May We Have Your Attention: Marketing to Millennials

Kelly Ehlers
Founder and President, Ideas That Evoke


We read headlines about millennials daily, but it’s not every day that brand strategists are able to hear directly from them. Brands succeed when they start a conversation that someone wants to join. That’s part of what we do at my company, and that’s what Nielsen did in Millennials on Millennials, its latest report on the largest generational group in the U.S. Millennials are digital natives, which means they grew up with a level of technological literacy that’s fairly new to the market. Social media is the heartbeat of marketing to millennials, but it’s not as simple as a static digital presence.

Viewing Patterns Are Shifting

Nielsen’s Millennials on Millennials report cites the generation as a distracted audience in terms of their viewing behavior. Channel surfing has traditionally demarcated distraction. However, the report found that less than 2 percent of millennials watching TV changed the channel during commercials. Comparatively, older generations doubled and quadrupled that percentage. Though they didn’t channel surf during commercials, millennials scored low memorability rates for what they watched. This indicates a major shift in viewing patterns, and all signs point to mobile devices. While Nielsen reports that millennials are still watching TV in the traditional sense, they’re frequently — and simultaneously — tuned into TV-connected devices.

Brands succeed when they start a conversation that someone wants to join.

Meet Them Where They Are

While the study showed that Gen X and baby boomer viewers focused their attention on the TV but changed the channel, millennials were reportedly more likely to scroll through their phones or open new tabs on their laptops. This culture of multitasking often has 18-to-34-year-olds switching from phones to tablets to smart TVs, and this division of attention can actually prove to benefit strategic ad campaigns. By dividing your brand’s ad investment into multiple platforms, you can extend your reach across channels.

Targeting Gets Personal

Because of the diversity among millennials, targeting isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Brands are extending their reach across social media with the increasing number of ad targeting management options offered by platforms like Facebook and Instagram. They’re partnering for interactive social campaigns and seeking activations beyond mobile devices, organically entering into a customer’s lifestyle. Social groups and lifestyle preferences indicate purchasing patterns more accurately than traditional life stages: millennials grew up with product reviews and social tools to share opinions before committing to a purchase, and influencer marketing is a result of this word-of-mouth culture that values trusted endorsements. Social media is one way for customers to express brand loyalty, and it also provides an unofficial endorsement in the form of user-generated content (UGC) that can then be reposted by the brand. This direct engagement invites the millennial audience into a conversation while strengthening the relationship between consumer and brand.

Traditional Advertising Is Fading Fast

The old regime of traditional advertising is fading as millennials focus on experiences and interactivity over hard sells. Unsurprisingly, content providers caught on even before Nielsen’s study reported millennials as having the lowest program engagement and lowest ad memorability scores. That’s why ad-skipping features are often disabled in video on demand, or VOD, content. However, limitations like this haven’t deterred millennials from ad viewership and engagement. In fact, in terms of openness to advertising, millennials are actually more receptive to viewing ads than other generational groups as long as the VOD content they are viewing is accessible and free. This conditional acceptance of ads aligns with the pattern of millennials responding well to an acknowledgment of their values.

A Currency of Clicks

Millennials across a range of socioeconomic backgrounds share an increasingly valuable resource: their attention. According to Nielsen, many millennials polled understand the necessity of ads and aren’t bothered by them. That number leaps from 46 percent to 75 percent when the content they’re viewing is free. Based on practical executions, I’ve learned that millennials value being acknowledged as individuals, being presented with options, and feeling connected. Millennials don’t care if content is branded; they care about whether it speaks to them.

Millennials have a lot to offer the market, and it all starts with their valued attention. The rise of social and influencer marketing exemplifies the ways in which millennials prefer to be part of a brand’s conversation, not a passive witness to an ad. By directly addressing this generation, brands are able to spark a connection. Engaging with millennials sustains these connections and transforms ads from an afterthought to an experience.


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