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Updated Oct 24, 2023

Marketing to Millennials: How to Capture Gen Y Consumers

Generation Y, also known as millennials, is the most connected and educated generation in American history. The old ways of selling and marketing don't work on them – find out what does.

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Mark Fairlie, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Generation Y – a segment of the population born in the 1980s and 1990s – is more or less all grown up now. As of 2020, there were 72 million millennials in the U.S., according to Statista, with CNBC reporting their household pretax income salary to be $71,566 annually. That’s a lot of purchasing power.

To sell to Gen Y consumers, companies need to make themselves as easy to find online as possible and tap into the millennial mindset. Here are 10 tips for successfully marketing to this generation as they open their wallets more and more.

FYIDid you know
The terms "Generation Y" and "millennials" are largely interchangeable. For the purposes of this article, we're using both these terms to refer to consumers born between 1981 and 1996.

1. Be authentic and genuine.

What is authenticity in this context? To be authentic to Generation Y consumers, your business needs to do the following:

  • Strive to deliver the best possible outcome to its customers.
  • Have a purpose – you’re here to solve a problem or satisfy a need, and your mission is to do it better than any other company.
  • Be honest and transparent.

Authenticity must come across in everything from the tone of your marketing to the way you take care of customers post-sale. But millennials want more. Consumers in this age group reward companies that involve them in the conversation, so much so that they now have humanlike relationships with brands.

Gen Y wants brands to do the following:

  • Understand them on an intimate level.
  • Provide the very best customer service.
  • Treat them with respect.
  • Think of them as more just than a customer.

One way to do this is not to overtly sell to them at every opportunity. Instead, boost your sales by building meaning into your relationship with Gen Y. You can do this through sharing tips and techniques on how to get the most out of your products or services in emails, in social media posts and on your website.

2. Build something bigger.

The products you sell are obviously a core component of your business. But you can also build something bigger and less tangible for your clients to be a part of. Give Gen Y customers the platform to create an online community (like a message board, forum or Reddit thread) where they can connect with fellow fans of your brand.

This demographic also wants companies to reward them for their devotion to your brand and ongoing support. Give them the opportunity to participate in a loyalty program through which they can build up points (that convert to dollars) not only for themselves, but for the charities they support. Gen Yers want brands to support their favored social causes and show corporate social responsibility.

“Our purchases [are] very much an extension of our self-image and personal identity,” said James Marshall Reilly, founder and CEO of The Guild Agency. “Companies must exercise caution, however, when choosing which causes to support. Many Gen Yers will abandon a company if they disagree with a company’s political leanings or values.” 

One example of a business handling this well is Skittles and its #OneRainbow campaign, in which the candy brand promised to donate $1 to GLAAD for every purchase of its limited-edition “Pride Packs.” This marketing tactic appealed to millennials who feel passionate about LGBTQ causes. They were able to connect their purchase of candy to something larger and much more important in the world, while also reinforcing the brand’s well-known slogan: “Taste the rainbow.” 

3. Remember that ownership isn’t everything.

Many Gen Yers came of age during and after the Great Recession. Between 2005 and 2017, this caused a 13% drop in their earnings, according to a study by The Washington Post. Some economists have suggested a link between that reduction in income and millennials not purchasing homes but renting instead.

Consumers in this generation are often just as happy paying to have temporary access to a product or service rather than owning it outright. Today, millennials can essentially “rent” music and movies through platforms like Spotify and Netflix instead of owning them as Gen X did with CDs and VHS tapes. You can unlock additional revenue opportunities in your business by finding ways to rent your products or services in addition to selling them.

4. Be available online, particularly on social media.

Social media marketing is critical to reaching many demographics, especially the millennial set. These are people whose coming of age coincided with the advent of platforms like AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook, Twitter and others. These tools have allowed them to stay in touch not just with each other, but with businesses too.

“Millennials have come to expect connectivity and instantaneousness in where they live, work and play,” said Barry Lapides, an attorney at law firm Berger Singerman. “Convenience is important for them. Brands need to be timely with information and consistent with messages coming through different spectrums.”

Like all age groups, Gen Y has its favored communication channels, especially for interacting with brands, and not all of them are considered social media. Millennials’ preferred correspondence mediums in order of preference are text messages, emails, social media, telephone calls and face-to-face meetings. You can even use social media to provide customer service.

In fact, Gen Yers want you to respond to them quickly, as bad customer service is toxic to this cohort.

“In some respects, a small company has it easier than a large one, because it’s inherently more agile and can respond quickly to what’s going on in the world,” said Marty Brochstein, a merchandising and licensing consultant.

Give your company the best chance of meeting Gen Yers’ online expectations by following these tips:

  • Make sure your website is mobile-friendly. A website optimized for mobile devices will be easier for consumers to use. 
  • Respond to inquiries and comments on social media quickly. Keep an eye on social media to see when your brand is being talked about and when you’re tagged in messages. 
  • Offer live chat and chatbots. Chatbots can service customers around the clock.
  • Provide an online knowledge base. Make digital articles and videos related to your products or services easily accessible.

Still not convinced of the importance of having a virtual presence to target millennials? Check out social media lessons from successful entrepreneurs, including the CEO of Levo, an online women’s community group for Gen Y.

