The standard rap against Millennials is that they’re distracted, have short attention spans, can’t let a minute go by without looking at their phones. But what seems like distraction is actually deep engagement. Millennials are basically beta testing the products of the world, even if they haven’t been asked to. Nothing is ever finished or perfect in their eyes, and they won’t take a passive stance knowing that’s the case.
Millennials aren’t out to blow up the status quo; they just want to make things better—call it soft disruption. Whether that means making things fairer, more convenient, or more transparent depends on the situation.
Repeated conversations about Millennials’ needs for customization speaks to the soft disruptive sensibilities of this generation. Here are the three best ways for brands to engage with Millennials.
1) Solicit Input
Millennials are influenced by the technological landscape they inhabit. It's a hackable and malleable landscape that a generation weaned on a continuous stream of new technology loves shaping.
Many of today's most successful innovations rise from the people, through open data, hackathons, and unsolicited ideas. In the old model, companies created products. If consumers wanted specific improvements, companies might find out about them through customer feedback—or customer returns. But there’s a way to prevent that last step from happening, which saves everyone time and money.
Brands, it turns out, can learn a lot from the people who are or could be using their products. Rather than imposing a product on consumers, companies would do well to ask customers directly what they want. For example, Glossier started as a fashion blog, then expanded to include product sales by asking their readers what they wanted in a face wash. Then they developed the new product, already knowing that consumers would like it before it hit the shelves. Now, more than 100 top customers are on a Slack channel, leaving feedback that helps the company's product team innovate faster.
New developments in tech plus opportunities for engagement give Millennials the space to shape products their way. And the companies who understand how Millennials think aren't just accepting customer feedback—they're asking for it.
2) Permit Experimentation
Like generations before them, Millennials face societal hurdles. Rather than withdrawing out of a sense of disenchantment, they’re motivated. Since everything is falling apart, they might as well follow their instincts and experiment. When Millennials aren’t pleased with the way something is working, the question they pose is, “How can I change this?” They don’t shy away from attacking a problem.
Millennials use the technologies and tools that are around them to innovate, molding the world to their liking. Out of a kind of existential fear of what the future may bring, Millennials feel that the time is now to put their imprint on it.
Twitter's rise is emblematic of this instinct. "At first, Twitter was more about telling your friends what you were doing right now," says media critic and journalist Jeff Jarvis in Fast Company's oral history of Twitter's early years. But, then, Twitter was "avidly embraced by young adults," as a 2009 Pew Research Center Report put it. Nearly one in five Millennials had used Twitter by 2008, the platform's third year of existence, but only 10% of those aged 35-44, and only 5% of 45-54 year olds. According to Pew researchers early in Twitter's existence, "Users have themselves expanded the information carried in a Twitter message through the development of tweet shorthand and symbols that allow for the sharing, replicating, and searching of tweets."
The Twitter we see today wasn't hatched by the brilliant minds of the platform's Gen X founders. Twitter's Millennial users invented it. And it has now spread to other generations. "My son had to push me to Twitter, I will confess," says Jarvis, a member of the Baby Boomer generation. (Donald Trump, another Baby Boomer, sent his first Tweet in May 2009.)
Does your brand give customers the opportunity to experiment with their own usage for your offerings?
3) Give Them Choices
Millennials have grown up in a world of choice. Generation X grew up reading the morning paper, while Millennials chose from infinite web sites. Generation X chose between Ragu and Prego. Millennials can choose between Ragu's roasted garlic or Prego's creamy vodka. Critics like to say Millennials have been coddled by the conveniences of the era, but this is simply their reality. For better or worse, Millennials expect lots of options.
Many Millennials are motivated by the number of options they have. Because they've always lived in a world partially tailored for them, Millennials are driven to pursue an aspirational lifestyle, with nuanced products customized to their every need.
Delivering a product that goes beyond "one-size-fits-all" is how you'll win with Millennials.
What's Next For Companies?
If marketers are saying you need flashy ads to break through to distracted Millennials, you're getting bad advice. Instead, satisfy their desire to provide input, to experiment, and to make choices.
The big question:
Where does your product fit in the world that Millennials are creating?