How to Win with Millennials?
Stop Generalizing Them and Quit Asking How “I” Can Win
I’m what you might call an “ambivalent” Millennials expert. I’ve spent an entire career studying and following this particular generational cohort from their early childhood years up through their transition into adolescence, young adulthood, and more recently into parenthood. I’ve researched Millennials at different stages of life across a broad range of topics, categories and industries. From my unique vantage point, I’ve developed a deeply rooted understanding of what makes Millennials “special” (in identity, outlook, and behaviors) compared to other generations before them.
So why do I cringe when I call myself – or am called – a Millennials expert? It’s for the same reason that Millennials themselves are so tired of and repelled by this moniker and by the broad generalizations that go with it.
It’s a fact that the Millennial generation is a formidable force to be reckoned with. They have the population size, the education, and the access to technology that enable them to alter the course of business and commerce (as well as society in general), like no other generation before them. Indeed, now that Millennials have come of age en masse, we’re feeling the impact of their influence more acutely across a wider range of industries and categories than ever before.
So it’s no surprise that many of the requests we get from clients today have a Millennials agenda or focus attached to them. Typically the client need is expressed as: “we need to better understand and connect with Millennials” or . . . “we need to find a way to be more relevant to todays’ Millennials”. The implicit goal behind this request is, frankly, a self-serving, business-focused one. In other words. “How can we (the business) benefit (win) by gaining a better understanding of this consumer cohort group?”
After all, this is the reason that businesses exist – to make a profit, right?! While true, I would argue that this is the wrong question to ask because, behind it, is a way of thinking (a mental model) that actually prohibits an organization’s ability to “win” with Millennials. The real question client companies need to be asking themselves is this: “How do we make things (products, services, offerings) that are authentically interesting and relevant to Millennials?” Authenticity and “for-me”relevancy are core values of Millennials – as is the need to be recognized as an individual with unique needs, wants and interests that cannot be generalized to an entire generation. Millennials can sniff out false motives with ease and can be pretty unforgiving of marketers who abuse their sense of “fair play”.
To win with Millennials, therefore, requires a shift in mindset from a “what’s in it for me” perspective to a “how can we better serve the needs of this consumer?” mindset. It’s this inverse way of thinking about consumers (users) that is the special domain of the User Experience (UX) discipline. UX was born out of the need to improve the product experience of the user/customer by focusing very specifically on the needs of the individual at the granular (in situ) and personal level.
The diagram below serves to illustrate the inverse approaches that market research (AKA consumer insights) takes to achieve a “win” with Millennial consumers vs. consumer/user experience-focused functions showing up in departments with names such as user-centered design, innovation, user experience, customer experience, design thinking, etc.
Despite their complementary nature, in most organizations today, these two functions operate independently of each other, rarely converging and bringing together the unique perspective territories that each one “owns”. Moreover, as indicated by the arrows in this diagram, neither function tends to go far enough into the realm of the other.
- Market research doesn’t go far enough in terms of understanding the consumer at a deeply personal, situational, and individual level (e.g. beyond group-based segmentation analysis). In the case of Millennials, a typical MR approach tends to get stuck in viewing this particular cohort as a generalizable “target” (just think about that word for a minute) to be studied and dissected for the purpose of finding areas of opportunity where the business can insert itself to their gain. This approach is heavily focused on finding the “win” for the business and only secondarily focused on the offering itself (product/service, etc.) and its value to consumers. By its nature, the MR approach encourages a rather impersonal, detached view of the consumers (staying at the high level view and not delving deep enough to see them as “real” people).
- UX professionals, on the other hand, typically don’t go far enough into understanding the business context that is driving the research and/or the specific action criteria that needs to come out of it. In other words, the UX approach is flawed for being too singularly focused on the personal, individual needs of the consumer/user without giving enough consideration to the needs of the business and it’s core problem to solve.
With these “gaps” comes the opportunity to merge and integrate practices for a more holistic understanding. So, how do you do that? That’s where an “up leveled” practice of “personas” come in.
Today, the UX answer to authentically understanding and connecting to Millennials is to develop “personas” of key sub-segments of the larger group. The expressed purpose of personas among UX professionals is to dimensionalize and “humanize” each particular sub-segment in such a way that it will create empathy for this type of consumer and will inspire creative solutions for addressing their needs.
The “persona” way of profiling and thinking about consumers is definitely a step in the right direction. Corporate marketers and insight professionals can benefit tremendously from the use of personas as it provides a perspective-changing view of what connection to a “real life” consumer really means. That said, personas are only as good as the purposeful outcomes and impact it can have on the business. Due to the business context-light mindset of most UX professionals, the majority of personas being done today do not go far enough in the other direction – beyond empathy – to translating the personal and specific characteristics of each persona into business outcomes and action steps needed to deliver impact — on both the business and the customer.
In sum, I’m ambivalent about calling myself a “Millennial expert” because the title itself tends to unwittingly reinforce a top-down, overly generalized and business-serving perspective of this cohort vs. a bottom-up, individualized and consumer-minded perspective. The reality is that no one is or can be an “expert” on a whole generation of people. What is true is that my subject-matter expertise provides me with a solid foundation for understanding the critical factors of influence affecting this generation and, in turn, for knowing where and how to dig deep into specific topic issues to identify nuances, patterns and insights that others without this foundational understanding may likely miss.
Going even further, my real expertise is in understanding how to design and lead Millennial initiatives that yield a broad and deep understanding of Millennial consumers and where both stakeholder perspectives (the business and the individual consumer) are taken into account and ultimately integrated for maximum gain by everyone involved.
Finding that “sweet spot” between perspectives is our mission here at Sylver Consulting. Sylver operates at the nexus of Market Research (MR), User Experience (UX), and Strategy, giving us the knowledge and the skills needed to bring together these complementary disciplines in a powerful way.
If you want to know more about how to “win” in an authentic and relevant way with Millennials, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s set up a call!