Media-Savvy Gen Y Finds Smart and Funny Is ‘New Rock ‘n’ Roll’

Thomas Pardee, Ad Age

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — They entered the consumer market during the stormiest economic climate since the Great Depression. And like the generation that was forever altered by the harsh sacrifices of World War II, millennials are likely to be permanently affected by the Great Recession and its long-term ripples. But these characteristics won’t change about the demographic: They are vocal, demanding and discerning.

Members of Generation Y — the demographic loosely defined as those born between 1980 on the early end and 2000 on the high end — are truly the product of the turbulent times in which they were reared, and present a challenge for marketers who dare target this shrewd and, yes, narcissistic generation.
Today, many millennials are unemployed; according to a Pew Research study released in February, a staggering 37% of 18 to 29-year-olds don’t have jobs, the highest share in three decades. Those who can afford to attend college are going to less-expensive state schools or community colleges and many are moving back home after graduation. More than a third depend on family members for regular financial assistance.

They’re tightening their belts and re-evaluating what makes them happy — and they’re spending money accordingly.

"We may not have lost jobs now, but we never had them in the first place," said Gabi Gregg, a 24-year-old graduate of Mount Holyoke College who was recently chosen as MTV’s first "Twitter Jockey" in a nationwide competition. Ms. Gregg was awarded the coveted $100,000-a-year position — her first stable job — in which she’s charged with engaging millennials like herself in the topics that matter most to them. "Almost everyone I know is living paycheck to paycheck, just trying to survive. It’s easier to interact online than to go out and pay for dinner, or go to a movie."

Paul Taylor, exec VP of the Pew Research Center, said finding footing on the first rung of the career ladder can be the hardest step for Gen Y.

"Young adults who start out in bad economic times suffer long-term consequences," he said. "If you don’t find a job right out of college, it may affect you for as long as 10 to 15 years down the road."

Aside from the economic wrench, millennials bear key characteristics that distinguish them: they live and die by social media and peer validation; they were raised in “peer-renting” households that placed them at the center of their families’ attention; they’re endlessly optimistic about their futures despite current hardships; and they care about social causes — at least enough to serve up a mean Facebook campaign.

But whether millennials can tangibly unite behind a cause is a key tension point between experts and millennials themselves. Nick Shore, head of research for MTV who’s currently conducting a study on the behavior patterns of Gen Y, suggests most millennials are willing to click the “like” button on Facebook to indicate support of a cause, but won’t venture too much further beyond the gesture.

This isn’t to mean that millennials don’t care, though. Experts agree that given their collective upbringing, for Gen Y, negotiation is the new rebellion. “They don’t see themselves as revolutionaries or reformers, they see themselves as quiet [agents of] change,” said Carol Phillips, founder of the market research firm Brand Amplitude, which specializes in millennial studies. “It’s about working within the system. They’ve never had to reject anything; they’ve just had to build on it. And their numbers suggest that they can be successful at it.”

This is a defining characteristic of the generation, according to author and economist Neil Howe, who coined the term “millennial” in the early ’90s in his first of several books on Gen Y. And like most millennial-related issues, technology plays a part. “If you ask a bunch of Gen Xers [born in the ’60s and ’70s] what they would do if they didn’t like where they worked, most would say ‘leave.’ But if you ask millennials that question, their attitude is, ‘Someone will fix it,’” Mr. Howe said. “They’ll start IM-ing each other, a few will get Mom and Dad on their cellphones, someone will call the local media, another will alert the congressman. Millennials trust in their institutions more than baby boomers or Gen Xers.”

Ms. Gregg cites the massive response to gay rights advocate Dan Savage’s recent “It Gets Better” YouTube project as a prime example of millennial might. In just a few weeks, hundreds of videos of LBGT adults and allies, including many millennials, had submitted videos with anti-bullying messages and support for gay youth. (The channel has since been viewed more than a million times.) Gen Y isn’t physically storming the castle walls, but Ms. Gregg said that doesn’t mean it’s not making its voice heard.

Millennials are also perhaps the most analytical and media-savvy consumers ever. Mr. Shore said that, while some characterize millennials as suspicious or cynical of old-school linear marketing ploys, they’re just better at seeing through them. “We shoot a beam of content to the audience, and they take it apart like light through a prism. … Millennials are super-deconstructive of any kind of media messaging.”

Mr. Shore said for this reason and others, transparency and authenticity are key in marketing to Gen Y, and he’s not alone — Ms. Phillips said Gen Y has a love/hate relationship with marketing. “They love brands, and they talk about them more than anything else, but they hate the interruptive model of advertising,” said Ms. Phillips. “[Millennials] like to see ads tailored to them. It’s not that they don’t want to see ads, they just don’t want to see ads for Cialis.”

