Stakeholder Trends and Insights
A ‘How To’ on Engaging Millennials:
Be Bold, Transparent, Data-Driven

Millenials are hardly a monolith; like any generation, they vary in their preferences and in their social and political engagement. But numerous recent market surveys indicate that in general, they care about the social and environmental practices of the companies they work for and purchase from, perhaps in greater numbers than their predecessors.

A packed Wednesday morning session at SB ’15 San Diego addressed the timely subject of millennial engagement, and featured Aria Finger, COO of Dosomething.org and president of its strategic consulting firm, TMI agency; and Greg Perlstein, Director of Strategy and Partnerships at TMI.

The energetic presentation kicked off with some Jeopardy-inspired trivia to debunk millennial stereotypes. For example, lest your brand’s social media presence is limited to Facebook, know that some millennials describe their Facebook experience as “an awkward family dinner party,” while 1 out of 4 regularly use the messaging application WhatsApp. Audience members were surprised to learn that just 32 percent of millennials consider themselves “environmentalists”, but a staggering 89 percent are likely to switch brands to one associated with a positive social or environmental cause, given price and quality parity. Finally, whom do teens consider the most influential celebrity? Not Beyonce and Jay-Z, but “Smosh,” a comedy duo on YouTube with over 20.5 million subscribers.

Finger and Perlstein then outlined six tenets to successfully engage millennials:

1) Be Personal and Relevant. Finger provided the example of DoSomething.org’s “Comeback Clothes” campaign in partnership with H&M, wherein customers returned old clothes for recycling. To engage employees in the effort, H&M designated “conscious captains” in its retail stores to spearhead and promote the effort. To engage consumers, Dosomething.org launched a competition among college students for the amount of ‘comeback clothes’ they donated, and the organization awarded personalized prizes to participants. For example, the “Harry Potter award” was given to a girl who collected several pounds of clothes under her stairway for donation. In 2014, the campaign achieved over 340,000 lbs. of clothes donated in 9 weeks.

2) Be Transparent. Brands run into trouble if they are viewed as lacking transparency, Perlstein said. He gave the example of Urban Outfitters mishandling a controversial sweatshirt it sold in late 2014. Many consumers found the sweatshirt, adorned with the words “Kent State” and what appeared to be a blood-stained pattern, insensitive to the 1970 massacre at the University that killed four people. Urban Outfitters apologized for the mishap publicly, explaining the item was distressed vintage and not intended to look bloody. But some media coverage presented the company’s claim as dishonest – a way of intentionally seeking controversy. According to Perlstein, the company’s Q4 stock was down 12 percent following the event. Finger highlighted the merits of being transparent with a personal example: her recent visit to Chipotle, in which the company’s carnitas shortage was explained with a simple sign outside - Chipotle suspended a supplier that violated its ethical standards. “No one was mad!” she said. Consumers understand failures or challenges if brands are transparent about them.

3) Be Accessible. While accessibility on social media is important, Finger and Perlstein emphasized that brands needn’t be on all channels. Though it may appear an antiquated method, they suggested an underestimated way to connect with millennials is through SMS messaging. Text messages have a 97 percent open rate, Perlstein said, compared to a 20 percent open rate for email, and the Facebook algorithm that guarantees just 10 percent of followers see posted content. DoSomething.org regularly sends text messages to those campaign participants that opt-in, a method the organization sees as a simple way of reducing friction and catalyzing action.

4) Be Big, Loud and Easy. DoSomething.org learned the importance of this tenet with a failure. A campaign it ran for a sports equipment drive featuring Smosh garnered 1.6 million views, but translated into zero sign-ups. Their mistake? The enrollment process in the campaign was too difficult. By contrast, a subsequent campaign about teen pregnancy awareness (featuring a 6am text from a hungry baby wanting to be fed) enrolled over half of participants to take action and initiate a conversation about the issue. The message is that brands can have high-profile campaigns, but must make ‘the ask’ to consumers engaging and very simple.

5) Be a Data Guru. Perlstein and Finger repeatedly emphasized the importance of data analytics in connecting with consumers. “Data prevents hippos from making decisions,” Finger said. Hippos, she explained, are those who usually make decisions or are the highest-paid employees. Companies can overcome hippo assumption and make more informed decisions by using data about users’ interaction with their product to personalize messaging and optimize follow-up. Finger shared the example of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, which tested over 12 different pictures of the candidate in emails sent to supporters. The difference between the best-performing picture and the average-performing picture was $2.2 million in donation money, illustrating the advantage of testing and iterating methods for consumer interaction.

6) Be Inherently Social. “What are the messages you’re sending your employees and consumers?” Finger asked. She said the best campaigns at DoSomething.org encourage collaboration and social engagement. For example, the organization sends two t-shirts to each individual enrolled in its campaigns. “Most likely they’re keeping one and giving one to a friend,” she said. For brands, the principle is the same to engage their consumers. Finger pointed to the recent “Share a Coke” campaign, in which individual names are printed on bottles, as a particularly successful example of this principle: Highlight the sociability of your brand, and see it blossom.

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