The term “millennial” has been so overused and abused in recent years, especially in the world of marketing and content strategy, that to my ears it has lost all meaning. I know that I’m supposed to fall into this generational segment but in many ways I feel like I don’t belong. Most other millennials I’ve talked to feel exactly the same way. So what is this conception of a millennial and who does it actually represent?
A millennial is an individual born sometime between the early 1980s and the late 1990s to early 2000s. They are generally the children of the Baby Boomer generation and they follow the demographic cohort of Generation X. This is about as much as anyone can agree on when it comes to characterizing millennials. There is disagreement as to whether millennials are civic-minded or narcissistic, and to what extent certain characterizations leveled at them are representative of this dizzyingly diverse group and not just applicable to, as education scholar Fred Bonner criticizes, “white, affluent teenagers who accomplish great things as they grow up in the suburbs, who confront anxiety when applying to super-selective colleges, and who multitask with ease as their helicopter parents hover reassuringly above them.”
In years past, segmenting your audience by generation may have been an effective method for targeting an identifiable lifestyle, common values, and shared behaviors, but the strategy seems to fall apart with millennials. The advent of groundbreaking digital communications technology, rather than acting as a unifying cultural force, has allowed for an increase in diversity in everything from employment opportunities to fundamental values and ways of life.
If there can be one collective description of the millennial generation, it’s this unprecedented level of diversity and individual differences. Bethany Johnson, writing for the Content Standard, explains what a millennial sees when they scan a room full of millennials: “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.”
Another problem with trying to characterize millennials as a single identifiable group is the age range of the cohort. It simply encompasses too many years to usefully isolate and identify common characteristics. The acceleration of technological change has increased the rate at which we experience paradigm shifts so that in just a few short years, life can look completely different.
Jesse Singal, writing for CNN, suggests that at the very least the millennial generation ought to be dissected into two halves: young and old millennials. He explains that young millennials (those born after 1989) were subjected to two significant events that drastically altered their life experiences compared with old millennials. Those two events were the financial crisis and the proliferation of smartphones during the period of time when young millennials were still adolescents. These were formative years for young millennials to develop digital dependencies and addictions and to have the precarious economic situation affect their chances of getting a foot on the employment ladder. These factors make the lives and experiences of old millennials quite different from those of young millennials, according to Singal.
Image attribution: freestocks.org
I can sympathize with this divide. While I won’t deny I’m very much caught up in the frenzy of an increasingly digital existence, I also find myself apprehensive and exhausted by the proliferation of new digital technologies and applications, out of step with other members of my so-called millennial cohort who happily hop on each new bunny-eared bandwagon without question. (Yes, Snapchat, I’m talking about you.)
So if millennials are too diverse to define as a single group, how should we go about determining the right market segmentation to target members of this generation?
If all you have to go on is “millennial” as your target audience, you need to do more research to identify which subsets and which individual characteristics, lifestyles, or behaviors are your focus. Do not make assumptions about your audience.
Marketers should start by identifying the detailed characteristics of the audience they hope to reach without using the term millennial to describe them. Think about some different examples of individuals who might be among your audience and capture the diversity of that audience in the differences between your personas.
One of the biggest pitfalls in digital marketing is the tendency to want to cast as wide a net as possible. Don’t. In a crowded digital media landscape, eyeballs are restless and if content sounds too vague or generalized to strike a personal chord, audiences will move on quickly.
Try breaking down the millennial generation into smaller spans of years — generettes, if you will — to reflect the shorter time spans within which life can change drastically for members of the same generation.
Finally, check out some proposed millennial factions to get you started on thinking of the millennial generation as a diverse group of people with many individual differences.
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Featured image attribution: Joshua Peacock