Ms. Phillips says millennials are now tinged with a sense of frugality that will likely remain for the rest of their lives. Her research suggests they’re big into redistribution of materials, into sharing smaller houses and taking public transit or walking. They’ve dropped their cable and never used landline phones; they’re not eating out as much, and they’re paying down their debt. Though they will splurge on necessities (which now include smartphones) and rationalize that occasional Coach bag as a career investment, “they’ll go online and ask their friends for recs. They’re very careful shoppers.”

Ms. Phillips says millennials’ focus on experience helps explain why social currency is the new gold standard for smart marketers and advertisers. “If I can add value, they’ll tell my story for me,” she said. “It puts pressure on marketers to go back to their roots — it’s about engaging consumers with your message.”

Mr. Shore, who conducts focus groups for new programming with millennials from the earliest stages of a show’s creation, said an essential element in making this new concept of social currency work is actually not so new at all — linear programming, like the MTV Video Music Awards, around which millennials can engage on digital platforms like Twitter. After all, “smart and funny is the new rock and roll,” Mr. Shore said.

Mr. Howe said it’s no accident that millennials voted for President Obama by a 66% margin: Mr. Obama, who was Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year in 2008, relentlessly peddled the most millennial ideas possible — positivity and inclusiveness. Mr. Howe said these are values that millennials respond to most.

"Gen X slogans were ‘No rules, just right’ and ‘Grab life by the horns,’ all very in-your-face," said Mr. Howe. "For millennials, it’s ‘Yes, we can,’ ‘Wii would like to play’ and ‘We’re all in this together’ from ‘High School Musical.’ It’s a different attitude. It has to be inclusive, and it has to look for a better day."

While experts note millennials are also known for their arrogance, self-centeredness and reliance on technology, Ms. Phillips said marketers and older generations in general would do well to not pander, over-simplify or write them off too quickly. “They get it. They deeply get it,” she said. “And where they go, everyone else is going to follow.”

5 tips for marketing to millennials
1. Be fast
For millennials, there’s nothing worth saying that can’t be said in 140 characters or less. It’s not that they can’t handle long-form pitches, they just know you can do better. So do better.

2. Be clever
As Nick Shore, head of research for MTV, said, “Smart and funny is the new rock ‘n’ roll.” Millennials are set to be the most-educated generation on record, with the largest social-media platform (Facebook) having been famously born on a college campus. “With their roots in college culture, it’s no wonder eloquence and timing are more prized than ever for this generation. Err on the side of overestimating the millennial — as the Old Spice campaign shows — and sometimes they’ll surprise you.

3. Be transparent
Millennials may be arrogant and entitled, but they’re not stupid, and they know media exists to sell them things. So rather than pretending your branded beverage isn’t conspicuously placed in a TV character’s hand to entice them, look for new ways to make it funny. It will ring true with them, and they’ll appreciate the honesty. (Need a cue? Look no further than the deliciously self-referential “30 Rock.”)

4. Don’t “technologize” everything
By their own definition, millennials are in part defined by their use of and reliance on technology. But marketers should resist the urge to attempt to “speak their language” — Gen Yers can smell those ploys a mile away. Remember, millennials are digital natives — they don’t use technology; they live it, and they do so subconsciously.

5. Give them a reason to talk about you
Millennials don’t like ads, but they don’t mind marketing that’s non-invasive, non-interruptive and that adds something to their experience, either online or off. Whether it’s a fun and timely iPhone app, a targeted high-profile event or a personalized viral-video campaign, if you want your message to resonate with millennials, give them something to talk about. And if we know the first thing about millennials, talk they will.

Want to Reach the Millennial Market? Start With Snooki

- Thomas Pardee, Ad Age
November 30th, 2010

Everyone wants a piece of the coveted millennial market. But to harness Gen-Y buying power, marketers must first understand what makes it different. Even with the mountain of research that’s being conducted on this generation, that can be easier said than done.
Nick Shore, head of research at MTV, presented the findings of his ongoing study titled “The Millennial Edge” at Ad Age’s Media Evolved Conference as part of a presentation called “Snooki’s Media Diet.” (Snooki, for the uninitiated, is one of the stars of MTV’s hit reality show “Jersey Shore.”)

His research, which ultimately serves to inform programming creation and development for MTV, holds some key lessons about millennials that directly affect how marketers should (and, importantly, shouldn’t) reach the first generation of “digital natives.”

