its authenticity, natural trustworthiness, and the fact that people want to view and share it."

However, be careful not to appear as if you are controlling the message by suppressing negative commentary or modifying consumer feedback. "This will erode your brand reputation and consumers' trust in you as a business that values their needs and interests," Krebsbach says.

For brands to successfully appeal to this segment, they need to study the target audience carefully and keep the message simple, authentic, and relatable, says Parks, who cites Ray-Ban's current #campaign4change as a winning example. "Brands that are inviting Millennials in to participate in building the brand with them are having great success," says Hays, pointing to Coca-Cola's Share a Coke campaign as exhibit A.

"They want to know the background, and they are much more interested in what their social group's experience has been than a traditional ‘review,'" adds Uphoff.

Carefully chosen visuals can be a powerful tool to attract Millennials too. "The ubiquity of digital imagery, fueled by Millennials' fervent use of mobile devices, has spurred the growth of image-dominated social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest. Images posted to these networks speak to Millennials' prioritization of experiences over products," says Krebsbach. "Tapping into these images and applying them in key purchase channels helps give Millennials the engaging information they crave and provides a critical conduit that helps carry a Millennial from product exploration to purchase."

Matthew Langie, CMO of Curalate, agrees that images provide an efficient and effective way for Millennials to communicate with each other and with brands. "Consider the growing fondness for emojis or the mass adoption of foundationally visual platforms like Tumblr," says Langie. "But be aware that the traditional stock photo of yesterday has become somewhat exhausted. Seeing an image of a friend unwrapping a new gadget does a lot more for a Millennial consumer than seeing a stock photo of it somewhere online."

In fact, Curalate analyzed the top Instagram images from 25 major brands over a 30-day period and found that 69% of the top three photos originated from fans. Yes, when it comes to reaching Millennials, your best friend just may be other Millennials who are willing to spread the word about your company.   

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)