Guest opinion: Learn the art of appealing to millennials

From the Sacramento Business Journal - August 14, 2015 by Doug Elmets

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about millennials.

Some say they’re lazy, entitled and narcissistic, a generation obsessed with monitoring their FitBits and Snapchatting their way through life. Others have a rosier view, praising millennials as creative, adaptable and entrepreneurial.

Time magazine famously called them the “Me Me Me Generation.” But, perhaps surprisingly, they also are the most civic-minded bunch since the cohort of Americans born in the 1930s and ’40s.

Whatever you think, one thing is certain: at 80 million strong, they are the world’s most important demographic. Within the next five years, millennials will account for one-third of all retail spending and make up more than half of America’s workforce. They’re already delivering a powerful marketplace punch, shelling out $1.3 trillion annually for retail purchases.

What’s all this mean for business leaders? Understanding what drives millennials’ life choices is critical to the bottom line.

Generally defined as born between 1980 and 2001, millennials are a complex generation. They were reared amid the Great Recession, massive technological advances and globalization. They’ve watched their parents lose homes and jobs. They face a future clouded by heavy student debt, terrorism and a shaky Social Security system.

And yet, despite earning less on average than comparably aged Americans of the past, they are a surprisingly optimistic lot.

So how can companies appeal to millennials? Recognizing their attachment to social media and mobile devices is one important place to start. The Pew Research Center found that millennials send an average of 50 texts a day. Millennials also value recognition — hence the selfie.

By tapping into this impulse, a company can make millennials their pitchmen in the social-media marketplace. The clothing company Primark demonstrates this through its Primania website, which allows shoppers to upload photos of themselves wearing Primark apparel. Visitors can rate the pictures, browse, and share their own looks in what the site calls “your fashion playground.” It’s interactive, and it’s fun.

On a more serious note, millennials care dearly about corporate philanthropy and believe business bears a heavy responsibility for making the world a better place. Many may even switch brands if they feel a company does not share their values or is not doing its part.

Toms Shoes is one company that mastered the art of blending product sales with doing good early on. The hip shoemaker began by donating one pair of shoes for every pair purchased and later expanded its donations to include eyeglasses, clean water and even funding for anti-bullying programs.

Toms makes it easy for consumers to have an impact (and feel good) while wearing a cool pair of shoes. Buyers in turn nudge their friends to purchase a pair, expanding the social action “club” — and sales.

There are many other strategies that can help businesses attract Gen Y customers, from monitoring research about millennials to hiring a bunch of them so you’ve got your own in-house focus group.

When you do add some to your payroll, just make sure their company phones come with an unlimited texting plan.

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