His presentation was followed by a panel of millennials (aged 20-30) who work at MTV, and the conversation revolved around a few highlights from Mr. Shore’s study:

Smart and funny is the new rock ‘n’ roll

This isn’t a new line for Mr. Shore (see Ad Age’s Consumer Issue profile on millennials for some background on the demographic), but it’s only gaining credence. “Edgy humor and wit is playing the iconoclastic rock ‘n’ roll role,” he said. Indeed, a few of the millennials on the panel agreed that humor is a necessary component to popularity in the digital age. “One way to become popular on Twitter, to get a lot of followers, is to be the funniest and wittiest within 140 character limit,” said Gabi Gregg, MTV’s “Twitter Jockey.”

Running the bases backwards

The old rules of dating and hooking up are precisely that, according to Mr. Shore, whose research suggests that hooking up comes before an actual first date with many millennials. This, besides being an important cultural indicator, is an untapped tension point for content creation, Mr. Shore said.

Reinvention tension

Though adolescents and young adults have always struggled to reinvent themselves as a form of expression, exposure to a higher volume of media has only added more pressure for millennials to define themselves and stay fresh and interesting. “What took Madonna 10 years, in terms of reinvention, took Lady Gaga 10 minutes,” Mr. Shore said, while showing a slide of two images of two very different incarnations Lady Gaga has assumed in her short career — one of her clad in a Cleopatra wig and disco ball shoulder pad from 2008, and another of her this year, draped in her infamous meat dress from the MTV Video Music Awards.

The invisible fence

While over-parenting and “peer-enting” are commonly blamed for millennial entitlement, Mr. Shore suggests millennials just don’t know where the line is because it’s never been drawn for them. “Kids develop an obsession with the edge,” he said. “Mom and Dad never punished me. What is [the line]? Where is it? How do I find it?”

Radically real

Millennials have grown up with reality programming (much of it on MTV, including “The Real World” and even “Jersey Shore”). But that so-called reality has blurred the line between reality, hyper-reality and other, more scripted kinds of content. As a result, there’s an untapped need for something absolute. “There’s a real hunger for authenticity. Millennials crave something unequivocally real,” Mr. Shore said.

TOMS: A brand’s millennial sole

- by Oren Kessler, MTV Insights

TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie came to MTV to talk to us about TOMS, the ubiquitous millennial-favorite shoe brand. TOMS started in 2006 with a hope of bringing shoes to underprivileged children globally through a buy one-give one business model- and recently, they’ve successfully expanded this model to eyeglasses.

So why is TOMS the ultimate millennial brand?

The company, whose core demographic of buyers has slowly moved down in age to its current millennial girl demographic, hits every millennial theme we at MTV Insights study. When we ask millennials what they want to be when they grow up, we usually hear: “I want to do something meaningful in the world, that makes me a good amount of money, and innovates through new technology.”

The DIY, collaborative mindset of the millennial generation is also reflected in the company’s operations: Blake spoke of finding interns on Craigslist when the company was first starting out and how TOMS now finds employees through LinkedIn, how the company has used games as a main source of free (or close to it) marketing and how the entire brand is playing upon the millennial currency of the experience (even going so far as to use ‘Were You There’ as the slogan for the companies One Day Without Shoes imitative).

But perhaps the most lasting millennial-relevant takeaway was Blake’s ability to craft his business to the things he found most interesting and most enjoyable (another wonderful millennial theme). For a company that thrives and grows in a new capitalist environment (and some would say one they have been shaping) it is amazing to hear someone talk about the mechanics and desire to lead and responsibility to help grow employees lives. Even when one of the company’s main goals is giving back, there has to be personal satisfaction and happiness to make it worthwhile – millennial to the sole.

Media Post: MTV Research: It’s (Video) Game Time For Marketers

- David Goetzl, Media Post

MTV Networks rarely disappoints with its research that delves into the emotions, influences and behaviors of a particular demographic. And, a Harvard Business Review blog post offers more stimulating analysis as it lays out a be-fair-or-get-fired attitude the millennial generation harbors towards marketers.

“Millennials demand fairness, transparency and clear, consistent rules in every aspect of life,” writes author Nick Shore, a senior vice president in MTV’s research group. “And as consumers, they feel comfortable leveraging their power (individually or collectively) to ‘level the playing field’ – with 70% claiming, ‘If a company is unfair with me, I’ll figure out how to make things fair.’”

If frustrated by fine print in cell phone contracts, millennials might strike back, looking to take advantage of “exploitable loopholes.” Frustrated by a certain bundling practice, “they more or less took down the record industry, demanding the right to buy and download single songs versus entire CDs,” Shore wrote in the HBR post.

Airlines with blackout dates and all kinds of restrictions on using rewards points might be at particular risk of piquing millennials, prompting Shore to note how Southwest Airlines has navigated successfully through their frustrations with its “no red tape” program, which has proven to be a “#winning strategy.”
Social media might giveth and taketh away, but also giveth again. Anger at a would-be exploitive company might prompt a rush of commentary on Twitter by millennials, yet a mea culpa could restore trust.

