Why It’s So Hard To Sell To Millennials

Full disclosure. I’m a Millennial. Guilty as charged. 

I know we can be a finicky bunch. Certainly we do things “differently” than previous generations. Our methods of media consumption are different, so the traditional rules of media marketing were thrown out of the window for the most part maybe 5 years ago. But this is all old hat. I’m sure most people have read a dozen different articles about “marketing to Millennials” already. I’m hoping I can give you a fresh perspective you haven’t heard before (*hint* we’re poor).

The traditional narrative goes something like this:

  • Millennials need to express their opinions, so you need to go through the social media world
  • Millennials have attention spans the length of a goldfish so in order to get their attention you need to be outlandish even, somehow get them to pay attention
  • Etc… Etc…

So I’m not saying this traditional narrative is wrong. There really are kernels of truth here, but are often wrapped up in misunderstandings and stereotypes of those under 35. I know that many of my fellow Millennials out there reading this are very familiar with the eye roll that accompanies articles that write off their behavior because of their temperament: “Why Millennials Don’t Fit In At The Workplace/Have No Job Loyalty, etc…” (the end implication is always that they are lazy/spoiled/self-centered). I for one am heartened at the lack of those articles over the past two years as more Millennials have entered the workplace and the narrative is getting much more nuanced (and less eye-rolly).

Truths Of The Traditional Narrative

Social Media

It IS true that social marketing has been an effective way to get the attention (notice I said attention and not business) of Millennials. But that’s because that’s where we spend all of our time. Of course actually marketing to where your audience is spending time is going to be more effective. 90% of all 18-29 year olds use social medial (Pew: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/). And if there’s anything we’ve learned from social media it’s that people of all generations love nothing more than to express their opinions online *aHem Trump*.

Attention Span

In “THE AGE OF SCREENS” people really are being exposed to more things vying for their attention than ever. 18-36 year olds consume 17.8 hours of social media per day (it’s mathematically possible because they often consume multiple sources at the same time) http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/03/13/data-point-how-many-hours-do-millennials-eat-up-a-day/. As a small footnote I researched if people were also exposed to more ADS than in previous generations, but I couldn’t find a decent study proving that. But there is certainly more content. So yes, people in general, and especially younger people, are consuming media at a much faster pace. This does not prove, however, that Millennials are goldfish.

My Economic Narrative About Millennials

Raise your hand if you’ve been in this situation: You had an online marketing campaign in which people under 35 were the focus, or a significant cohort, but it did not go as well as you expected. And you were left thinking “I thought we had a good message. I thought we had a good product, but why didn’t it sell as predicted? Where were the conversions?” It may have even had great traction and views and social marketing likes.

Don’t blame yourself. It’s the economy stupid. Millennials are the poorest generation by a lot. Allow me to put this in perspective. Net worth is the amount of money you have minus all the money that you owe. The median net worth of someone under 35 is only $10,400 (http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2014/09/04/it-only-takes-10400-to-be-richer-than-most-millennials/). Again, that’s the median, many are probably negative. Just for comparison, net worth for 35-44 is $46,700, 45-54 is $105,300, and those 65-74 $232,100. Now it IS true that over time as you work and make more money you save more. But Millennials aren’t making money either.

Check out this cool calculator to indicate what income percentile of Millennials you are in (http://fusion.net/story/41833/wealth-gap-calculator-are-you-in-the-millennial-one-percent/). If your average income is $50,000 you’re in the top 15%. At $30,000 you’re still in the top half (45th percentile).

The honest to god truth is that between soaring student debt amounts, the great recession, an anaemic hiring market with little wage growth, and increases in other life goods (like healthcare), Millennials are just poor. And it explains so much of our behavior. Pirating music and movies? Poor. Flocking to free apps like social media? Poor. Liking Pabst Blue Ribbon? Poor. Living with your parents? Poor.

And the living with parents trend isn’t just about parents. It’s a seismic shift in how American family structures and the “unit’ work. The percentage of young adults living in their parents’ homes is 26%. But more importantly another 48% of Millennials are “doubled up” that is to say they live with an extra adult (roommate) who is not a spouse or unmarried partner. Only about 25% of Millennials are living either alone or in a traditional “nuclear” household arrangement. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/07/29/more-millennials-living-with-family-despite-improved-job-market/.

Maybe it’s because we like having friends around. Or maybe it’s because we are too poor to buy houses. Home ownership for Americans under 35 is only 36%, the lowest level on record (started 1982) http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/04/30/homeownership-for-millennials-declines-to-historic-lows.

Now this isn’t to say we won’t spend money, we obviously do on organic food, shaving clubs, or other things we feel passionate about. But we just don’t have as much of it to spend. So unless we can really be convinced it’s hard to make us hit the buy button.

