February 8, 2017

“Millennial Media” is a Misnomer – It’s Just Media

By now, anyone who hasn’t been sleeping under the proverbial rock is familiar with the urgent push by businesses to reach that mysterious, under-covered, hard-to-define age demographic. I’m referring, of course, to millennials, generally accepted to be those individuals born between 1981 and 1997, who have become priority #1 for companies seeking to gain new market share.

The struggle is real: marketers are constantly refining their efforts to “engage” with millennials on social media platforms. Fortune reports “[c]orporate America is trying to capitalize on young people’s interest in giving back” through charity. The AARP launched an “epic” campaign to reach millennial media buyers. Even libraries are getting in on the act of trying to reach this unicorn generation!

With the proliferation of Internet access and ever-savvier customers, businesses have unparalleled opportunities to reach new audiences and differentiate themselves from their competitors. Identically, an explosion of information channels and the ability to “wall ourselves off” into silos makes it more difficult to expand an audience beyond a certain threshold. In putting all of their eggs in a “millennial-focused basket,” most businesses risk missing the forest for the trees—but none more so than the news media.

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This drive to win over the hearts and minds of Generation Y is most evident in the news business. The New York Times, in its internal assessment on preparing for the future loosely titled “The 2020 Report,” warned that overly formal, densely written stories do more to confuse younger readers than elucidate a given subject. Instead of a sentence that takes up half of a paragraph, a video or graphic could suffice.

Other traditional news mainstays have been more than willing to pick up the mantle. NPR is hosting “book club[s]” for podcasts and CNN recently reached a deal to add a YouTube personality to its roster, while the Washington Post and Time Inc. are both trying to “win over” millennial women.

New media start-ups are nipping at their heels. Buzzfeed, Vice Media, Vox, Fusion, Oxy, The Outline, and Mic all fall squarely into a group of news-cum-multimedia outlets meant to appeal to younger consumers. Cheddar, the “CNBC for Millennials,” launched last year. There are now niche millennial outlets catering to sports, consumers of virtual reality, men’s fashion, and expectant mothers.

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The race to carve out corners of the media for millennials could be reaching its apex, and likely isn’t in the long-term best interests of the media (or consumers themselves). From a strictly demographic perspective, there hasn’t been a race to establish “Boating News for Baby Boomers” or “Golf Aficionado for Generation X.”

In fact, millennials are going to be the de facto readership for media outlets moving forward. Goldman Sachs observes that the generation is the biggest in U.S. history, and as they continue to move up through the workforce their economic impact will be unavoidable. Instead of setting aside assets to specifically reach these readers, media organizations should be rethinking their entire operations to accommodate this audience.

After all, a 2015 survey from the Media Insight Project found that millennial news consumers are hardly monolithic, anyway, and vary in their approach to news consumption according to age, economic standing, and interests. In other words, they are just like everybody else! Certainly, younger individuals are more apt to read the news on devices, but that doesn’t mark a sea change in the news itself. The Atlantic summarized Pew findings as follows:

(T)hey use their tablets and smartphones to read the news at nearly identical rates to 30- and 40-somethings. According to Pew, between 30 and 50 percent of practically every demographic, except seniors, uses mobile phones and tablets to read news — whether it’s men or women, college-educated or not, making less than $30,000 per year or more than $75,000. All told: Thirtysomethings and fortysomethings are just as likely as teens and twentysomethings to use their smartphones and tablets for news.

Indeed, Nielsen found last month that Generation X uses social media more than millennials do, and so it feels short-sighted to target technological innovations to just those under the age of 35.

The numbers bear this out: CNN, the New York Times, Reader’s Digest, People, and NPR regularly have more young adults making up their audiences than the entire reach of Vice, Gawker (since defunct) and Mashable (which has reduced its focus in many news reporting areas). The environment is similar across the pond. ComScore in September noted

“Traditional” media outlets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian and Daily Mail have a higher reach amongst millennials than amongst the total UK digital population.”

So what’s a better way forward?

The New York Times, in its 2020 report, is on to something: the evolution in news media is being driven by technology, not demographics. Millennials will still be here in 20 years, still interested in news, and what will have changed is the means by which they consume it. To my mind, though, The Economist’s CEO Chris Stibbs nailed it in 2015:

Obviously, it is imperative to have younger people consuming content so that in 10, 15, 20 years, there is still a readership base. That’s true of any market activity – you have to target your market with a product that suits the market. And if your market truly is millennials, so be it, but if your market spans the generations because of a collective interest that is not generational, be prepared to innovate and tailor how you deliver the content, maintain the quality and stay true to the mission.

The Economist identified the target “psyche” of its readers, and adapted accordingly. This seems to me to be in line with the best practices of The American Press Institute, which in regards to millennials recommends listening to them, employing them, reporting relevant items, and embracing new technology.

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As I pondered these trends and set pen to paper (a decidedly non-millennial clich?), I was struck by a quick reading of the headlines used to describe millennials. Here’s how, in the last year alone, mainstream news outlets have described my generation:

– “Working with millennials is the worst”
– “Millennials are ruining the American wine industry”
– “Are Millennials Chocolate Chip-o-crites?”
– “Blame millennials for the vanishing bar of soap”
– “Why do millennials hate America?”
– “Most Millennials Prefer Reading the News”

On that last point, yes, they do—and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s time for media outlets to consider the millennial generation as one invested in quality reporting, capable of differentiating between opinion and fact, and happy to engage “legacy” outlets – on a screen, of course. Carving out niche areas just runs the risk of patronizing potential readers of driving them toward other outlets.

There’s another lesson for any PR-conscious brand or marketer, and which the Goldman Sachs research cited above makes clear—millennials are a huge growth market, and rapidly ascending into positions of organizational influence and purchasing power. Whether through start-up or traditional media, brands might want to begin thinking about how their messages are reaching millennials, and how to reach them better in the future as they make up the bulk of adult consumers. One thing that won’t work, I suspect, is more snarky headlines.

By: Ryan Dicovitsky, Account Supervisor