Gen Y: Marketers Still Getting It Wrong

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At a recent SXSWi panel conducted "core conversation-" style (in which a presumed thought leader guides a group discussion on the subject at hand), the hour spent sitting on the floor in a cramped meeting room proved one important fact about social media: Even the professed experts are doing it wrong.

A Dougie Howser-esque "social media specialist" at Razorfish and a group of others ranging in age from 17 to 32 years old sat cross-legged on the floor and cross-talked their way through a series of stereotypes, assumptions, and painfully incorrect conclusions.

It is generally agreed upon by all in the social media space that brands began using social media without sufficient understanding or strategy. Traditional models were applied to new media with dismal return on investment; ineffective impressions by the billions were suddenly considered par for the course as expectations dropped and consumer tune-out skyrocketed. Really, the metrics are embarrassingly unacceptable.

And whereas more recent experiments in the social web showcase a willingness to experiment, they often also demonstrate a grave misunderstanding of what social media is for and how (and how much) consumers are willing to engage with brands online.

The all important "be human" dictum was followed to disastrous effect by Skittles, which brand ended up aggregating offensive, lewd, and racist tweets on its new "social" homepage. And for all the "conversation," none of us, it seems, can remember the last time we bought a pack of the candy itself.

As far as Gen Y is concerned, the "core conversation" was as unfocused as the discussion leader's definition of Gen Y itself (he gave the age range as being between 5 years old and mid-thirties; good luck marketing to that homogenous, monolithic demographic). It was noted that privacy is not as much a concern for many in this technological generation. People will publish just about anything these days; they likely have multiple profiles and will not feel personally invaded by targeted ads. These consumers are adept at using new media tools, at monitoring and restricting their online sharing, and at switching between applications.

For a miniature case study, take me. I'm squarely in this generation. I'm sure by now I have well over 50 online profiles, at least half of which contain my email address, physical address, phone numbers, and specific whereabouts at any given time of day. So much for privacy. I'm more concerned about self-expression and transparency than I am about whether a stodgy would-be employer will disapprove of a picture of me in a cocktail dress; however, I watch my incoming links, page views, blog/pic/video comments, and new friends/fans/followers like a damn hawk using tools as simple as Google and as complex as... Well, let's just say there are some pretty nifty free analytics tools out there that are deceptively simple and allow for hours of online navel-gazing.

As a marketer (and as Alisa Leonard-Hansen has so eloquently written about vis-a-vis the Facebook TOS debacle) social streams contain treasure troves of data about a single user and about patterns in peer groups. The data's so thick you could stand a spoon in it. Unfortunately, the data is going unanalyzed by many marketers who prefer to simply go with their instincts and jump into the fray. When Gen Y publishes so much valuable data, the greatest profit for brands lies in listening, reading, watching, and planning accordingly.

Take Whole Foods, for example (and kudos to the marketer who worked on this campaign for admitting in a public forum that it didn't get a good response). They ran an online "green teens" contest for environmentalist youngsters to win phat prom transportation and other such nonsense. I can't imagine the grandiose nature of their team's blind spot on that one; and they were disappointed by the lackluster response of the save-the-planet kiddos to the offer of helicopters and gas-guzzling limos and whatnot.

I'm coming up with fail puns in my head as I type this. "Whole Fail" will do for now. The point is, if the marketers had listened instead of making an assumption, they could have come up with a similar, really radical idea that would have excited those teens and gained traction, maybe even creating a little more brand-love from those who would soon be among the working class heroes with paychecks to blow on overpriced vegan tabouli.

Dougie Howser's other recommendations (as published in these god-awful slides) were related to advergames and celebrities' granting access to more personal lifestream tidbits through a branded portal.

"But it's not celebrity endorsement; Gen Y users can see right through that!" was the outcry from the group.

Guess what? I tweeted the strategy and got an immediate response from "Gen Y" early adopters to the effect that celebrity endorsement is lame. I guess no matter what you want to call it, whoring out the famous for your brand isn't going to move share or impress the terminally jaded, a.k.a. Gen Y. I could be wrong here, but it sounds like a very broad assumption to say that letting celebs do an online strip tease of their private lives is going to reach the entire cultural microcosm that is Gen Y.