Shore writes that “millennials don’t expect perfection – they accept apologies from brands that have ‘wronged’ them.”

At MTV, the respected research group is constantly conducting exhaustive research – often using unusual approaches, including famously moving in with subjects for brief periods. The aim is to serve as golden guides for development of hit programming for 12-to-24 year-olds, and persuading advertisers to follow.

In his Harvard Business Review post, Shore offers an MTV playbook for millennial-seeking marketers that includes strategies such as “leverage the leaderboard” and “hand over that joystick” — not surprising metaphors considering the playbook is rooted in MTV’s 2011 study “Let’s Play Brand.”

During the research, MTV found half of millennials said that “people my age see real life as a video game” and nearly 60% said “#winning is the slogan of my generation.”

“The study has given us startling reaffirmation of our intuition that a ‘game-like metaphor’ applies to almost every aspect of millennial life,” Shore wrote.

A win-or-lose mentality does seem to break with some suggestions about millennial psychographics. A 2010 New York Times blog post cited an “oft-heard claim that the rising generation is more idealistic, activist, etc. than their parents.”

And yet, in that same post, Wheaton College English Professor Alan Jacobs wrote that a new book examining millennials conveyed: “Voices critical of mass consumerism, materialistic values, or the environmental or social costs of a consumer-driven economy were nearly nonexistent among emerging adults.” 
MTV’s Shore writes that millennials’ cynicism and interest in short cuts is such that the workplace is viewed as a game, where “power players can find the back door to the top floor.”

So, MTV’s five-step playbook looks to help marketers offer a “gamified brand experience.” There’s a suggestion that an updated version of the old comparative shopping — we’ll beat anyone’s best price — might work.

Research shows 80% of millennials want to know how their deals stack up against what others got. And 74% believe they’ve “‘won’ when they get more than the average consumer.” MTV says Zappos has tapped into this gaming as it will surprise a customer random free overnight shipping.

MTV also suggests when marketers offer deals, they find a way to let consumers discover them — maybe go with what’s described as pull rather than push marketing. Let millennials even feel as if they’ve been smart enough to “hack the system” or find “back stairs to the next level.”

MTV labels the Zappos tactic of unexpected bonuses as “positive randomness.” It seems logical that the chance of unexpected happiness can lead to loyalty. MTV’s Shore touts using “enough structure to understand the rules, with enough unpredictability to keep it interesting in perpetuity.”

Separately, MTV indicates marketers should put forth even more effort to give consumers a voice. Crowdsourcing of TV ads and logo designs is one opportunity.

In the vein of empowering consumers, MTV again references cell phone marketing, citing millennials saying they want the opportunity for “do-overs” with contracts. That would resemble using the reset button on an Xbox.

It really is game time for marketers — video game time.

Digital Marketing News: Online Contests Build Consumer Interest

- Shahnaz Mahmud, Digital Marketing News

Brands are featuring user-generated digital content in their consumer-facing contests, adding a new online angle to a marketing strategy that has been used for decades.

Canon USA, Buick, and Lee Jeans are among the marketers using the approach. In recent months, brands have launched a spate of online initiatives encouraging consumers to share personal stories by uploading essays or photos, for instance, to compete for various prizes.

Canon created a contest for its “Your Second Shot” campaign, promoting a real-life couple − a first for the company − while showing off its ability to prevent consumers from “losing” important shots to poor quality.

The couple traveled to Barcelona to take a photograph at the café where the woman’s parents first met. After the photo they took didn’t turn out well, Canon sent them back to Spain to recreate it with a PowerShot digital camera. The company is asking participants to upload a similar story and photo depicting a memory that was lost in a poor image from poor lighting. 

“I always feel that when consumers have something ‘in the game,’ it brings them a little bit closer to the brand,” says Michelle Fernandez, senior manager of camera marketing at Canon USA. “When you layer underneath that kind of strong tech-nology proposition or that value proposition, I think consumers are more apt to listen and they are more intrigued, wanting to know more about what their peers are talking about.”

Home Sweet Solutions, a website that provides homeowners with do-it-yourself tips, recently launched the “Home Repair Nightmare” contest. The brand is asking participants to share a home repair project that went awry or part of their home that is in dire need of fixing.

MTV Networks recently held a contest searching for social media talent, rewarding the winner with a job. This summer, the media company partnered with American Express to search for its first “Twitter jockey.”

“The ‘TJ’ was created and bubbled up through our network, chosen by our audience, of our audience, and that person is now embedded within our organization and engaged in a perpetual dialogue with our audience,” says Nick Shore, SVP of strategic insights and research at MTV.

