Transcending Generational Assumptions: Should we target broadly, tightly, or just do good work?

People think that they can market to an entire generation in one fell swoop. They lump Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and, now, Gen Z is these big categories and offer ideas on how to appeal to them. “Move over Millennials – Here comes Gen Z!” or “Why Millennials are Destroying Crappy Chain Restaurants” are typical article titles that you see frequently nowadays. I like this one: “Experts are Marketing to Gen Z!”

But the reality is, there are so many different kinds of people in every generation. Sure, there are some shared experiences. For example: we are now within one generation of almost everyone having a smart phone and the internet at their fingertips since they began their professional career. Baby Boomers had to adopt the internet and smart phones while already mid-stream in their professional careers. That indicates an ingrainment of tech and the internet in Millennials that wasn’t present in older generations.

Of course that’s going to mean they have a different perspective overall, but are those experiences leading them to buy and form relationships with brands? It’s going to help you know what your channel strategy should be, but what about your overarching business strategy and your messaging strategy? The question I am asking is: is it more important to transcend assumptions about a generation and focus on key drivers of people, regardless of their age, race, or gender? Is it more inclusive and more sophisticated? Or is there really that big of a difference between a Millennial and a Gen X’er?

Sure, differences exist. My dad didn’t grow up playing video games, so Bethesda isn’t going to reach him by advertising on the PlayStation Network. But, my grandpa (he’s 92, by the way) is way into Facebook and his iPhone. As I said, the channel strategy will differ, but will the heart of your marketing message?

“I don’t believe in any Greatest Generation. I believe in great events. They sweep ordinary people up, expose them to extremes of human behavior and unimaginable tests of integrity and courage, and then deposit them back on the home front.” – Phil Klay

I know some Millennials, as I’m sure you do, who share many ideals with the Baby Boomers. I know some Baby Boomers who adopt tech just as quickly as some from Gen Z. People transcend their generational assumptions all the time. So, why do we, as marketers and businesspeople, always focus so strongly on age and generation?

Do age and gender tell marketers anything?

It’s a lovely demographic to throw in the audience persona when we develop them. We love to have age and gender in there. It gives a good perspective on who that person is, right? Well, it at least helps us pick a photo from Adobe Stock to use as their profile. But, does it tell us much more than that?

We can look at psychology and say that people relate to images of other people who remind them of themselves. But, then we hire sexy models with thin bodies and flawless faces to promote our wares. Is that really an accurate representation that people can relate to? Or is it just another a failure in trying to relate to our customers?

Age and gender and “viral” marketing

I know there have been lots of studies done to determine that age and gender do truly matter. Here’s a particularly interesting one from the Harvard Business Review as it pertains to viral marketing campaigns. People are always trying to make something go viral. I can’t tell you how many times a client has asked me for a “viral video.” While the HBR seems to think they have the formula down, it’s extremely difficult to do.

A couple of years ago, I was running the strategy for a social media program for a client. We were just getting off the ground when a large publication picked up one of our posts and gave us 4.5 million reach on Facebook overnight. The client’s followers shot up over 400%. It was awesome. The rush we got from telling the client of the success and the continued excitement from watching the metrics continue to climb was exhilarating. It shot website traffic way up, as well. We were stoked and immediately started pulling together more content that aligned with the viral post. Over the next year, we continued to post very similar content with decent engagement, but no more virality. We contacted the publication who shared our viral post and worked with them to share more posts. We saw some upticks, but not close to the level we experienced before.

We managed to have several more viral posts of almost the same magnitude throughout the course of the next couple of years, but none of them were similar in content. They were similar in that large content marketers with already-established audiences shared the content, but we orchestrated none of these partnerships – it was all happenstance to that point. So, we adjusted our strategy and worked with many content marketers to share our content. It went okay, but it has been the natural and organic process that has given us the best results.

The results of our viral posts have been all over the board in terms of demographics. Much of the content seems like it would appeal to females, but there is a surprising amount of males who engage, as well. We initially targeted Baby Boomers, but found that Millennials are also a huge audience for the same type of content. If we continue to focus the content on strictly Lady Boomers, we’re missing a lot of opportunity.

My conclusion on viral marketing: just keep producing authentic, valuable content and it will happen naturally. Try to force it and you might just waste a ton of money on some publicity stunt. With all the “viral” posts we experienced, we were unable to force them all into one or two demographics – even on individual posts. All kinds of people like all kinds of content, so we need to shift our perspectives on what we expect certain ages and genders to like.

“I want to reach a new generation. That’s why I’m Twittering now.” – Buzz Aldrin

Audience personas are better segmentation

Segmenting your marketing is going to have a bigger impact if you focus on individual people, not entire generations. Understand that personalities, preferences, behaviors, likes, wants, needs, and more transcend generational boundaries and get to the core of who your customer is. You obviously can’t be everything to everyone and you can’t market to a million different personas, but you’re limiting yourself far less by segmenting your marketing. Look at 3-4 personas per product line or business segment, and you’ll be able to be more creative and appealing with your marketing.

If we work to empathize with the people who buy from us, we won’t need labels like “Millennials.” We can say stuff like Dan likes this, or Carol prefers this kind of message. Developing audience personas isn’t perfect, but it’s a much better way to develop our understanding of customer groups. Generations are a waste of time.

Or, just stay innovative and forward-thinking and you’re always going to be relevant, no matter the generation.

“Every generation is gonna keep changing, and you just have to embrace the change.” – Wyclef Jean

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