A Millennial Plea: You Do You
In his 1964 book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase: “The medium is the message.” What he meant when penning this future-idiom is — in the simplest sense — that the very format in which something is delivered influences how the content is received. To McLuhan, mediums themselves were more important and more impactful than the content they were delivering. While one can certainly philosophize all the way down the rabbit hole with McLuhan’s esoteric theories, the simple takeaway here is aptly relevant to marketing in today’s swiftly evolving digital media landscape.
This thought came to mind while trying to articulate the uniquely late-2010s malaise I experience daily when I scroll through my social media feeds and find it peppered with sponsored ads that are just nakedly screaming out to my particular demographic despite any particular relevance to it. These kinds of ads read like robotic marketing analytics lurking behind a transparently thin veil feigning humanity. My advice to any marketers wishing to reach a millennial audience is to channel McLuhan — worry less about crafting splashy content that “speaks millennial” (you’re gonna want to close all those urbandictionary.com tabs you have open immediately) and focus more on just marketing in the right channels. A good product will always succeed but the bigger piece of the puzzle in 2017 is making sure that the right people are seeing it.
While digital marketing exploded long ago on the new frontiers of social media and targeted advertising, that landscape too is always in flux. In the not-so-distant past, Facebook was the favorite shiny new toy of adolescents and young adults, but now the younger crowd increasingly gravitates to Snapchat and Instagram, while at the same time many millennials are cutting their cable TV cords and relying on Hulu and Netflix to feed their screens, and ditching their iPods (and CD collections) for Spotify and Apple Music. With so many varied and segmented channels with which to connect to specific audiences, way more than half the battle has already been won by the time your content reaches the eyeballs of your target audience. To apply McLuhan’s point, any content on a beloved app like Instagram already encodes a certain level of trust and acceptance in the viewer regardless of what it is, because the user loves the Instagram experience and that’s why they return to it day after day.
With that in mind, my plea is for advertisers to stop producing content that shoots itself in the foot by trying too hard to speak to the audience you’re already speaking to. Having been born in the mid-1980s, I recognize that my 2017 peer group generally has some newly disposable income which makes us attractive to marketers. However, millennial as we may be, please stop talking down to us with lame hashtags and lamer internet slang, because that reads like:
If I see an ad for a quality product that’s relevant to me, on a digital medium that I’m accustomed to using every day, I might click on your ad and I might even buy your product because I’m already there and I’m already taking in content in that way. But it won’t be because you’ve then gone the extra step and managed to single out how exactly to get inside and control my thirtysomething brain with your cool and relatable content. No one likes to feel that they’re in someone’s crosshairs.
To illustrate my point, I have collected some particularly painful failures in this regard. One that had me scratching my head more than most was Duraflame’s campaign attempting to tap into the millennial market for… fire starter logs? Fire, man’s quintessential element, shouldn’t need much marketing support in order to make it sound appealing or even sexy. Yet, with a significant media buy in trendy digital channels, the company also felt compelled to go a step further to make sure they were connecting to the fat pockets of the millennial crowd with an ingratiating campaign based on pointless hashtags, wannabe hipster slang (e.g. “adulting”) and initialisms like #tfw. To which I’m like, #smh.