Back to the drawing board folks: Listen and strategize. Nothing to see here unless you want to troll through the Twitter hashtagged comments (search for "#geny") for snarkiness from know-it-all youth/social marketers.

by Jolie O'Dell    Mar-22-09   Click to Comment   
Topic: Industry Events, Trends and Culture   

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Comments

"I tweeted the strategy and got an immediate response from "Gen Y" early adopters to the effect that celebrity endorsement is lame. I guess no matter what you want to call it, whoring out the famous for your brand isn't going to move share or impress the terminally jaded, a.k.a. Gen Y."

Is it that clear cut? I've been following action sports marketing for 20 years and that culture has always seemed to have a comfortable relationship between athletes and their sponsors. Those athletes primarily make a living through sponsorships, and I think the fans understand that. Part of your job as a pro athlete is to make sure you flash your sponsor's logo at the end of a race to it get it on camera. Every little kid who aspires to be a pro skateboarder, snowboarder, or BMX rider knows the name of the game is to be sponsored.

Posted by: Suzanne Lainson on March 22, 2009 5:52 PM

This was an interesting read. I missed the whole Skittles 'thing' although I have seen many references to it! Well, I say I missed it but maybe I didn't miss much...

Thanks for sharing.

Karl

Posted by: Karl Foxley on March 22, 2009 7:13 PM

@suzanne I'm sure that's accepted in sports marketing, but in the wider world of marketing to cynical 20-somethings, I have to think like a user, not an athlete/celebrity or even like a marketer. What that means for me is that I have to spend more time reading and listening than anything else; if Gen Y is telling me they don't trust celebrity endorsements, and if the metrics are confirming that statement, what else can I do?

The session participants were talking about sports figures a little bit in this part of the conversation, but don't you think that model is a little tired? I seem to recall a soft drink campaign that used sports celebrity endorsement to make fun of the practice; however, the campaign was eventually called out as being just more of the same. And that was back in the 1990s.

Posted by: Jolie O'Dell on March 22, 2009 8:52 PM

@Jolie I'd probably ask the target market about specific products and specific celebrities rather than general questions about celebrity endorsements.

How do they feel about athlete X having a Nike endorsement?

How do they feel about athlete Y 's extreme skiing movie being sponsored by Red Bull?

What I would expect to find is that when there is a natural fit between product and celebrity, no one really thinks about it. Maybe not.

But the X Games seem to be as popular as ever even though both the event and the athletes involved are heavily sponsored.

Posted by: Suzanne Lainson on March 22, 2009 9:30 PM

You know, I totally agree with you; it's the asking/listening that's key when dealing with celeb endorsement. It just rubbed me the wrong way that celebrity access was made to be such a wholesale good idea in this session.

Posted by: Jolie O'Dell on March 22, 2009 9:38 PM

Great post Jolie, with regards to Gen Y and celebrities, couldn't agree more. I posted on our blog about exactly that subject last week (http://www.grownupthinking.com/?p=391).

Posted by: Brandon Evans on March 23, 2009 2:37 PM

But Brandon, can you conceive of a sporting goods company like Burton Snowboards not sponsoring athletes?

Musical instrument and equipment companies have endorsement deals with the artists who use their products and sporting goods companies have deals with the athletes who use their products.

If you have a Gibson guitar named after you, that is prestigious.

There are many examples of poor use of celebrities, but I can't see writing off the entire concept.

Posted by: Suzanne Lainson on March 23, 2009 3:17 PM

Suzanne, I'd certainly agree there are exceptions and celebrities will always hold weight in some circumstances, but I would say that Gibson and Burton could also spend those same dollars creating a closer relationship with instructors or their core consumers and utilizing them to spread their message.

These consumers are probably well respected within their own circles and when their friends and peers are looking for a guitar or a snowboard, they are more likely to trust the recommendation of a friend with a high authority level on the subject than a celeb they do not know.

Celebrities were much more a necessity for establishing credibility when social connections, targeting and media options were limited. Now that they have greatly expanded over the past few years, there are opportunities here for marketers to create true long term value with their consumers that does not hinge on a gamble with a single celebrity or group of them.

