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PR for Millennials: The Five-Factor Recipe for a Winning Campaign

By Talia Sinkinson, Editor, Media Relations, Bulldog Reporter

What’s the tipping point when it comes to PR for millennials?

I recently joined Ogilvy PR for a panel on what drives Generation Y—roughly defined as the demographic born in the 1980s through 2000. After listening to four experts duke it out on publicity strategies and common misconceptions about this market segment, I zeroed in on what PR pros are doing right to target millennials—and where they desperately need to course-correct (certainly no one can forget Mountain Dew’s near-fatal attempt to gain "street cred" with a highly controversial and offensive video ad).

The rules for this cohort-specific PR apply to promoting products and services across the spectrum—from travel destinations to tech to think tanks—and they come from people who spend every waking hour cracking the codes of millennial conduct.

Hosted by Ogilvy’s client, Ford motor company, the event’s contributors included Ford’s trends guru Sheryl Connelly, American Express millennial lead David Rabkin, Tumblr creative strategist Jeremy Kressmann and the self-proclaimed "Gen Y Guy," Jason Dorsey. Each offered insights garnered from projects in the works at their respective companies, as well as perspectives on how their PR campaigns are leveraging hard data to hit millennial-market critical mass.

But these big-timers aren’t the only ones who have it down to a science: Standout winners from the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Awards have already put these strategies into practice—and have developed campaigns that successfully seeded evangelism among this multi-faceted market. And believe you me—it takes a lot more than a simple social media push to really resonate.

From hashtagged chocolate tastings to blogger brand advocates, the following case studies meet millennials head-on, get the media talking and demonstrate the beginnings of a whole new set of PR best practices. Read on to discover the top five components a millennial-facing PR campaign simply cannot do without—and the award-winning PR campaigns that embody them.

First, the reasons your brand’s success rides on millennials:

  • There are over 82 million of them—that’s about 5 million more than Baby Boomers
  • They have a purchasing power of up to $890 billion annually
  • They are entering their prime earning years
  • Most important: They are making gateway purchases—choices that can influence brand allegiance for the rest of their lives

As Ford’s Connelly explains, "The viewpoint that is created in your young adulthood stays with you beyond the life stage—and the lifestyle. [Events that occur during your formative years] are the foundation, or the building blocks, of what you value—what your attitudes are, what your belief systems are."

So how can you map out a PR plan that will make a lasting impression on this hard-to-hit bunch?

With the following five key qualities, your PR campaign will get Gen Y while they’re hot—and your brand will stick with them as they grow up to be the most talkative and influential set of consumers PR has seen.

1. Experiential

What is the most promising way marketers are reaching millennials, according to Rabkin of American Express?

"In terms of how you appeal [to millennials]," he says, "one of the things we’ve found again and again—and we just commissioned [a study about this]—is the value of experiences. This is across all generations, but it’s much more pronounced among millennials: People want experiences more than things."

However, concocting an impactful experience for 82 million people nationwide can be chaotic—and expensive. What’s more, as the panel was quick to point out, there is a stark divide among millennials: Some have entered traditional adulthood while others remain single, childless and, more or less, broke. So, how do you make an experience broadly available, while also allowing people to pick it up on an individual basis? How can brands, as Tumblr’s Kressmann elegantly put it, "be a conduit to experiences that [millennials] want to have"?

Livestream events. To address these issues, American Express figured out a way to appeal to both branches of the cohort and to give access to the entirety of it—without breaking the bank. He describes a recent campaign: "We started doing live broadcasts of events that we can bring to whoever wants to participate. We started with Arcade Fire, which is a band we felt appeals to [that demographic]. And the idea is that people could access it anywhere or on any device. And that’s been a program that’s been more and more popular."

DIY party packs. Using a similar line of thought, Bulldog Award winners JSH&A PR launched a new Hershey’s product, Bliss chocolate, by facilitating DIY ‘chocolate parties’ nationwide. The PR team sent 10,000 hosts across the country party packs with bags of Bliss for tasting, as well as party favors for guests to take home—samples and branded grocery pads and magnets. JSH&A also provided party theme ideas for the hosts, such as a "Blissful Memories" party, where guests were invited to bring photos and memorabilia to create their own "Blissful Memories" scrapbooks. Party hosts were then encouraged to post videos, photos and commentary at a dedicated website. Get more tips from the campaign here.

2. Self-Broadcasting

The Gen Y Guy’s description of millennials in 140 characters or less: "Special and unique, crashing into adulthood while taking a selfie."

A selfie? For those who don’t know, a selfie is a photo taken of oneself and often posted to personal social media profiles. While this specific practice may pertain more to the younger generation (Gen Z), his comment is apt in that it speaks to millennials’ propensity—or better yet, desperation—to document themselves and their activities constantly—and to share them with the all their followers.

Indeed, as Connelly quipped, "You know the saying ‘If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? When a millennial does an activity and they don’t document it on social media, does it really count?"

Provide a backdrop for selfies—and other sharable content. Bulldog Award winner RF|Binder devised a campaign that would provide consumers with ample opportunities to "make it count" via social media. For client Scharffen Berger (incidentally another chocolate maker), the PR team launched a Valentine’s Day Chocolate Bar—with "flights" of tasting squares and branded Valentine’s Day cards for visitors to mail to friends. As an online extension of the event, attendees were invited to sent "Chocolate eCards" to Facebook friends and other social media followers. On Twitter, the @ScharffenBerger Twitter Party pre-promoted the event, while visitors were encouraged to use the dedicated #ScharffenBerger hashtag before, during and after celebrating. RF|Binder also created a FourSquare event which visitors could "check in" to, as well as an Instagram feed for selfies and other sharable shots.

