Solving the Mystery of Marketing to Millennials

The Sheraton Centre in Toronto was abuzz with marketers, social media professionals and branding experts as they gathered for the Digital Media Summit, an annual conference offering seminars about customer engagement and effective digital media strategies.

One of the more popular sessions of the day was “Generation Next: Targeting the Millennial Market.” Moderated by Ted Cohen, managing partner of TAG Strategic digital entertainment consulting firm, industry professionals discussed how to market to the most social media and technology-savvy generation ever.

One of the first points made at the beginning was not to brush millennials under a broad stroke of being narcissistic and self-entitled, the latter of which happens often by disgruntled old people who don’t understand technology.

“The way they use technology is different. Self-expression is a big part of building your brand and trying to stand out from the crowd,” says Hessie Jones, CEO of ArCompany. “It’s not narcissistic, it’s just how they express themselves.”

Sean Cunningham, managing director of strategy and development at Brand Momentum, echoes that because millennials are so immersed in their technology, marketing also needs to be done differently.

“Digital and social is not a place to just move your TV and magazine advertising,” Cunningham says. Though he says that brands love that they can supposedly get the reach they want, they don’t market properly as they do things like using ‘questionably witty’ comments on pictures. “That’s not how it rolls with millennials. It’s not authentic and engaging. You need to really sit back and think about what that is to you brand.”

As millennials cut themselves off from traditional services like cable, companies are having trouble figuring out how to monetize their digital outreach.  At the same time, millennials also love great content online, which is where brands should start looking.

“We need to produce more content, and I think that’s why brands are moving into native advertising and not producing commercials,” says Justin Erdman, head of business development at Tunestars. “They’re producing actual value content in people’s feeds in nonintrusive ways.”

At the same time, that content needs to spark the right kind of perception among the audience.

“One of the most important things about content is being close to your purpose and what you’re doing,” says Liam Negus-fancey, cofounder of The Physical Network. “Like how Red Bull doesn’t sell energy drinks. They sell energy. Content ads are about perception, while TV ads are just about when it’s on and are part of the marketing funnel.”

While marketing has a reputation for generally being a bit sketchy – how else would companies sell their products? – the panelists say that millennials are an extremely community-minded generation that value honesty.

“When it comes to reaching millennials as a content creator, authenticity really wins,” says Tatiana Simonian, VP of branded entertainment at Nielsen Entertainment. She cites the beginning of branded music entertainment as an example, saying that many brands felt the need to be egregious and have people constantly hashtag with brand names. Rather than rely on professionals, millennials prefer hearing the voices of people who are part of the same community as them and are immersed in the space.

“You need to get someone who’s a fan of that music to be messaging their audience, not a copywriter who’s like, ‘Hey dudes, turn up!’,” she says. “Anything like that doesn’t really resonate. And brands like 7UP and Red Bull are having a lot of success because they’re letting millenials help run the marketing. ”