Posted by: Brandon Evans on March 23, 2009 4:30 PM

I completely agree about the strategies for social being all wrong. Most of these campaigns are crafted around the assumption that people sit around talking about how great one specific brand is, enough so that they will go online to hang out with other enthusiasts for... Skittles? Seriously?

Anyway, a CAUSE definitely warrants groups and can benefit from generating interest and providing people with info online via a community.

For companies that provide a product, it needs to be used as a measure of interest, of buzz, and most of all feedback. Communities for even a brand seem unsustainable and unnecessary.

By creating a following with consistent yet infrequent messaging will keep users from feeling spammed, but still keep the brand out in front of them. That's the key. We're all overexposed to advertising these days, and we can see it coming from a mile away. That focus needs to change.

I guess the simplest way to put it is the need for advertisers and marketers to shift from attention whores to information providers.

There's a point in there somewhere. I might need to blog about this myself.

Great post!

Posted by: Roger Sikes on March 23, 2009 4:55 PM

Very good write up. As a Gen-X'er I find most in our age group are still caught up in the fear of privacy and miss the engagement avaialble in social networking all together.

While I somewhat agree with part of your post, I completely DISAGREE with your assessment of "celebrity" endorsement. Here is what I mean.

You have over 50 profiles online...FOR WHAT? So you can be a "celebrity" and use that same power to drive traffic and "spy" on your fans. Ultimately you use this celebrity status to fill your pockets and sell ads, in your blog or maybe even endorse a book or a training course, whatever.

DO NOT get it TWISTED, celebrity endorsement will NEVER go away. The status quo of being a celeb will always be about of HUMAN culture and it predated you and me, and will out live us long into the future. What we deem as a reputable endorser may change with the invent of web 2.0, BUT our PRESIDENT is a celebrity, LMAO.

I just completed a interview with 2 writers that have detailed how President Obama used social media and extracted those lessons into a book. called Barack 2.0 Check out my interview with them!

http://3rdpoblogs.com/colderice/2009/03/23/barack-20-social-media-lessons-for-business-the-tactics-that-won-the-white-house-part-1/

Posted by: John on March 23, 2009 5:28 PM

Jolie,
Great article. The majority of marketers from corporate America can't get it because they're stuck in old world thinking.

The concept of listening based on what that means today, they don't get that it really means investing quality time in social media - really paying attention to what Gen Y is saying, or cares about, on the whole, and having a real (read that mutually respectful) conversation with enough of the Gen Y base.

As much as I used to think my decades of experience mattered, it wasn't until I really started paying attention for the sake of learning in a whole new way that I barely began to grasp the generational shift. Yet once I got out of my own ego, it was like stepping through the looking glass into a new reality. One that is so much more alive and dynamic.

I love it too because I found that much of Gen Y is all about being passionate about life and "brutally" honest, which has always been my truth anyhow.

Attribute it to my ADHD, but I simply love having TweetDeck, FaceBook, LinkedIn, and half countless RSS feeds going at one time, as my mind churns the next topic for my blog, as I go about my work.

To me, it's more valuable to keep in tune with the ongoing pulse this way. Yet what I see time and again from most marketers is that would be insane to them and completely unproductive. And even when they do attempt it, they typically come at it from the perspective that they're superior because of all that (now invalid) experience.

Older marketing and brand "experts" thought I was off my rocker when I came up with the name of my company. Said it wasn't "professional" enough or "corporate enough" only to be surprised that it was a stroke of DUH given how different it is and yet gets right to the point about what I do.

If they'd be willing to truly engage the Gen Y market by learning to step into Gen Y's shoes, rather than trying to shoe-horn old world methods into their lip-service beliefs about all this they might just eventually get it.

And if Gen Y people like you keep expressing yourselves (which is another DUH - why wouldn't you? concept) then there's hope for people like me, but not, I bet, most marketers. At least until those companies eventually get taken over or surpassed on a large enough scale by Gen Y marketers...