3. Passion-Pointed

Tumblr’s creative strategist Jeremy Kressmann shared Tumblr‘s most powerful draw: "Passion points."

He explains, "We hear a lot of talk about millennials as ‘Generation Me’ … but I think a better way to describe [them] is ‘Generation Us,’ in that they’re very focused around self-organizing and communities online—and those communities are very often based on ‘passion points’—things like technology or landscape photography. And that us-centric mentality is much more important than we make it out to be."

"A lot of the best brands we’ve seen engaging on Tumblr," he continues, "are adding something of value to the community. A brand’s opportunity is to entertain—to give something that’s going to be useful to them."

Connect with
passion-centric communities on Tumblr.
With an innovative twist, Ford found a way to use social media to speak with consumers who have no apparent interest in cars but who gather in droves on social media: Artists and crafters. In order to re-frame the brand so it gave young creative types just what they were looking for, Ford worked with Tumblr to create a blog centered around visual arts, crafts and DIY projects. Dubbed "Movers and Makers," the blog’s posts and videos feature heart-warming stories of real (oftentimes edgy) people—photographers, filmmakers and designers, among others—and their artistic pursuits. All the stories are tightly wrapped with the Ford brand, as the blog profiles only owners of the Ford Connect car and the journeys they take in them.

Find a foodie angle. Bulldog Award winner City of Hope, a cancer research center, also found a way to reach a self-selecting and passionate group online: Foodies. Because the center’s scientists were among the first to discover that compounds in certain foods may help prevent cancer, the growing popularity of culinary communities on the Web led City of Hope’s PR team to leverage its "super foods" research. Bringing together crowd-sourcing and expert insights, the PR team generated daily recipes featuring blueberries, cinnamon, grapes, mushrooms and pomegranate. They added photos and links to supplement the recipes—and shared them on Facebook, Twitter and the foodie-favorite, Pinterest. Read an article on the campaign here.

4. The Authenticity of Strangers

Remember when friends and family were the keys to a young person’s heart? Now, thanks to Yelp and other social media review tools, millennials, it seems, are the first generation to trust strangers more than loved ones in the heat of the purchasing moment.

Dorsey’s data demonstrates this tendency. He says, "When we look at who we trust online related to brands and purchasing decisions, one of the things that came up [shows that approximately] 51% of millennials trusted strangers’ comments and reviews online more than friends and family—when they got to that moment of truth of actually making the purchase. And when we dug deeper into that, what we started to see was that people are looking at reviews from those who write and look like them."

And believe it or not, this makes PR’s job easier.

Rather than relying on Mom’s word, getting celebs to plug your product or pushing for top-tier coverage, you can find on-the-ground brand advocates to best reach millennials on their level. As Rabkin affirms, "We tried at the beginning to have celebrities tweet for [American Express], and it totally didn’t work at all. Now we’re trying to figure out how to connect with communities of influencers in authentic ways."

Give bloggers free rein. To build credibility and accentuate authenticity, Ford developed the "Fiesta Movement." The company gave out 100 vehicles to social media influencers, and Connelly says, "We let them drive them for six months and said, ‘Just record. Be authentic. Don’t sell it. Just tell us what the experience was [like].’ And it was more successful than any marketing campaign we could’ve ever done for exactly that reason: It’s an authentic voice." Straight from millennials’ modern family, the voice of the online community generated a new flavor of word-of-mouth buzz.

5. Non-Committal

Finally, Dorsey’s research suggests something that might scare off PR pros but, rest assured, can indeed be harnessed for powerful publicity.

He explains, "When we interview millennials, what they don’t like is commitment." He says they want to dip into things, they want to rent, they want to share. Because millennials are graduating college later than ever before, entering the workforce later than ever before and getting married and having children later than ever before, they’re just not able to throw down the cash when it comes to big purchases like a house, airfare, even a leather jacket or a meaningful donation to a cause.

However, he assures us, "[Milliennials] will be ready—it’s just been pushed back. We’re not to that point yet. We’re just now hitting those prime earning years."

His advice: Above all else, PR pros need to strive for brand recognition now, and let nature take its course. Driving trial—without pushing immediate acquisition or action—should be your mantra.

Drive trial—allow millennials to dip, rent and share. Connelly explains one step Ford is taking now in order to solidify brand recognition in the future among Gen Y: "We partner with organizations like ZipCar, which introduce people to our vehicle. And they may never go on to own their own vehicle, but we know that 145,000 people have driven Ford products through our partnership … and if they ever come to a point in their lives or move to a region where they decide they want their own car, we know we will be among the top of their consideration set."

Demo stations. Bulldog Award winner Finn Partners—in partnership with tech accessories company Logitech—also drove trial without laying the pressure on too thick. When Logitech announced a new brand, "Logitech Ultimate Ears," the PR team threw a private concert featuring up-and-coming artists at New York City’s hip music hall, the Bowery Ballroom. Before the performance, music fans and industry influencers were treated to exclusive demos of the product. While all were free to enjoy the killer sound system at their leisure, Finn Partners knew the experience, along with the product, would be imprinted in the minds of concert-goers and reporters alike. Thus, when millennials eventually had some extra spending money to buy new headphones, Logitech would be front of mind.

To sum up, when orchestrating a surefire millennial-facing campaign, remember:

  • Be a conduit to experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for self-broadcast.
  • Join passion-point online hubs.
  • Leverage strangers over friends.
  • Give them a taste—without the pressure to buy.

For more case studies and actionable tips for reaching millennials and other fast-growing market segments, subscribe to our "Winning PR" enewsletter, and check out past issues here.

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