Last week, AdWeek reported nothing new. No, the respected publication didn't merge with The Onion, creating a satirical take on the billion-dollar advertising industry – though media mergers are something we PR folks treat like a car crash these days: devastating yet inevitable.
What AdWeek did report was that people are pretty much all the same. At least this is how I took the news, reported on April 4, that millennial consumers – now a quarter of the U.S. population – learn about brands from friends and family (45 percent), prefer to shop for clothes in a store (62 percent), "like" brands on Facebook but also show their love of a brand by going out and buying whatever it is selling (54 percent), and assess credibility of a brand through traditional word of mouth (43 percent).
Millennials are people ages 18-34, a fact I'm sure you, my smart reader, are well aware of if you've so much as glanced at the TV or Internet or read a trade publication in the last year. The reason for all the fuss? The generation once called Y is the same size as the baby boomer generation and wields somewhere between $200 billion and $1.3 trillion in spending power. As they age, their wallets are sure to fatten, their tastes sure to shape the world. In short, they can't be ignored.
On the flip side, they might not be as unique as we once thought. (Don't tell them, however – a 2010 Pew Research study found that "most millennials say their generation has a unique and distinctive identity.")
Surely, millennials view the world through what Accenture calls "a uniquely digital lens." They grew up with technology and own loads of it. More than four out of five millennials own a smartphone, and they use it for searching, emailing, social networking, etc., three times as much as their Gen X counterparts (comScore, November 2013). For millennials, technology isn't just part of their life – it is their life. The average 18-to-34-year-old spends seven hours a day online, 81 percent are on Facebook, and the majority thinks losing their phone or computer would have a bigger impact on their life than losing their car (HuffPost Business).
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would have seemed preposterous to my college friends. We met at smoke-filled coffeehouses to share witty quips in more than 140 characters and went next door to eat sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts because it was next door, not because of Yelp reviews or Instagram shots of said alfalfa sandwiches.
But it turns out, based on a just-released study from digital shop Moosylvania, as reported by AdWeek, that millennials might also go to the sandwich place (though alfalfa sprouts have been replaced by kale) because their friends are going. They might even go because it's next door, though they probably found it because of Google Maps, not a quick eyeball scan.
Just like the generations before them, millennials might actually go to a store to buy the newest accessory (62 percent of those polled prefer to see and touch merchandise in person) and they might have heard about it on ... wait for it ... a television advertisement.
The point of this long-winded tale is this: Word of mouth still works. Which means a few things.
- All of us PR folks can stop holding our breath (phew!).
- Brands can stop worrying about the newest shiny technology, the most downloaded app, or staging the best selfie.
- Brands can go back to the basics: maintaining a good reputation with the combination of a valued product at a good price. In fact, millennials are "research sponges," according to the Moosylvania survey, and will call out brands that aren't meeting industry standards. Furthermore, they seek reassurance before, during and after a purchase, so a good (or bad) experience will resonate far beyond the single consumer.
- Communicators can put the vowels back in their words and deliver authentic messages that resonate. Millennials, it turns out, have high expectations from brands, expecting a trusted relationship fueled by honest answers to their questions. They also want brands to practice what they preach and value transparency over trends.
This isn't to say brands shouldn't update their tactics. Millennials might still head into a store – but 84 percent do use Facebook, Twitter or another social media site to discover brands. They trust word of mouth but consider "digital word of mouth" just the same as a call from mom. But when you look at the basic tenets of marketing, they remain remarkably similar – whether the generation is ABC or X, Y, Z.
We may sell our brand via tweet these days (oh, but don't. Only 20 percent of millennials value ads on Twitter), but we still have to provide a quality product. Our connection may be made on Facebook, but we still need to genuinely connect with our customers. And the millennials may be taking over, but they are really just like everybody else.
Not a millennial? Kevin Bacon feels your pain.
Tracy Aiello Henderson knows the bottom-line impact of a finely tuned awareness campaign -- shes been telling her clients stories to the media for nearly 15 years. Shes worked across many industries, but her real love is developing PR campaigns for restaurant and restaurant industry providers that build brand and buzz.