Why ‘Millennial’ is Meaningless for Social Media Targeting

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In early January, university student Andrew Watts made waves with a Medium post called “A Teenager’s View of Social Media.” The 19-year-old broke down a handful of popular social networks, from Facebook to Snapchat, and how they were both thought of and used by his friends.

The response was immediate. In addition to the overwhelmingly positive feedback, people questioned how his age (at 19, is he really a teenager?), his race and gender (a white male’s view doesn’t represent all teens), and his economic status (he’s attending a good university; what about the less fortunate, the lower classes, the less educated) affected his views on social media.

A number of posts emerged to respond to Watts’s, including a recent Medium post by Soroush Ghodsi called A 13-Year-Old’s View on Social Media. The author of this post prefaces his article saying that he read the original post, which was “written by a 19-year-old, someone who to me is an adult.” (Not by a longshot, kid.) Ghodsi’s post is actually quite similar to that of his elder counterpart, though they prioritize different networks (kik and YouTube vs. Yik Yak and Instagram).

As a 25-year-old, all of these posts have been enlightening. My friends and I use social media in entirely different ways than those described by people six or 10 years younger than us. Meanwhile, my 29 and 31-year-old sisters use social media in a completely different way than I do.

So why is this discussion important? Because all of us fall into a demographic category that continues to fascinate and obsess marketers: Millennials.

Old Millennials, young Millennials, Middlennials

 Image by a href="http://pixabay.com/en/children-win-success-video-game-593313/"> StartupStockPhotos  under CC0
These aren’t millennials… but they’re close. Image by StartupStockPhotos under CC0

Millennial is a term loosely used to describe people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. The discussion around social media—and technology in general—is often framed around how Millennials use certain apps, networks or tools. How many headlines have you read about “the latest trend among Millennials” or “Millennials rejecting” a certain social network? What the posts of Watts and Ghodsi, my experience and that of my sisters go to show is that this moniker doesn’t recognize the real speed of social media innovation.

Millennials span 20 years, because two decades is approximately how long each generation lasts. In the past, this also tended to correspond with the periods of major technological innovation, but no longer. Innovation is moving at a speed never seen before, and, as a result, technological trends are shifting greatly between groups of people only a few years apart in age.

With so much progress in such a short time, why do people still try to group us into a generational category? The obvious answer is that it is usually young people that are setting the trends. The Millennial tag offers the media and businesses an easy way to describe the general age group that is at the forefront of technology.

And yet, the above articles show that there are countless competing views within that age bracket as to what is popular and what isn’t. The risk of using a term like “Millennials” comes when, for example, a post about Millennials using kik is taken to heart by a brand that actually wants to target 25-30 year olds. You won’t find that age group on kik. Just like you won’t find many 15 to 20-year-olds posting on Twitter.

Thankfully, the same technology people use that term to characterize has offered us an alternative.

Moving beyond the Millennials moniker

Instead of thinking in terms of so-called Millennials, businesses should be focused on listening to their followers and building up specific buyer personas.

Social media listening offers countless insights into the real interests and distastes of any audience you’re trying to target. Track the content they share, the comments they make, the discussions they participate in, and you’ll have a far better idea of what technology is trending than what any broad article can provide.

Once you’ve gathered enough information about your target audience, you can build up a more accurate profile of the very unique Millennial audience you’re trying to attract. Maybe that will be women, aged 18 to 24, currently in university. Maybe it will be men and women, from 25 to 30 years of age, currently employed and potentially interested in purchasing a car. These buyer personas undeniably more valuable to you than a generalized profile of Millennials.

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Plus, the rise of social media advertising allows you to get very specific in your online targeting. On Facebook, you can target individual ages from 13 to 65, or target by people’s interests. LinkedIn allows you to target based on individual careers or employers. Twitter allows you to target the networks of users or competitors. Businesses can therefore get very specific in the audiences they’re pitching to.

I’m a Millennial, but I’m also a 25-year-old male with a university degree and a steady job who loves sports and technology. All of that information is out in the open on social media for businesses that are listening.

So let’s stop focusing on the broad categories and more on the beautiful Millennial innovation (yeah, Zuck is one of us) that is social media targeting.