Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Who are the Millennials, why do we need them, and how do we engage them?

Patricia Martin, a really sharp writer and consultant who follows consumer trends, marketing and sponsorship, and has a special interest in arts and culture, has just come out with a new study called Tipping the Culture: How engaging Millennials will change things. It is actually available as a free download by clicking on the link above.

The study was commissioned by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as part of its support for Nonprofit Finance Fund's "Leading for the Future Initiative." 

Better understanding this new generational cohort (defined in this report as being between 15 and 31 years old) - now entering our workforce, our audiences, and our customer base, and in HUGE numbers that dwarf the size of the older Gen X group - is critical to the future of our arts organizations. The study takes a close and revealing look at this generation, helping us develop effective strategies to engage them. Notice I did NOT say "market to them" because if there is one thing this generations hates it is being "marketed to." The study also looks at examples from the corporate sector of firms that have successfully been able to build sales and brands that resonate with this generation. Some examples from the arts sector are included too, including a bit of Philly inclusion.

Here are some of the big take-aways for me:

  • Reaching and engaging Millennials is critical, yet "for a performing arts presenter, it is especially vexing because the very conventions of the experience you offer can conflict with [their] mind-set." What this means is that most performing arts experiences basically require audience to arrive at a set time, sit in a seat and engage in an essentially passive cultural experience. Clapping only at appropriate times. 
  • Even given the resistance of Millennials to these passive cultural experiences - they prefer to CREATE or self-curate their cultural experiences - the research DOES find that under the right circumstances Millennials WILL "abide by the rituals associated with live performance...many do not expect  or want to text or tweet. And if the situation calls for it, they'll dress up a bit for the experience. They study proposes three key insights:
  • The brand is no longer at the center of the universe, the user is. To succeed in reaching Millennnials, you essentially have to turn your brand over to them. They need to own it and shape it. This is really exciting, and also really scary for marketers used to obsessively controlling the integrity of their brand.
  • Have something meaningful to say. Millennials are moved by REAL content. They want authentic experiences. Artificiality and phoniness turns them off.
  • Help them belong to the brand. We need to provide vehicles that give them the capacity to belong to the brand and share it - providing comments and review on the web site, sharing photos of the experiences, facilitating social interactions through the arts experiencing, posting videos, etc.
  • And finally (and related to the above) they respond really powerfully to opportunities to actually be a part of creating the content; they want to actively participate. The roll-out of the Ford Fiesta is cited as one example, which was done almost entirely through blogging and other viral marketing techniques targeting Millennials - engaging Millennials.
This is just a little taste - download and read the entire report yourself. For those that have been following this issue, this study may not be new news, but it reinforces many key phenomena. It also provides some great insights into how some corporations and nonprofit arts groups have been finding strategies that work. Some of the Philly examples cited? Bartram's Garden and its work with the artist Mark Dion that through blogging allowed the audience to follow the creative process of a work coming together. New Paradise Laboratories and director Whit MacLaughlin's production of Fatebook which took place in part online and involved significant interactive social media.

The thing that is uniquely challenging about this issue is that to engage Millennials is not a question of "spin" - of choosing the right lists, designing the brochure the right way, pitching stories to the right media. It is in fact about changing the user experience, changing the relationship to the "customer", and - yes - even about changing the art itself. That can be scary, but putting your head in the sand and doing things the same old way seems a formula for slow steady demise.


  1. Thanks, Gary. You are spot on:
    The thing that is uniquely challenging about this issue is that to engage Millennials is not a question of "spin" - of choosing the right lists, designing the brochure the right way, pitching stories to the right media. It is in fact about changing the user experience, changing the relationship"

    What's exciting about this challenge is that it ushers in a time of humanity in marketing that has been absent heretofore. I'm eager to follow your blog to see how that unfolds in Philly.

  2. Just a quick note, with some apologies because I've not yet read the full study. I stub my toe on the suggestion about changing the art itself in order to "engage" (i.e., market to -- let's call a spade a spade -- Millennials.) Whether we like it or not, whether or not it is politically correct, not everyone is an artist. Why should art be "changed" to accomodate an audience of people who aren't artists? Art is not a popularity contest. It is not "American Idol". History has shown repeatedly that popular taste and art do not necessarily align. (Think first Impressionist exhibition, the Armory Show, the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring".) I am a marketer, but I believe in artistic integrity.