So How Do I Sell To Millennials?

“Help Me I’m Poor

My advice for success marketing to Millennials is to treat us like the poor cohort we are. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are cheap, but we are very sensitive to marketing pitches that allow us to spend less money and still live the American self-story we want to tell ourselves. And many of the successful marketing campaigns to younger adults do just this.

Dollar Shave Club (https://try.dollarshaveclub.com/try-the-club/) (which just sold to Unilever for $1 billion), had great success with brash videos about how their factory direct over the internet model would save you money. Companies like Netflix have had great success appealing to “cord cutters” who want entertainment but do not want to pay for expensive cable. Spotify and other music streaming services have had great success following catering to users who want all the music for a much lower price point. Casper Mattresses (https://casper.com/) for factory direct online mattresses. Uber, Lyft, or other rideshare services for cheaper taxis. Airbnb for cheaper hotels. “Freemium” games have exploded, and I’m not just talking about apps, but also mainstream PC gaming including MOBAs (Dota 2, HoTS, LoL), and card games (Hearthstone).

More Millennials are cooking at home following the national trend. And while Millennials do eat out a lot, it’s mostly at cheap fast-casual places. NPD found that young millennials spend an average of $1,240 a year at restaurants, while the American average spends $4,214. ( http://time.com/3749962/millennials-money-parents/ , https://dqydj.com/how-you-stack-up-to-other-americans-in-monthly-food-spending/)

The point is, if you want a successful sales pitch to Millennials SAVE THEM MONEY OR INCREASE VALUE.

Millennials Value Time More

Uh oh. I’m going to do some economic stuff. Feel free to turn away if you’re scared.
I bet you’ve heard the phrase the “time-value of money”. Lucky for you I don’t want to talk about it. But I do want to talk about the “money value of time”.

It’s pretty simple. There are only 24 hours in the day. Each minute of free time that a person has to spend is worth a certain dollar amount. What if I told you I could give you one extra minute right now to do nothing, or anything. Whatever you wanted. How much would you pay for that? One penny? $.50? A Dollar? $10? Whatever that number is; that’s your money value of time. And sure it changes if you have more free time or if you’re poor etc… And I don’t need to go into the nuances of what changes the number.

But, my argument is that millennials have a higher value of their time than previous generations.
It’s why we can’t stand wasting time working at work, or work inefficiencies. It’s why we will go above and beyond to save time buying anything. Grocery delivery (no more wasting time picking food up). Amazon prime for everything and anything. Even if we could actually have the product faster by simply walking down the street to Walgreens, we’ll prefer to buy online. Anything on a phone we can do in 2 seconds instead of 3 we’ll flock to. Working from home. Online banking. Texting rather than a phone call. Shortening “be right back” to brb.

Think of all the minutes saved! We enjoy squeezing every last second out (as long as it isn’t too expensive). Our marginal utility per minute appears to be insanely high.

And what do we do with all this time? Idk. Watch Netflix or play video games or something but it doesn’t matter! The point is if you want a successful sales pitch to Millennials SAVE THEM TIME.

Tell A Story

This is more a general point. Like every generation Millennials love a great story and love to be part of something. If you can make them feel part of a team, that will sell.

Millennials Grew Up Online. They Don’t Trust You

As the first internet generation (Internet Gen 1.0 I call us), we grew up online with pedophiles and viruses and spam and clickbait at every turn. We have a very high guard. But if you can prove you have actual facts, and know what you’re talking about we’ll believe you.

A McCarthy Study found that of those aged 18-34, 84% “do not like or trust” all forms of advertising. As a personal anecdote for my work at The Team W we find that Millennials actually respond really well to information presented by someone of any age, including Boomers, but only after you gain their trust with insights and facts.

My personal advice (I don’t have research on this, sorry) is to give Millennials substance without the filler to gain their trust. The message can be short, but just make sure it’s valuable.


I bet either you’ll never read this because you stopped reading, or if you are reading this, you just skimmed down to the bottom to read the conclusion. I won’t disappoint and I’ll be quick. Millennials are poor and value time. Give them value, save them money, save them time, and tell a story with substance for best results.

Share this with everyone you know and hire me for speaking, consulting, or interviews by emailing info@theteamw.com.
Thanks, and all the best.

Guthrie Weinschenk

Guthrie Weinschenk is a Behavioral Economist. He has a degree in Economics from the University of Wisconsin, and a law degree from Loyola University of Chicago. Guthrie consults, speaks and teaches on behavioral economics, business strategy, and technology integration. He is the COO of The Team W, and the host of the Human Tech podcast.

99 thoughts on “Why It’s So Hard To Sell To Millennials

Leave Comment