Both General Motors’ Buick automobile line and clothing brand Lee Jeans have launched contests that include a blogging component.

Buick partnered with Food Buzz, an aggregator of food blogs with more than 15,000 bloggers in its network. It is co-hosting “Project Food Blog” for its initiative, which will name a winner after a series of 10 challenges are completed. The user-generated content makes the social media experience more authentic, says Janet Keller, digital and social media manager at Buick GMC.

“The more real, and the more transparent it is, the more engaging and compelling it is for the audience,” she says.

Nate Elliott, principal analyst at Forrester Research, says contests are potentially an effective way to connect with consumers. However, he is skeptical on how deep the bond is. “It all comes down to the execution,” he says, “the relatively shallow execution.”

Lee Jeans, meanwhile, enlisted the help of 20 bloggers for a contest. It gave each one a free pair of men’s Lee jeans, as well as five more to give to readers.”

“Today, consumers are starting to become marketers of brands, and we really need to partner with them,” says Liz Cahill, VP of marketing and communications for Lee Jeans. “Obviously, we would love to tell our story in our way, but we know the world is changing − consumers have so much more power − and we want to make sure we are aiding them in telling our story and not running away from it.”

Harvard Business Review: Millennials Are Playing With You

By: Nick Shore

At MTV, we have long suspected that understanding the relationship between Millennials and game play is one of the keys to understanding the generation as a whole. Our 2011 study, “Let’s Play Brand,” attempts to understand some of the implications of this “meta-game-mentality” for brand builders and marketers. The study has given us startling reaffirmation of our intuition that a “game-like metaphor” applies to almost every aspect of Millennial life. Half of Millennials said “People my age see real life as a video game” and almost 6 out of 10 said “#winning is the slogan of my generation” (certainly #epic_fail seems to have become their anti-slogan!)

To anyone who has spent as much time with Millennials as we at MTV have (and certainly for anyone who employs as many Millennials as we do), it quickly becomes apparent how adept this generation is at navigating the loopholes, trap doors and “Easter eggs” of life, using their smarts, technological resources, and “peer power.” They see the workplace as a multiplayer game where power players can find the back door to the top floor; cell phone contracts are riddled with exploitable loopholes; and navigating the car purchasing experience is akin to advancing levels, with ‘experience points’ gained along the way.

Perhaps we should be unsurprised by all this. Millennials learned to game the system early in their own homes, negotiating homework rules, privileges and punishments in family democracies with peer-like parents. Indeed, in the study, almost 7 out of 10 Millennials believe they “can successfully negotiate anything with authority figures.” And Millennials’ brains are — according to the game designers we interviewed in the study — “hard wired” differently than those of older generations. Older generations played analogue — chess with actual people who eventually got tired, sword-fighting with sticks that eventually snapped. Millennials played digital, with an opponent that never tired, that increased and decreased in intensity at their command. World-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal estimates that a 21-year-old has spent 10,000 hours gaming — about the same amount of time he’s spent in school from 5th to 12th grade.

No wonder, then, that the hottest business trend of the moment is the gamification of marketing. Whether your brand is playing along or not, Millennials are already playing with you! We put together this “playbook” to further the conversation on how to create a gamified brand experience for Millennials:

MTV’s Playbook for Engaging With Millennials

Principle #1: Play fair or you are “fair game”

Millennials demand fairness, transparency, and clear, consistent rules in every aspect of life. And as consumers, they feel comfortable leveraging their power (individually or collectively) to “level the playing field” — with 70% claiming “If a company is unfair with me, I’ll figure out how to make things fair.” Millennials use their tech-savvy slingshots to take aim at Goliath brands and knock them down to their level. Consider how they more or less took down the record industry, demanding the right to buy and download single songs versus entire CDs.

As consumers, they look to “out” and outsmart companies that craft unfair contracts or even “change the rules” mid-game, such as offering reward points, but imposing unfair restrictions on usage. Not surprisingly, Southwest’s “no red tape” program, which eliminates restrictions on rewards miles, is a #winning strategy. But Millennials don’t expect perfection — they accept apologies from brands that have “wronged” them.

Principle #2: Leverage the leaderboard

A virtual addiction to constant feedback is a quintessential Millennial trait, as they love to know where they stand on the figurative leaderboard of life. A generation that’s accustomed to feedback from peer-ents and teachers, as well as public kudos in video games and Facebook posts, craves that same feedback as consumers. Four out of five want to know how the deals they get compare to what others are getting. 74% percent feel that they’ve “won” when they get more than the average consumer. Our inventive Millennials even envisaged cleaning products that let you know how well you swept the floor versus everyone else — a floor cleaner with built-in public praise!

