Everyone has their idea of what it means to be a millennial.
For many it is a segment designated simply by time, such as those born 1980 onwards, or aged between 18 and 34. For others it has almost become a synonym in itself for young people. Praised by some as digital natives, socially conscious or ambitious, criticised by others as lazy, entitled or narcissistic; whatever you think about millennials, they are a highly interesting and important demographic in today’s world.
So what is a millennial? And with such uncertainty surrounding its very definition, how can you effectively target this audience?
Where did the term ‘millennials’ come from?
The term is widely credited as originating from the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote about the topic in their books Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 and Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.
They began using the term around 1987, when children born in 1982 were starting their education, and people realised that this cohort would graduate school in a new millennium.
What does the term mean to different people?
There is some disagreement on the exact age ranges, but the broad consensus is that millennials fall under the 18-34 bracket, and so were born in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Even the moniker itself – ‘millennial’ – is not ideal for all, with some observers preferring Generation Y (as a follow-on from Generation X) or Echo Boomers (paralleling the traits of Baby Boomers), as examples. And things become even more complicated when we explore different opinions on millennial characteristics.
The psychologist Jean Twenge described Millennials as "Generation Me" in her 2006 book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before. And in 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story titled ‘Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation’.
This perceived narcissism from a few commentators, however, is considered by others as increased self-awareness. Millennial expert, Lindsey Pollak, writes that she finds
‘this generation to be more focused on describing themselves as individuals (hence the rise in “personal branding” as a career skill).’
The idea that millennials are narcissistic is at odds too with Strauss and Howe’s theory that millennials are actually the “civic-minded” G.I. Generation, with a strong sense of both local and global community.
The Boomerang Generation
American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis has called millennials the Boomerang or Peter Pan generation, because of the trend to delay some rites of passage into adulthood (moving out of their parents’ house or getting married, as examples) for longer periods than the generations before them.
In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults aged 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.
The Digital Generation
On the other hand, Ve Copywriter, Kate Rogerson, believes that the defining characteristic of millennials is their digital literacy. On targeting millennial travellers, she writes that ‘growing up surrounded by the internet and smartphones, they experience and expect instant gratification with everything digital. They are the ‘Now Generation’.’
To grow up surrounded by tech, millennials have learnt to expect an efficient online experience and demand only the best digital experiences.
Behind the millennial mask
The examples above are just a small sample of the varied opinions on the defining characteristics of millennials. The only clear conclusion we can draw is that millennials provoke a multitude of differing views, both positive and negative.
Pollack concludes that
‘many people have specific, often negative stereotypes about this generation. They’re surprised when they find someone behind the “millennial mask” with traits they weren’t expecting: hardworking, humble, inquisitive, to name a few.’
One way that some commentators have gotten around the millennial terming issue is by segmenting the cohort further, using terms like the Oregon Trail Generation or Xennial, for example. These neologisms were coined to cater for those individuals born in the late 1970s and early 1980s who might see themselves as being "between" Generation X and a millennial.
So how can you target millennials online?
Whilst it might be true that we’ll never be able to accurately ‘pin down’ what a millennial is, we’ve collated a handful of the broad characteristics that can act as a starting point when creating your buyer personas:
- As a general rule, millennials are active on social media and will use social platforms to interact, research and share ideas.
- They demand a personalised and intuitive online experience that is quick and easy to navigate.
- They are increasingly mobile-first and are strong believers in an omni-channel approach to browsing and purchasing.
- Whilst they often have less disposable income in comparison to older generations, they are more spontaneous when it comes to purchasing decisions and are happy to pay more for an ‘experience’.
- Growing up during a period of economic uncertainty, millennials are critical of anything inauthentic, so marketing needs to be personal, well-considered and, above all, offer value.
Whilst the above millennial identifiers can act as a useful starting point when creating broad buyer personas, they should not be taken as gospel. Understanding millennials, and more broadly understanding your audience, is an ongoing exercise that can only come from analysing the behavioural data at your proposal, alongside consistent evolution of your buyer personas and in-depth industry expertise.