Millennials are an influential bunch. One reason for this is that they are fast becoming a major demographic category – depending on who you ask, up to 24% of the population. They’re also described as the first generation of “digital natives” – in other words, they’re experiencing more of their lives online than any generation before them, particularly through social networks.
Because they’re online so much, and because ad and content serving are now personalized based on an overwhelming level of detail, it’s not surprising that marketers and brands covet Millennial attention spans, thoughts, and actions. But while targeting and tracking technology is rapidly evolving, the content actually created for Millennials is at times problematic. One reason for this is that the dominant narratives advanced by media, brands, and the public at large are still too simplistic. Frequent statements about Millennials include that they are the “Everyone Gets a Trophy” or “It’s All About Me” generation, and are entitled, privileged, impatient, or narcissistic. While some of this reflects how older generations tend to label those that come after, these narratives are often advanced at the expense of deeper insights. In particular, there is both qualitative and quantitative information that indicates Millennials seek to work for and buy from companies that affect measurable positive change on the world around them. There are also first hand accounts that suggest Millennials are interested in companies that have a defined set of brand ethics, including transparency around the quality of products, how and where they are created, how brands present themselves, and whether that is supported by their messaging on multiple platforms over time.
Authentic / positive content, and the rise of the selfie
One of the more complex trends attached to Millennials is the selfie – a type of casual self-portrait photo usually taken with a phone at arm’s length or in a mirror and then posted to a social network like Twitter, Snapchat,, or Instagram. Critics point to narcissistic tendencies and/or validation of physical appearance as the primary reason for why people take selfies – specifically, teenage girls desperate to win approval from their peers: “…[girls] understand that looks are important, however much adults tell them they are not. It is now accepted that fame rests not just on talent, but the ability to self-promote.” But what about other, more positive interpretations like #nomakeupselfie? A few months ago the trend organically appeared on social networks as a way to support breast cancer survivors, and went on to raise eight million pounds for Britain’s primary cancer research organization.
Or #feministselfie, which threw into stark relief how rarely black women see themselves represented in mainstream media?
@Karnythia Yes. Before the internet/selfies, I legitimately didn't know that dark skinned, natural haired black women could be beautiful.
— Lauren (@xoDrVenture) November 21, 2013
While there are differing opinions on the value of selfies themselves, they do highlight a trend: Millennials seem to seek out authenticity and inspiration. Millennial women, in particular, look for content that is positive in tone and that informs. An interesting example is the Dove Real Beauty campaign, which has done extremely well in the last couple of years, despite facing some criticism that it relates female self-worth to physical appearance too much. The campaign, which has been running since 2004, resonates strongly with Millennial women – in particular because it relaxes nearly impossible to achieve beauty standards…and has generated significant online and offline conversation about transparency, beauty, and how women perceive themselves as individuals, and how they perceive each other. But Millennials aren’t just interested in being authentic and open themselves – they expect the same from brands that they interact with.
Transparency and brand ethics
Transparency is one of the most important principles for Millennials, particularly when a brand collects and uses data to market to them. While they probably don’t read the lengthy terms and conditions any more than other generations, if a Millennial trusts a brand and has had good experiences in the past s/he is significantly more likely to share personal data in exchange for relevant content.
Millennials are also becoming more interested in different parts of how a brand works, including what the brand does to give back…something that prompted the launch of H&M’s Garment Collecting Program last year. All of this suggests another important insight to keep in mind when creating content for millennials: brands can no longer expect to silo business units, or communication. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, learned this the hard way when it was roundly criticized for empowering women with the Real Beauty campaign, but demeaning them with content and advertising via other products in the brand family.
Consistent content across platforms
The wide variety in channels / platforms is also forcing brands to rethink the format for content they create. Since they are the first official “digital natives,” Millennials are online more than any other generation, and they use a variety of channels. Because of this, consistency in both structure and content is crucial.
While each channel has strengths and weaknesses, brands and marketers need to consider that Millennials can and do view content across channels and on multiple devices. This means it’s imperative to excel at telling stories natively within each medium, and to create a wealth of content for all platforms that explores how a brand works, and why. Doing this will reduce the gap between what a company says it is and what it does, and ultimately create trust and a loyal audience. Joe is a former product/ops guy now doing comms & strategy for the New Mexico Compass, as well as moonlighting for startups in content/growth/analytics. He digs media, design, startups, data, PR/marketing, rocanroll, anything science-y, and thinking about how to become a better human. You can find Joe on Twitter, Google+, and Medium.