Zappos gets it — the brand surprises its best customers “randomly” with free overnight shipping upgrades on purchases (we discuss the concept of “positive randomness” more below).

Principle #3: Smart-cuts, not short-cuts

While many incorrectly stereotype this generation as feeling entitled to rewards without effort, MTV’s research shows that they want to feel like they’ve used their smarts and resources to “level up,” hack the system, or find cheat codes, trap doors, and back stairs to the next level. Halo marketing is now famous for the labyrinth of codified messaging buried in layers throughout its launch campaign, leading the savviest player through virtual wormholes to exclusive content. Part of the “intrinsic” reward of gaming (the pleasure of playing versus the end reward) is a sense of efficacy and smartness. There’s a clear case for layering this into the marketing interaction.

Principle #4: Deliver dopamine/adrenaline fixes

Half of respondents in our study — perhaps those more prone to Millennial micro-boredom — believe that “life can be less stimulating than gaming.” Game designers explained to us how games are constructed to deliver excitement/reward cycles, but that Millennials are so used to (perhaps burned out on) these cycles that they need more intense and higher frequency experiences to satiate.

The complementary game dynamic we found fascinating was “positive randomness” — if a game is too predictable, it is boring, but if there are too many random surprises, it is too complex. The perfect combination is enough structure to understand the rules, with enough unpredictability to keep it interesting in perpetuity. A gum that changes flavor mid-chew, or a shampoo that surprises teen girls with different colors of hair streaks, is built for this dynamic. Forever 21 offers a retail experience that seems to be feeding directly into this speeding change-up cycle (if you have visited a Forever 21 lately, you can almost feel the cycle speed in the way the customer frantically shops the store). For a marketer, it’s about finding a way for consumers to commit to your brand more fully while operating in product “versions” more swiftly.

Principle #5: Hand over that joystick.

Millennials are accustomed to having a voice, and having it heeded. And they’re frustrated when big corporations don’t give them a voice or a true “role” as a consumer in the game.

Clearly, the marketing world has recognized the importance of letting consumers be heard, evidenced by the massive investment in social media programs. But opportunities to truly give consumers the controls go well beyond listening. We’ve seen brands crowdsource TV ads, logo designs and product flavors, and of course there’s the spectacular growth of Groupon. Our Millennials said, for example, they want “three lives,” and “do-overs” on cell phone contracts — akin to pressing the “reset” button on an Xbox. It’s about consumer empowerment on unprecedented levels.

To mashup a little Shakespeare, it would seem that for the next generation of consumers, “All the world’s a game and all the kids and twenty-somethings power players.” For the smart marketers who have seen the new rules, there’s a world of opportunity to take it to a whole new level.

Fast Company: Are You M-Ready?

BY FC Expert Blogger Nick Shore
Fri Mar 25, 2011

MTV’s insights into the Millennial generation reveal challenging questions about serving the consumers of the future.

Unless you compete in a market that specifically targets youth, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the emergence of the so-called Millennial Generation in America today.

And if you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Millennials, it may come as a surprise to you that at 100 million strong they are the single largest generational cohort in American history, dwarfing their predecessors Generation X, and even out-sizing that most famous of all generational behemoths, The Baby Boomers.

"But we don’t sell gum or acne cream," you may still be thinking, "so why should we care?"

Consider for a moment the half-century long trajectory that The Boomers have taken from 1960s to the present day. Those bearded idealists of the civil rights movement are the self same retirees now marching with placards in the streets protesting for heath-care reform. It’s not hard to see just how many of the tectonic shifts in culture and commerce over the last half fifty years have been powered by the demands of the Boomer generation. From Pepsi’s co-opting of Sixties counter-culture, to the casualization of the workplace, there is a wealth of evidence for how closely linked broad changes in the American landscape have been to the Boomers moving through time, like the proverbial egg in the snake.

Millennials are not just a more voluminous generation than Boomers, but better educated, more self-esteemed, more demanding, more technologically savvy, more empowered and wired to win at the game of life. And they are pouring daily by the tens of thousands into the commercial and cultural mainstream.

In short, no matter what business you are in, they are your next generation of consumers.

Whether three years, five, or ten from now, sooner or later the Millennials will be the ones standing in the grocery isle, or in the bank managers office, or in the car dealership evaluating your product or service offering, asking “is this for me, really?” More likely, of course, they won’t be standing in any of these places, but doing it on a voice-activated iPad while driving to work in Smart Car Version 3.0, but you get the point.

