It’s Time to Stop Marketing to “Millennials”

February 15, 2017 Bethany Johnson

A a colorblasting symposium at a wizarding seminar

“Here we go,” I thought. Another marketing meeting. Our poor director felt so much pressure that his anxiety transferred to the rest of us. The goal was always the same: smarter marketing to millennials. Meeting after meeting. Week after week.

He started in as usual, telling us again why “the millennials” are so coveted and what they would do for our business, if only we could refine our content strategy and target them better. I caught my friend’s wry smile from across the room, and she rolled her eyes. We’re both millennials, ironically. In fact, as I scanned the rest of the room, I realized over half of us were in our late 20s or early 30s. Here was this marketing expert, undeniably experienced, sure, but paradoxically preaching to millennials about how to target and reach . . . millennials.

On one hand, I get it. Many of the marketing managers who have seen a thing or two and made their way to the director level put in the time and mileage to earn their wings. Now, however, they’re teaching the rest of us newbs how to reach younger folks. The only thing is, we are the younger folks, most of us, and things appear different through our lenses. For example, as we scan the room, we don’t see “millennials,” although they’re there. Instead, we see individuals. We see sports fans, music snobs, caregivers, PC gamers, goofballs, tightwads, thought leaders, left-handers, redheads, golf enthusiasts, political activists, closet cat lovers, and life hackers. And that’s just one room.

Inside our generation, you’ll find more subsets than previous generations could ever have imagined. It’s time to ditch the target-those-millennials pressure. Instead, connect with a few millennials—really connect with them—and watch: they’ll bring all their idiosyncratic millennial buddies along for the ride.

Three smartphoning hipsters alone together at a cafe

Generation Generalization

While an email list or Twitter following of over 75 million may sound nice, it’s a rare enterprise that expects just marketing to millennials will grab and hold the attention of that many people at once. The answer, then, is the subsets within. Let’s look at a handful of the most prominent factions of the next generation.


This poor soul is befuddled by the many messages flooding his entire age group: Get married. Stay single. Save the world. Live for yourself. Save money. You deserve to splurge. Start a business. Loyalty is rewarded. Try new stuff. Don’t risk it. You’re entitled to opportunity. You owe the world. Understandably, our subject starts to question everything, which leads to analysis paralysis. Couple that with the fact that his parents (hi again, Boomers!), who were the first ones to use “parent” as a verb, felt compelled to hand him a participation trophy every time he finished a vegan meal. His filter is broken—so connecting with this millennial may be a challenge, as you’re competing with total garbage input. He has a fear of missing out (FOMO), yes, but it’s overruled by his fear of jumping in (FOJI). Once enlightened, this group is empowered to sort, sift, and choose which voice cares for his well-being and has tangible help to offer. You can find him on Reddit, or on his bed allowing autoplay to decide what he should watch next.

2. The On-Pause

This millennial bought into the popular philosophy that you can—no, must—make a living doing what you love. Your work should help save the world, and it should be fulfilling to you, too. So our bright-eyed youngster set out to do just that (likely in a city) and has hit wall after brick wall. He’s frugal, but pitifully so. Saving money isn’t a challenge he welcomes, but his student debt and commitment to his passion keep him near the poverty line. He has considered skipping meals to afford a new smartphone, not because of its gadgetry, but because he’s never lived without one. Connect with him by gently acknowledging his loss of innocence as he considers a less exciting cube job and “regular guy” commute. Getting the “on pause” millennial’s attention with a profound, evocative alternative is key, since he’s eager for solutions and has a network of friends who knows he’s trustworthy and noble.

3. The Fempreneur

Yeah, hi, name’s Bethany. Pleased to meet you. I’m in my early 30s and have already started two successful businesses that now employ about a dozen people. I work from home and cherish very few things: chiefly, my relationships and my effectiveness. My biggest desire is to nurture my family and enjoy my friends, and productivity is my means to that end. I resent time sucks like ads that don’t go anywhere. I wake up early to earn, so that, later, I can drink and be merry without guilt. Want to connect? Create a killer podcast I can consume while multitasking (think carpooling, folding laundry, or feeding a baby). I’ve sacrificed way too much for fluffy conversation, “meh” friendships, and mediocre media. I’m hungry for a good surprise, so craft an unexpected message that nails my pain points. If you do, you’ll see me share it with all the other millennial types in this list, since they all pay attention to me. As you can probably tell, I’m proud to a fault and get stuck in a consumerist rut easily if changing course would take time I don’t have.

Friends having a night

4. The Experiencer

This young adult is the one who, in high school, asked people to dare her to eat hot peppers. Today, she’s traveling with friends, staying in hostels, and posting photos of live conch on her dinner plate.

When she’s home, it’s zip-line tours over dinner dates, live comedy instead of a blockbuster, and farmers’ markets in lieu of the old Shop ‘n’ Go. She owns two cats, and in cat years, they’re millennials, too. She hangs out on Yelp, consuming reviews and little-known travel tips for locals. She craves an experience that others are too boring to consider. Deliver it, and she’ll post on six different social channels, hitting all the generations who worry about her safety.

. . . So What?

You may be wondering why I give a hoot who your content strategy targets. Why should I care if you’re hitting this millennial or grabbing the attention of that one over there? Why worry whether you lump us all in together with one another and blast us with a blanket message?

Here’s why: I have more in common with a grandmother who sold her homemade jams in the ’50s than the FOJI millennial struggling against excessive procrastination at work. I have more in common with the Silent-Gen old man driving my Uber than I do with the bleeding heart, passion-driven millennial who loves whales. I share almost nothing with the other subsets, when compared to the personalities in my neighborhood and industry with whom I rub elbows.

The one thing I do have in common with all other millennials, however, is the desire to be known. If you target millennials, do consider making a shift. Imagine not marketing to millennials but, instead, connecting with them. Craft a sharp message that shows a unique individual she’s not like the others. Because, with all the generalizations out there, millennials feel more like a target and less like a friend.

Do you remember my friend catching my attention in that marketing meeting and rolling her eyes? Now you can see why, exactly, she was unimpressed. The term “millennials” can sometimes be as vague as the word “humans.”

And you, of course, can be the connection they (we) crave.

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