Advertising and marketing campaigns geared toward Gen Y are not always conducted online. Direct mail campaigns are still popular with more than half of millennials. Check out our tips to make direct mail work for your business.

5. Focus on inbound marketing and content distribution.

Traditional outbound marketing like telesales leaves Gen Yers cold. They want to find products, services and brands for themselves, and their searches nearly always start on the internet. That means it’s crucial for businesses to focus on inbound marketing campaigns. 

Inbound marketing is the creation and distribution of intent-driven, informational marketing content online. Companies create articles, landing pages, videos and more to give potential customers relevant information based upon which stage of the buying journey they’re at. The goal is to create content for each stage of the buying cycle, but the challenge is making sure that content is seen by your target audience. 

  • Create high-quality content. The better the content is, the more likely it is that other sites will link to it. More links from other sites mean better search engine rankings.
  • Write guest posts. Create original content for sites your target audience is likely to frequent and trust. Benefits include boosting your credibility by being associated with those outlets and getting backlinks to your own website.
  • Use social media marketing. Do targeted paid advertising on social media to promote a product or service that appeals to your business’s key demographics.
Track the effectiveness of individual marketing pieces with customer relationship management (CRM) software. Read our guide on how to integrate your sales funnel into a CRM system, and check out our top picks, including our Salesforce review.

6. Make your marketing content shareable.

When millennials like your online content, they often want to share it via social media platforms, so be sure that your social media posts are shareable. Content can be made shareable by providing a link to it on your site or making it downloadable (like a PDF). For some companies, sharable content could be a video showing your product in action, a product description sheet, a voucher or an e-book. For others, thought leadership pieces get good traction.

“Use all the technological tools you have to establish those relationships with consumers as a way to build your brands,” Brochstein said. “Use social media creatively to separate your message from the hundreds of other marketers trying to catch their attention too.”

7. Encourage user-generated content to build brand trust.

User-generated content (UGC) is text, images, or video content created by customers about your business and its products or services. Customers love UGC because they see it as authentic, real and, perhaps most importantly, not created by marketers. Encourage your customers to post photos and videos of your products online, which can not only gain the attention of consumers previously unfamiliar with your brand, but also establish that you’re a company to be trusted.

You could even get Gen Y to participate in your marketing campaigns by turning it into a contest. For years Doritos famously hosted a “Crash the Super Bowl” contest in which fans of the brand were encouraged to create their own Doritos commercial, with the winning submission airing during the big game. That allowed the chip maker UGC to effectively advertise its own product.

8. Ask customers to leave reviews.

Studies have indicated reviews are a key part of the buying process for Generation Y. Before making a purchase, millennials will scour online reviews for the product or service they’re interested in – and may not buy it if they can’t find any. 

This is because “Generation Y doesn’t readily trust a marketer’s effort to sell them anything,” said Sarah Sladek, CEO of management firm XYZ University. “They value trust, which is why they frequently seek out the opinions of their peers and consult user-generated review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp.”

While some platforms like Yelp prohibit businesses from asking for reviews, that’s not true of the other main review sites, such as Google, Facebook and TripAdvisor. You can ask satisfied customers to leave an online review and respond to it so other potential buyers get a positive impression of your business.

Check out our small business guide to using Yelp to learn how to get the most out of this review platform.

9. Embrace influencers.

Influencer marketing is when companies partner with content creators whose followers are similar to a company’s target audience. What makes a content creator an influencer? It’s when their posts get lots of comments, likes and shares from their followers; this is referred to as engagement. 

As the name implies, an influencer can influence public opinion of your product or service. Companies partner with influencers to promote their goods on social media. You could even draw attention by hosting an influencer at an in-store event. When a millennial sees a (relatively) famous peer supporting a business, they’re more likely to support that business as well.

10. Be creative and stand out.

Today’s consumers, especially tech-savvy Gen Yers, see thousands of ads every day. To stand out to them, companies need to get creative. That can include drawing attention offline, which then leads to attention online.

“[We] did a successful book launch campaign where we projected giant-sized The Rise of Superman graphics on the sides of buildings and bridges around NYC,” said The Guild Agency’s Reilly. “In many cases, people didn’t even know that they were tweeting or talking about a book. They simply saw an image and an interesting tagline, which was enough to pique interest. We were getting press twice for the same product: once for the campaign and once with the actual book review or author interview. It’s all about creating opportunities where opportunities didn’t previously exist.”

Marketing to Generation Y matters.

Millennials not only make up a sizable portion of the U.S. population, but as they hit certain milestones in life, they’re likely going to be making corresponding purchases. That gives businesses lots of opportunities to appeal to their needs as well as their wants. Done well, marketing to millennials can really pay off for your small business, allowing your company to grow. But you need to meet Gen Y where they are, which means going online and embracing the digital tools they’re using.

Nicole Fallon contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

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Mark Fairlie, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Mark Fairlie is a telecommunications and telemarketing expert who has spent decades working across advertising, sales, and more. He is the former co-owner of Meridian Delta, a direct marketing company that he successfully sold to new management in 2015. Through this experience, Fairlie gained firsthand knowledge of the life of an entrepreneur, from conceiving a business idea to growing a company at scale to transferring ownership. In the time since, Fairlie launched a second marketing company as well as a sole proprietorship. He has expanded his purview to include topics like cybersecurity, taxation and investments as they relate to B2B business owners like himself.
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