Performance marketers shouldn’t care about Millennials

One of the most unfortunate labels in marketing, used ubiquitously by journalists and keynote speakers alike, is that of the “Millennial”, defined as a “person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century.” As of July 2016, Millennials numbered 71MM people in the United States, or roughly 22% of the US population. When using the term “Millennial” to describe a potential customer, a marketer is effectively talking about the nearly quarter of the US population aged between 20 and 35. This is not a specific or actionable potential customer segment.

And yet use of the phrase “Millennial” (and “Gen-Z“) is pervasive: in the news, at conferences, and in sales pitches, people speak of marketing to “Millennials” like they are a monolithic, targetable group of very specific and likeminded people. The “Millennials” are not a group of any discernible sort: what “Millennials” share is a wide band of birth years that spans the 80s, 90s, and 00s, from Depeche Mode to 50 Cent. The designation “Millennial” is absolutely useless for anything, but it’s especially useless for advertising targeting. And use of the term “Millennial” is exactly the demarcation line that separates performance marketing from its antiquated, intuition-driven predecessor: data-free marketing. Performance marketers have no use for the phrases “Millennial” and “Gen-Z”, and they should be excised from the broader marketing vernacular.

Performance marketing is not the opposite of brand marketing, and neither is it synonymous with “direct response marketing”: performance marketing is a framework that puts measurement and analysis at the forefront of campaign management. Brand marketing is not inherently unsystematic or indiscriminate: the best brand marketers put just as much effort into understanding and quantifying the impact of their advertising spend as performance marketers– perhaps even more, given the broad measurement techniques and statistical tools needed to measure uplift when sales conversions aren’t immediately resultant from advertising campaigns. No serious brand marketer has ever said, “I want to market my brand to Millennials”.

When it is noted that Facebook and Google own 90% of digital marketing growth, it should be understood that the revenue they are generating is not all being stolen from TV or radio or out-of-home: it is mostly new money in a new advertising economy that Google and Facebook themselves have constructed. TV viewership is shrinking as OTT streaming services abound and the number of cord cutters grows, and that explains some of the decline of TV advertising spend. But the mobile gaming companies, D2C brands, travel companies, dating companies, etc. that dominate the mobile Top Grossing charts and that spend exorbitant amounts of money on Facebook and Google were never spending heavily on TV in the first place. These companies are able to exist because Facebook and Google exist, and while they lavish advertising dollars on Facebook and Google, many big brands and consumer retail companies are starting to reconsider their (mostly opaque, difficult to measure, and rebate-muddled) television spend.

And the term “Millennials” will never appear in a Facebook ad campaign description: it’s too broad, too ambiguous, too indefinite. No advertiser cares that a potential user might belong to the arbitrarily-selected 71 million people classified as “Millennials”; that designation provides zero signal around receptiveness to an ad, or likelihood of engaging with a brand, or ability to make a purchase. There is absolutely no methodological commercial basis for claiming something like “Gen-Z customers are different from Millennial customers and Boomer customers” because those groups are independently so large that sampling becomes problematic. Age is certainly a valid targeting parameter, but it’s just one parameter that should be used in an ensemble to reach potential customers efficiently.

The term “Millennial” harkens back to an age of marketing that the world has evolved past: one in which cliched customer profiles (like “Bob the Sports Fanatic”) and flawed, inherently biased focus group feedback were used in lieu of objective, voluminous advertising data to inform marketing campaigns. Speaking of “Millennials” is intellectually lazy and practically frivolous, and the term carries very little signal around potential resonance with a product or brand. The performance marketing paradigm has grown out of such convoluted and arbitrary designations.

Photo by Jon Toney on Unsplash