And if you want a vision of the kind of impact this generation can have on an industry, just look at some of the categories where they have come to play already: music— transformed from a big label album-driven model to something so customizable and just-in-time that it’s barely recognizable as the industry it once was; clothing—the fast fashion of a Forever 21 shattering traditional “one merchandise drop per season” models into shards; and of course the social networking “industry,” remarkable in so many ways, not least of which is the speed with which a single business entity can go from zero to half a billion consumers.

At MTV, of course, youth is our market.

MTV made a decision at its point of inception to never grow old with the audience but to reinvent periodically for each “generation next.” So naturally, we have been one of the companies impacted first and dramatically by the Millennial generation coming of age as entertainment consumers.

Because young people are our viewers and because they are so fast and so fickle (and becoming ever more so), we study them with a deep intensity and intimacy. We strive to understand not just the “what,” but also the “why”—their drives (conscious and unconscious), desires, passions, fears, and challenges.

In all of our work with Millennials, we have identified a series of traits that are quite unique to this generation (versus prior generations), and which we believe will have dramatic implications on who they will become as consumers—not just consumers of entertainment, but of cars, homes, refrigerators, and shampoo.

Before describing these principles, it’s important to highlight two tectonic forces that move beneath much of what defines the uniqueness of this generation. The first, and perhaps most important, is the recalibration of the nuclear family and, as a consequence, the way this generation was parented.

A century of “parent-centered” nuclear family has steadily been under-going a paradigm shift, and may have just passed the tipping point. The nucleus of the family has been moving towards the child, and Millennials look like the first generation raised in that new nuclear family structure. No longer the hierarchical structure with authoritarian parent “leadership,” the new family is flattened to a democracy, with collective (if not kid-driven) decision-making process. Parents are more like best friends, life coaches, or as we at MTV call them “peer-ents.”

75% of Millennials in an MTV study agreed that “Parents of people my age would rather support their children than punish them,” 58% agreed, “My parents are like a best friend to me.”

No longer is it necessary to “rebel against” authoritarian parents to individuate, engage in acts of self-expression, or push at the boundaries. As one youth psychologist we work with pointed out, “Parents don’t say you can’t go to the party, they create safe spaces to consume alcohol, they say Can I pick you up afterwards?, Here’s money for a taxi.”

Self-expression, having your voice heard, following your own path—these are all values that are positively encouraged in modern parenting styles. Why rebel when you simply need to explain your behavior in terms of “my experiment in self discovery.”

Percentage of Millennials who agree with the following statements
(from MTV Millennial Edge Study, 2010):
• I’m always expressing myself in different ways - 81%
• I hate it when other people expect me to live by their rules - 76%
• If I want something, nothing is going to stop me - 69%
In short, the power dynamics of the family have shifted dramatically, and much of the empowered, one could even say “super-powered” style of the Millennials has its roots in this redistribution.

And in the style of pouring gasoline on a fire, the second tectonic shift is technology. The “You Demand It,” push button, everything free, always on culture of technology and the Internet has amplified much of the “social coding” of the way Millennials were parented. And as many commentators have already pointed out, the revolution will be tweeted. The power is in the hands of a million anonymous hands, and can be wielded apparently consequence free, in real time, with the click of a mouse.

Based on what we know about what makes this generation tick, and what we hear and observe about them on a daily basis, we have distilled down five principles, or perhaps they would be better described as challenges for businesses thinking about what it will mean to cater to this Millennial consumer as they come on line in a major way to more and more sectors of business.

1. What will it mean when co-creation with your consumer becomes part of your business model?

A generation raised on “children should be seen and heard” simply will not be a passive consumer of anything. They will demand a voice in, a stake in, even a creative point of view about, everything that your business does—from the product itself to the way it is sold and marketed, to the social responsibility policies of the organization itself. They may or may not choose to use that power (for example only miniscule percentages of people actually contribute to the crowd-sourced IP of Wikipedia), but they will demand that the mechanisms are in place that give them the choice to participate and the feeling that co-creativity drives the development process.

And this probably won’t be a one-time event (“lets go and do some creative focus groups and get our audience to help us think about innovation”). It will be an on-going real time feedback loop with demonstrable impact and validation built in. One of the most buzzed about ad campaigns of the last few years is Old Spice, where real time changes happen in the commercial creative as a result of input from the audience. There’s the beauty of the idea itself, and then there’s the power of the feedback/validation loop created with the audience—“See, you matter, your vote counts, your impact is felt and something moves as a consequence, you are smart and creative and you have … power.” And speaking of smarter …

2. What will it mean to make your product ten times smarter than it is today?

In all the research we conduct with this generation at MTV, the word we perhaps hear the most is “smart” (closely followed by “random,” “awkward,” “awesome,” and “love”). “Smart” means a multitude of things to the generation, but one thing that’s common is that it carries a very high premium and social currency. For the most educated generation in history, told by so-called “velcro” parents that smart is everything, it should hardly be a surprise. And indeed 57% of the generation consider themselves smarter than their parents, and 68% agree that “Nerds are the new jocks”!