Posted by: Alan Bleiweiss on March 23, 2009 5:38 PM

Expanding on what John said, isn't having a celebrity around which to build a community the basis for the Tribes concept? It would suggest that someone who can pull together a group of people BECOMES a celebrity by virtue of leadership. So Lance Armstrong is valuable not just for his sports achievements (which gave him exposure and recognition), but also for his use of his image for cause marketing in support of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Posted by: Suzanne Lainson on March 23, 2009 5:46 PM

Expanding on what John said, isn't having a celebrity around which to build a community the basis for the Tribes concept? It would suggest that someone who can pull together a group of people BECOMES a celebrity by virtue of leadership. So Lance Armstrong is valuable not just for his sports achievements (which gave him exposure and recognition), but also for his use of his image for cause marketing in support of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Posted by: Suzanne Lainson on March 23, 2009 5:47 PM

*shakes head*

Posted by: brent on March 24, 2009 10:18 AM

A couple of thoughts about the celebrity endorsement/celebrity access thing.

On the lameness of celebrity endorsements:

With reality TV and social media, all sorts of people can attain varying levels of celebrity. Or at least delude themselves into thinking they have a bit of it. Celebrities may be a step above the average schmuck in terms of money and social perks, but seeing a long parade of deluded attention whores and outright idiots vying for their slice of celebrity, and sometimes even getting it, tends to demolish the idea that the average celebrity's opinions are worth any more than anyone else's.

On why it still works sometimes:

If you want an endorsement to be effective, it only makes sense that there should be a pretty tight relationship between the endorser and the product and the audience. Musicians endorse guitars and buyers of guitars listen to other musicians. Snowboarders endorse snowboards, and they know what makes a good board. Etc., etc...

The sponsorship thing is just a ubiquitous bit of ad noise. I'd be surprised if sports fans or anybody in the consumer world at large cares any more about who sponsors an athlete or a competition than about the average TV commercial or website banner ad.

Using social media for marketing seems to me to be only about two things: One, getting your brand in front of people's eyes, and two, getting people to interact with *each other* in the presence of your brand message. You might convert the occasional believer or evangelist, but the bottom line is that people still interact with *people*, not with ads or brands.

Posted by: Ing on March 25, 2009 12:16 PM

"I'd be surprised if sports fans or anybody in the consumer world at large cares any more about who sponsors an athlete or a competition than about the average TV commercial or website banner ad."

Coming from a sports marketing background, I know that sports fans do pay attention. NASCAR is the most obvious example. Hard-core figure skating fans know every commercial deal every athlete does. They talk about those deals in skating fan forums. They know which companies are sponsoring the events. Etc.

The only reason I keep wanting to make some distinctions between good endorsement deals and bad endorsement deals is so that everyone doesn't lump them all together.

The action sports industry would not be on TV or have any competitive events without commercial sponsors. Many music festivals would go under without sponsors. Many community events need sponsors.

For that matter, many online forums would not have any cash flow without sponsors.

I totally get what everyone is saying about how it's all about dialogue with consumers. But I don't see musical and equipment companies pulling their sponsorships any time soon. Those can be very cheap advertising: often as simple as giving free equipment in exchange for using the athlete or musician in print ads.

Posted by: Suzanne Lainson on March 25, 2009 12:26 PM

Color me surprised, then. :)

Posted by: Ing on March 25, 2009 3:48 PM

Color me surprised, then. :)

Posted by: Ing on March 25, 2009 3:49 PM

You're right: gazing into the private lives of celebs isn't a Gen Y only interest - it appeals to those who want to do that in general. Yet if it's a Gen Y celeb, perhaps the audience will more likely be Gen Y as well. In either case, it's not the best approach.

I don't think advertising on the Internet is a great approach either way, as can be seen in this TechCrunch article:
http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/03/22/why-advertising-is-failing-on-the-internet/

And yes, not only companies but everyone needs to listen and think more.

Perhaps mining the data stream (Twitter/Facebook stream) will be of more help for brands, companies, and people in the long run than ads. It's more useful and it leads to conversations rather than "messages" - the way ads do.

Posted by: Alex LUft on March 26, 2009 1:19 PM

Don't you people have anything better to do?

Posted by: Perry Wallace on March 30, 2009 2:06 AM







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