You are on page 1of 8

Do You Actually Know How To

Engage A Millennial? 2 of 5.
A series of strategic memos designed to help people across all industries think differently about the
Millennial generation, in an effort to accelerate a shift in the way we engage them.
by Brian Reich and Kari Saratovsky
June 16, 2014
How Are Millennial Views
Do you know how to engage a Millennial?
That was the first question that we asked at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, TX. Our
answer? Based on how most organizations market to and communicate with young people,
probably not.
While the headlines and ‘experts’ would claim that young people are coddled, protected, and con-
stantly connected, the facts are very different – particularly when it comes to what they want, how
to engage with them, and what it means for your work. What do we know? Millennials are post-
institutional—they don’t rely on the government, private sector, or nonprofits to define them, or
shape their behaviors. In large part, they believe it takes a blending of sectors and approaches in
order to make impact – and they crave openness and demand transparency from brands and or-
ganizations where they are involved. Millennials have different expectations for their involvement
with brands, media, issues – and especially social causes – and they have limited time, limited dol-
lars and limited attention spans - so, if you're lucky enough to gain any of these things, you better
know what to do with it.
Based on our conversation at SXSW, we have developed a series of strategic memos designed to
help people across all industries think differently about the Millennial generation, in an effort to ac-
celerate a shift in the way we engage them.
This is the second memo in the series: How Are Millennial Views Shaped?
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 1
Nobody Has Cracked The Code
What do Millennials get really excited about? The answer is… not that much.
There are certainly pockets of Millennials who might get excited about a specific social cause or
political happening, maybe a television show or a sporting event. Perhaps a new device or app
might come across the transom and generate some buzz among an influential group of young
people. And when this happens, the media obsesses, the pop-psychology research starts flying,
and everyone trying to reach and engage Millennials starts to re-shape their own plans to follow
what seems to have worked.
As a whole generation of eighty million people, however, it has proven very difficult – especially for
those trying to engage and then mobilize young people to action to get Millennials excited, let
alone get any significant number of them to rally around a single event, person, or brand. Employ-
ers have had trouble getting young people to dive into their work with the same passion they show
for their extracurricular activities. And even the most successful brands and marketers have found
sustaining the excitement and energy behind a product or campaign to be almost impossible.
There have been flashes of energy and plenty of learning - but nobody has managed to fully crack
the code on how to get Millennials excited.
There are probably many reasons for this failure to spark a true movement or following among Mil-
lennials, but two in particular stand out. First, when it comes to how young people are being en-
gaged, whether its by brands, or around social causes - what they are seeing is simply not that
compelling. We know that the authenticity of the experience is very important and the direct con-
nection that Millennials feel toward an organization is critical. We also know that Millennials expect
to see meaningful, measurable impact from the work that they are doing. And in most cases the
actual execution by brands, in support of causes and similar hasn’t delivered. Second, Millennials
are hyperaware of the ways that they can be misled, or let down – based on their own experi-
ences, or their observations of how past generations have acted. Ypulse noted that 84% of Millen-
nials have believed something that they saw or read to be true or real, only to find out later that it
wasn’t. That number increases to 94% for those under 18-years-old. You can’t blame young peo-
ple for being skeptical, or slow to commit when all the evidence seems to suggest it makes sense
to proceed with caution.
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 2
Everyone Loves To Hate Millennials
Everybody is competing for the same three things when it comes to engaging Millennials: limited
time, limited dollars, and limited attention spans. Millennials make you work hard for their limited
time – because in an age of hyper-connectivity and high frequency information sharing, time is one
of the last remaining things that an individual can control. They make you work hard for their lim-
ited dollars - because Millennials, faced with a challenging job market and uncertain economic en-
vironment, know better that the first option to buy something isn’t always going to be the best.
And Millennials make you work hard for their attention and interest - because they now control their
own information flow, they define their own experiences -- even more with than past generations,
where everything from news to education was highly structured, packaged and delivered with
minimal input.
Here’s a little secret -- young people know what they are doing and seem to enjoy making organi-
zations and brands work very hard for all three of these things. They also have no intention of giv-
ing up that control ever again.
“We can’t get Millennials engaged, and even when we get them to show up – we can’t get them to
come back,” is a common complaint you hear in response to a failed effort to engage Millennials.
But the fault does not lie with the audience in this case - the fault lies instead with those trying to
reach and engage Millennials. Having high standards or a desire to exert some control over their
young life is not an unreasonable expectation for anyone, Millennial or otherwise. But as individuals
and organizations trying to reach and create connections to this generation, we are too often rely-
ing on outdated ways of communicating. We are failing when it comes to earning the trust and de-
veloping a meaningful relationship with young people. We are paying lip service to the idea of in-
volving young people, sharing control or truly welcoming and integrating the input that this audi-
ence might provide. Instead of putting in the necessary effort, we are relying on the approaches
that we know and have refined over time. We are going through the motions, embracing the
methods, but barely changing the core of our approach. And still, we are too often surprised that
the established way of doing things is no longer appropriate to meet today’s challenges.
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 3
Slow Down and Connect...
One of the appealing aspects of technology is that it makes it possible for large numbers of people
to take a shared set of actions – watch a video, read an article, like an organization or share a view,
etc.  Today, campaigns can move faster, reach further and attention can be garnered with less ef-
fort. At the same time, the intense momentum that is created also fades faster than ever. We have
been able to train people to behave in certain prescribed ways, believing, at some level, that when
people take those simple actions, we are driving meaningful, measurable changes in how people
think or act.  But for Millennials, those simple actions are too simple, and lack the meaning or ability
to drive measurable outcomes that they find so important. Young people are seemingly in no rush
to create a connection, or make a commitment to an issue or product, without evidence to sug-
gest it will actually deliver what they want. They may be enamored by something that generates a
lot of buzz, and they may sign on to see what is happening, but neither of those things are indica-
tors that they are convinced of its merit, or becoming invested. For Millennials, tough decisions are
not made with the swipe of a finger or click of a mouse, they are discussed and debated, even ex-
perimented with before any real progress is made.