We already have the Smartphone, the Smart Car and even Smart Water. What is smart soap, smart diapers, smart gas stations.

When you investigate the concepts of smartness further with the generation, some of the nuances that emerge give fascinating insights into their collective psyche. For something to be “smart” it has to, for example, entertain me, remember what I do and anticipate my needs, do “everything” for me, have built-in complexity and layers of meaning, shape-shift, be as smart as me!

3. What will it mean to be in a “two player game” with your consumer?

Millennials have a natural predisposition to view situations in terms of the metaphor of a game. Take the workplace—“what are the rules of this world, what are the levels, how do I get to the 10th one as quickly as possible (that nice CEO suite on the corner of the top floor), is there a shortcut, a smart bomb, a secret entrance, a magic potion?” Foursquare, the location-based social networking site, literally turns one’s social life into a game complete with badges, medals, trophies, and even mayor-hood awarded to “players.”

The generation learned young and learned well how to expertly negotiate with their parents to get a pass out of homework or a day off school … power-players in the game called “family.” Raised on a diet of almost millions of hours of World Of Warcraft, elaborate world kid-centered “constructs” like Harry Potter, and soccer trophies for the whole team, Millennials want to win.

Asked about “worldview” based on the following phrases, the intergeneration differences here become quickly apparent.

"Game" the system:
Millennials - 53%
Boomers - 26%

Protest the system:
Millennials - 13%
Boomers - 59%

Marketing to this generation may be more like a two player game, where everyone’s looking for the win win. How will your campaigns create a sense of “play” on the part of the audience, a sense of depth and levels, a sense of engagement, a validation loop, and ultimately a sense of material and emotional victory (or even of being the special one that figured out how to game it )? In the marketing campaign for Halo 3, level after level of depth was buried within layers of the marketing campaign, consumers freeze-framing DVR playback of commercials to pick up codes embedded in the film to follow breadcrumbs down Internet wormholes for the next clue.

4. What will it mean to your business to operate in on-going versions rather than a final product?

If we had to identify someone who is the face of the Generation, the way that Bob Dylan perhaps was for the Boomers or Kurt Cobaine for Xers, then today that face would be Lady Gaga’s. Considered beyond doubt the “most interesting person today” by the generation the core characteristic of Gaga is the speed and ferocity of her self-reinvention. She is doing in 10 minutes what it too Madonna ten years to achieve.

Who do you think is the most interesting person in pop culture today?

The parental premium placed on self expression for today’s kids, combined with technology tools to literally “curate the self” in real time, has created an insatiable appetite for newness. If something does not version, it quickly becomes boring. This has always, of course, been the consumer need that drives every company’s innovations engine, but the requisite rpm of that engine is rapidly going into the red zone as this generation come on line as buyers. It’s no longer acceptable, for example, that chewing gum remain the same flavor throughout the duration of the chew. No, the gum has to flavor-shift mid chew lest the chewer’s dopamine/adrenaline cycles start to fade and new stimulus is required.

5. What will it mean when there is no such thing as an un-connected product?

Everything we are learning about the generation points to a need to be constantly connected, existentially uncomfortable with the feeling of being “alone,” experiencing a fear of missing out when they stray to the hinterlands of their social graph. One interesting piece of research led us to understand how the automobile, so squarely a symbol of freedom and independence for prior generations, has become in danger of being perceived as a “disconnection device” for Millennials. “Trapped” inside the hermetically sealed vehicle, “alone”, and of course unable to text and check your status update, the feeling of the open road becomes the very antithesis of freedom, more like isolation.

A product which is ‘un-connected’ has a certain inertness for the generation. At the more superficial level even the most inert product can build a web site and “connect”. But it is much more challenging to re-imagine your product experience by asking how to increase its innate connectedness. What would a connected retail experience look like? Perhaps like the so called “haul video” syndrome where kids film themselves in changing rooms trying out different outfits, post the film of their ensembles in real time, and seek feedback from their social network on which ones look best before purchasing.

As the old hockey adages goes, you don’t skate to where the puck is, you skate to where it’s headed. And in the case of the Millennials, we’re looking at a hundred million pucks moving towards open ice where bold, as-yet-unimagined products and services will some day await them. So heads-up, here come the Millennials.

Nick Shore is Senior Vice President of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research at MTV. He is responsible for all of MTV’s research efforts across MTV, MTV2, mtv.com, mtvU, and MTV Tr3s platforms.