The great Millennial divide

Millennials, currently age 35 and under, represent 79 million people in the United States and are predicted to surpass the spending power of Baby Boomers by 2018. Millennials prefer to spend money on experiences rather than materials, and in 2015 represent the majority of U.S. business travel by volume.

While it is exciting to watch the hospitality landscape evolve, Millennials’ burgeoning numbers along with their increasing cultural influence and resources are creating a major quandary for hospitality businesses. The primary reason for this problem is the distinct difference between what Millennials value — for example, technology or storytelling — and how differently they communicate than other generations. These differences force organizations to make a choice that is both difficult and inevitable. Do you try to execute a strategy that appeals to both types of customers? Or do you choose one of the groups and build a product and communication strategy that appeals more to them? If you choose the older generation and, thus, the preservation of current revenues, are you putting the future of your business at risk? The analysis can go on forever. But what causes the most concern is that most organizations don’t even understand the questions exist.

As the boardroom debate heats up over what product guests really want, we as marketers can begin to attack this problem with a proactive communications strategy my friend, advertising legend Richard Kirshenbaum, calls becoming “bilingual.” He’s referring to the implementation of a strategy that is the proficient and impactful communication of your brand message to Millennials and non-Millenials, or in some cases sub-categories like B2B customers and leisure travelers. Doing this means your brand has to be able to speak different languages to different customers utilizing different channels, all in a strategically coordinated concert. It sounds complicated because it is, but it doesn’t have to be.

It all starts with the message

The proliferation of hospitality brands in the current market means there is something for everyone. The intention is that they all cater to very specific needs of customers, from budget to lifestyle to luxury. Branding is about managing these differences, and the best way to effectively do this is to consistently message your brand proposition to a specific group over a consistent period of time. This messaging comes in the form of your brand’s content, which includes everything from your press releases and logo to brand collateral, videos and on-property programming.  

In order to successfully manage a bilingual strategy you first need to make a list of what makes your brand or property different. Once you have this list, you need to take those differences and determine what elements of your product appeal more to the older demographic and what would appeal more to the Millennials. The lists, Millennial and non-Millennial, should be used to formulate impactful messaging that communicates your brand proposition effectively to the two different targets. 

While this segmentation strategy is critical to your overall success, subtlety is key. You are not trying to craft two completely different messages. Rather, you are attempting to craft two similar messages that are tweaked to appeal more to one group than the other.  For example, if we know Millennials love Wi-Fi we may offer them a complimentary high-speed Internet upgrade. A non-Millennial may care more about the breakfast experience, and therefore you may offer them a complimentary buffet breakfast. This is an oversimplification, and I abhor discounting as a strategy, but you get the picture.   

Shifting channel power

Once you have understood and begun to craft specialized messaging by segment, the next step is to choose the channels you will use to deliver these messages. In the modern market there is an ongoing channel power shift due to all of the new ways technology offers to communicate and how Millenials and non-Millenials consume content and media. Therefore choosing the correct channel for your message is as important as crafting the right message. If you construct a message for non-Millenials but deliver that message over Instagram, the likelihood of that message reaching the right consumer and driving meaningful results will be low.

While once it was paramount to receive positive print coverage in CondeNast Traveler or the New York Times, old-guard media outlets no longer hold the same weight. There are many successful restaurants and hotels that have never been included in either, but there are also many who will tell you recognition by the media old guard completely changed their business. With that said, if you were to ignore them you would be disregarding a crucial part of your potential business. 

On the other side of the equation, there are social-media personalities with a highly engaged audience that includes millions of followers. For example, Aimee Song of Song of Style has 2 million highly engaged Instagram followers, while CondeNast Traveler has approximately 250 thousand followers. This is not to say that an Instagram following amounts to a brand’s overall reach, but when Millennials consume the majority of their media on mobile and 63% stay in touch with brands through social media, it means much of their exposure comes through this channel. Therefore, if you were targeting non-Millenials you would use traditional press outreach to gain coverage in the New York Times or CondeNast Traveler and back that up with advertising, while to target Millenials, a multi-channel digital campaign over social media, display advertising and email would be more effective. 

While we are talking channels, I would like to provide some very brief insight into the ever-changing world of social media. Social media appeals to a younger demographic, and you will have minimal impact unless you invest the time and resources to build a significant following of the right people. It’s hard to say exactly what a significant following is due to different types of businesses, but anything under 10,000 is insignificant for a global brand. Generally the hotel business has done a poor job in social media compared to other industries with similar market caps. Within the broad spectrum of social there are core networks; of these, Instagram is for brand-building and storytelling. Twitter is for customer service and spreading news. And Facebook, while by far the largest channel, has become a “pay for play” sales platform, more similar to email marketing or display advertising. 

Sales vs. marketing

While both sales and marketing drive revenues, the methods they use to achieve those goals are different. Marketing generally drives engagement and brand experience while salespeople are relentlessly focused on making their short-term targets and managing revenue and yields — the short-term approach.

Therefore, when it comes to running a strategy the two groups are inherently at odds with one another. The salespeople want messaging that will drive immediate impact, and the marketers want messaging that will make a customer want to be a part of your tribe. This leads to another reason to be bilingual.

When it comes to to Millennials and sales, it is critical that they don’t feel like you are being overtly “salesy.” This is the reason that “content marketing” has become so common. Trying to create a sales message that sells without selling is virtually impossible. This is why marketing executives and the general marketplace has become so focused on authenticity and full disclosure — the Millennials demand it. A good product is a good product, and when the majority of customers don’t want to be “sold” to, you need the type of product that sells itself — a great one.

Cheat sheet

The modern marketer is expected to know all of what I have outlined above and so much more. It is an impossible task, as stakeholders want results immediately, and figuring out what works best in an ever-changing marketplace takes experimentation and permission to fail — both in short supply. With that said, there are a couple of short cuts you can use to ensure you don’t fall behind with the Millennials:

1. Use visuals first. Attention spans are low; be short and to the point, with great imagery.

2. Take an integrated/multi-channel approach. No one channel can be effective on its own. Make sure you are reinforcing your messaging across the channels that are core to your target.

3. Tailor your messaging to your audience. Subtly alter the message to preserve the branding, but cater to your core.

4. Tell stories. Share the process, the journey, the act of creation. Millennials want to be told a romantic tale of what makes your product special.

5. Project authenticity. Just be honest and open. Don’t try and be someone or something you are not.

6. Focus on experiences. Don’t forget the software — a.k.a. the ongoing programming and activation — of your property. A room, the hardware, and a prayer are not enough to satisfy Millennials — they want to be entertained.

7. Optimize mobile. Purchases will be made on mobile; make sure you are prepared and that your interface is user-friendly.

The debate of where to focus energy and resources will continue in the coming years, but it has an inevitable conclusion. Millennials are the future, and products must be conceived with their value systems in mind. As marketers we must be aware of this divide and make sure we are able to satisfy the stakeholders of today and the customers of tomorrow.