If you know that the audience will be motivated to learn more about something you are doing – be
it an issue, a product, an idea, an organization - then you have to help them access and make
sense of the necessary information. Despite our quick assumption that technology is always the
answer with this generation, face-to-face conversations are still seen as more fulfilling and more
meaningful. Answering questions, providing context to help these young people make sense of
things on their own terms, and at their own speed, are key ingredients to any successful communi-
cations or engagement effort. Customer service is more important than ever before. All of that
takes time and requires you making a commitment, and it most certainly won’t be reflected in a
mass display of simple actions – that is a measure of something completely different.
Excitement and passion are early indicators that a Millennial is curious and interested, perhaps
even willing to engage further. That’s where it all begins – and over time, with proper support and
nurturing, those emotions and simple actions can be converted into something more substantial,
and the trust that is critical to the development of any relationship with this audience, will start to
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 4
... Then Step Aside
We know that the factor that is influencing them perhaps more than anything else is what their
peers are doing and buying. Millennials are considered “alpha-influencers” they believe it is their
responsibility to share feedback with their networks (and with brands directly) whether they have a
good or a bad experience. And this is where brands can either fumble or succeed. Millennials ex-
pect quick recognition and an understanding that their voice has been heard.  Responding even if
you don't have an answer shows that you value them and it helps build trust that is so important to
Millennials. Showing that you have heard their feedback and are working to integrate their sugges-
tions – even when you don’t know how to make business sense out of their crazy idea – shows
that at least you are willing to work with them to build something more interesting, or more aligned
with their expectations.
The biggest challenge seems to be how organizations are functioning – and the fact that most of
the plans, protocols, org charts and methods of communicating are built on organizational models
from the past. The groups we’ve found that have the highest rates of involvement and authentic
engagement with Millennials are those who make a conscious effort to step aside – those who are
able to relinquish some control.  The command and control approach to business, government,
media, social enterprise and more, which flourished (and was highly successful) a few short dec-
ades ago, is now blocking progress. Those who recognize that it is not about you or your institu-
tion, and adapt accordingly are able to find success. Today you have to be willing, and able, to
make changes to everything about your operation so you can capitalize on the impulsive nature of
this demographic and convert that initial interest into something that becomes more substantial
over time.
Today’s Millennial is ready and armed with the technology and know-how to spread the gospel
about your work and your brand, but they want clear opportunities to involve others and expect
specific calls to action to engage their network. This is a generation that gets informed, involved
and engaged wherever and whenever they have the opportunity. The established patterns and
methods are outdated. The challenge today is for organizations to discover and leverage the new
behaviors to build their capacity and expand their reach.
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 5
TWO IDEAS To Get You Started
To everyone looking for the silver bullet to activate Millennials, stop looking. There is no silver bullet
with a generation as large and diverse as Millennials. We know that the highest reaction from Mil-
lennials comes when an institution clearly articulates their mission and then is bold enough to move
aside.  So consider these as somewhere to start:
1) Ditch your brand. Millennials care about issues, not organizations – and that’s a difficult
concept for organizations to hear. But, when an organization says, if you care about clean
water, if you care about fighting malaria, if you care about the environment… here’s how
you can help. The expectation is that the action will directly impact the issue at hand. A
donation to an organization, a like on a Facebook page, the sharing of some concept
doesn’t meet that threshold.  So ditch your brand, and focus exclusively on the issues. You
won’t be able to count your success in dollars raised or members/customers recruited, but
you will inspire greater commitment and action among your Millennial audience and come
closer to achieving your mission at the same time.
2) Work Together. Everyone seems anxious to learn, to broaden their reach or deepen their
impact. But they also seem quick to compete for attention and interest among the same
Millennial audience. Greater understanding of how to engage Millennials will only come
when the competing interests start to work together. Those who help to shape PR and
advertising, marketing and digital engagement for major brands should be sharing ideas
and collaborating with nonprofits and social enterprises to make sense of trends and ana-
lyze data. Developers and technologists who are constructing platforms and tools should
coordinate with media and people from the academic world, who understand how to
shape learning and behavior through content and experience.
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 6
About The Authors
Brian Reich is a writer, thinker and strategist for CEOs, CMOs and other leadership at global
brands, non-profit organizations, media companies, startups and political/advocacy organizations.
He is the author of two books: Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Con-
nected Society (Wiley, 2011) and Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect with and
Keep Your Audience (Wiley, 2007).  Brian has provided analysis on digital strategy, innovation, so-
cial good/social impact and related issues to media in the United States and abroad. He also key-
notes, moderates and teaches at corporations, associations, and universities around the world on
the impact of media and technology on our society.
You can email Brian at For more information, visit or follow @BrianReich on Twitter.
Kari Saratovsky is the Chief Engagement Officer of Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies. She
has spent her career working in both the government and nonprofit sectors building strategic alli-
ances, directing programs and facilitating national efforts that advance social change.  She was
Founder and Principal of KDS Strategies, Vice President of Social Innovation at the Case Founda-
tion and Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. She is
author of “Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement” and is a
highly sought after speaker on the topic of Millennial engagement. 
You can email Kari at For more information, visit or
follow @KDS on Twitter.
!"# %&' ()**'++),* -)'#. /0,1'23 7