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Do You Actually Know How To

Engage A Millennial? 3 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
What Aren’t Millennials
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 third memo in the series: What Aren’t Millennials Buying?
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Millennials Have You Right Where They Want You
Everybody wants Millennials to buy everything. And why not?
Millennials are a huge cohort – 80 million strong in the United States (and more than 1 billion
worldwide) – not to mention, they have massive economic power and are expected to spend more
than $200 billion annually beginning in 2017. Even if a fraction of Millennials become enamored
with a brand, it can elevate sales and status around the globe – and any channel, platform, media
property or group that can figure out how to engage Millennials stands to make a lot of money.
Of course, Millennials are very selective with how they spend their time and dollars. They are careful
which companies to trust and which products to purchase. Their consumption habits when it
comes to media, and their habits when it comes to how they interact with brands, are still being
shaped. Most importantly, Millennials know how sought after they are as a generation – and that
ultimately gives them the advantage. Make no mistake: Millennials have you right where they want
So, what aren’t they buying? Your BS for starters. If you want to successfully reach young people -
and motivate them to buy your products and embrace your ideas, start by making a genuine
commitment to this generation. Millennials are just beginning their lives as consumers. They are
thinking long-term about the life they want to build for themselves and how their spending habits
will shape their future identity. Saying whatever it takes to complete a quick sale will bolster your
bottom line over the next quarter or two, but showing that you can help them manage their life will
give Millennials reason to trust you. And that trusted relationship will yield far better returns (for
everyone involved) over time.
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Put Up or Shut Up
In this day and age of the sharing economy, Millennials are not buying cars in the same way that
other generations have – they are more likely instead, to embrace the bike sharing or car sharing
initiatives that have taken hold in major cities around the country. Millennials are also not paying
mortgages – and many of them don’t even have apartments because they’re staying in the comfort
of their parents' basements for longer and longer. The availability of nearly everything via ‘the
cloud’ has even given Millennials a pass when it comes to buying music, software, and equipment.
To put it another way, Millennials are being very careful about what they’re buying, particularly when
it comes to large ticket items.
A weak economy is often cited as the reason why Millennials aren’t buying more. But dollars and
cents are not the biggest factor. Millennials choose to buy from brands they trust. They want to get
value from every purchase. And they care deeply about not only the social capital, but also the so-
cial impact, that is tied to every purchase. Young people don’t respond to marketing by making
impulse purchases - they want to test drive (literally if in the case of an automobile) before making a
commitment. And most brands are having trouble meeting those standards or creating a favorable
buying experience for this audience. When a brand falls short of offering something compelling,
Millennials know they have the option to move on and consider something else.
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Expect Everything. Trust Nothing.
So, yes, Millennials are discerning shoppers – with access to tremendous amounts of information
and the ability to instantly compare things in a way that was simply not possible just a few years
ago. They also have high expectations for their shopping experience. We are all able to order al-
most anything online - in any color and size, at any time and from anywhere - and have it delivered
without delay. Millennials shopping experience has always included some ability to research and
purchase products and services online, but finding the right product, that fits their interest and sat-
isfies the particular need that they have, has never been easier – and that creates an even greater
set of expectations for brands and marketers to reach.
The same behaviors we see Millennials display when shopping are evident when it comes to the
rest of how Millennials make choices about where to form brand relationships. Millennials expect
that the companies they buy from and nonprofits they engage with are genuinely interested in more
than just having them on some list. Millennials aren’t likely to be fooled by a campaign that prom-
ises something it can’t deliver, or an organization that develops a campaign that, while creative,
seems inconsistent with their overall mission and values. There's plenty of data both anecdotal
and quantitative that shows Millennials don’t trust politicians or the media, because they have ex-
periences where they have felt deceived. They don’t trust big brands and institutions, because
they know good marketing is more likely to be window-dressing, not a true reflection that an or-
ganization has evolved and is now aligned with their interests.
Millennials do trust each other. They trust their parents. And, oddly enough, they trust people that
they have never met but who seem to demonstrate some sort set of credentials that they believe
are important. That trust is earned over time, fueled by shared interests and circumstance. These
are people they know are interested in the same things, and are looking for products and services
through a similar lens. So when Millennials trust someone, they take their advice – especially when
it comes to spending. Lead them wrong, and undermine that trust, and they’ll drop you like a bad
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TWO TIPS For Selling To Millennials
Not only isn’t there one method or approach that works for everyone, everything we think we know
about how to sell to Millennials is likely to change as we learn more. For now, here are a couple of
tips to help you keep things on track:
1) Sharing Is Caring. There is a social element to shopping, as well as buying/owning. That is
true from Millennial-to-Millennial, as well as with other generations. While marketing efforts
should be designed to reach your specific target audience, keep in mind that Millennials are
influencing how their parents think about your brand or product as well. The high expecta-
tions that Millennials have are now being embraced by Gen-X and Boomers creating new
pressure on brands and organizations to continually improve the experience they offer. For
some brands, the situation has become adversarial – with consumers of all ages challenging
corporate policies and making demands from the outside. The smarter approach is to put
your business in the middle of the conversation, by helping to connect all different segments
of your audience. Or to think of it another way, selling isn't really about "selling" anymore,
it's about building a community.
2) Teach A Millennial To Fish. People buy things because of what they can do with them. The
product or service that someone buys satisfies a need – often a functional need – that they
have in their life. But that doesn’t mean they know exactly how to use your product or serv-
ice properly. It also doesn’t mean that a Millennial fully appreciates or understands the value
of the thing that you are selling. For that, they will need your help. You need to provide clear
communication that helps people connect how your product or service makes their lives
better, and on an even more fundamental level – how to use it to the fullest. Those instruc-
tions must be simple, as well as connected to real life. Knowing how to use all the amazing
features that are available on your blender is great, but not knowing how to make food that
tastes good with it will leave someone frustrated, and blaming your product.
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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.
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