Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Millennial Consumers

three women looking at phone

Every generation has a unique set of attitudes, values, and behaviors. Like a person or a brand, a generation has a collective, unique personality. Marketers today are interested in the Millennials–the generation of consumers generally born between 1981 and 2000–and they are perceived as important, highly influential, and worthy of considerable attention.

I agree. These consumers are indeed important and worthy to better understand. So, I decided to review a handful of the many studies and books that exist on Millennials. I must say it was an easy task since there is a great deal of analysis, research, and investigation on the subject. A quick Google search brings up quickly a dozen studies. My conclusion is that there is much to be learned about Millennials, and nearly every study is worth a great read, but in all practical terms, there are very few useful recommendations or practical guidelines for marketers. Here is why:

Euphoria Meets Anecdote

There is much to be excited about with this new generation, but I also believe that marketers should raise at least an eyebrow when euphoria meets anecdote. Many studies are not studies of Millennials, but anecdotes sold to readers as ethnographies, anthropological deep dives, or focus groups. Studying a handful of personas in a series of ethnographies is not data; it is still anecdotal, even if after the results have been illustrated in some form of an infographic.

”In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data”

This is a quote from W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru. Before you rely on a survey or panel of Millennials, let’s check the facts. Most studies that I reviewed have a sample of 5,000 U.S. consumers or less. There are about 80 million Millennials. That is, there are about 16,000 other samples of 5,000 that I could draw from this large population. Can you really be sure that this one study that you are relying on has picked the right 5,000 consumers from 16,000 other possibilities?

Beware Of The Search For Differences

Every study I reviewed seems to have found a host of important differences between Millennials and other generations. Every difference quickly also becomes an insight and that often is followed by a brand or company that shows how to turn the insight into a marketing tactic.

For example: Millennials use Facebook and share more often than others. Starbucks encourages visitors to link up with Facebook. I believe we are infatuated with differences, we search for differences more than for similarities, we want to believe that something is insight, even though it is not, and often the practical implications aren’t very novel or valuable.

Multiple Effects Confound The Results

It is well known that one can learn little when multiple effects are at work. It is hard to disentangle the effects, but the differences in a generation are produced by multiple effects.

There is the life cycle effect: As people age, they change their attitudes and behaviors. So we would expect that Millennials are different from the generation before, Gen X, and from the Baby Boomers.

The second effect is the cohort effect: Consumers’ attitudes and behavior are shaped by the circumstances they experience. But are these differences important to us as marketers?

The third effect is the period effect: Major events such as a war, societal changes, or technological breakthroughs that have the same impact on a generation. Are there important events that matter? I would think that there is at least one: a technological change. And if you read most studies on Millennials, they really don’t discuss guidelines for marketers concerning Millennials but make recommendations about marketing or branding in today’s digital or social age.

Click here to read the rest of this article on Fast Company, where it was originally published.