Baby-Boomer Marketers Are Misreading Millennials' Media Behavior

And They're Sacrificing Dollars by Refusing to Keep Up With Changing Habits

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Baby-boomer marketers should be salivating over the 105 million-strong millennial market. Born between 1982 and 2004, millennials make up the first generation that actually outsizes the influential-but-aging boomers. So why are so many senior marketers missing the opportunity -- and their piece of $200 billion in spending power?

Why are they convinced the methods and media that have worked over the past 30 years of their careers will continue to produce results with tech-savvy millennials, even though they have vastly different media habits?

Among other things, baby-boomer marketers need to accept the fact that millennials have not inherited their parents' love for the "touch" of paper. They do not naturally go gaga over double-page spreads of either editorial or advertising in magazines. They do not feel compelled to seek their fashion and beauty direction from the magazines that served as bibles for older generations.

Nor do millennials feel the need to park themselves in front of a TV at the time appointed for their favorite show, or even to watch TV on a TV at all.

Millennials spend a huge amount of their lives online: on smartphones (59%), on tablets (35%) and on their laptops (70%). As of 2011, 91% of millennials are regular internet users, according to Forrester Research.

"Young people today are obsessed with their phones and mobile devices," says BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti.

Millennials spend 25 hours a week online. Any boomer with a daughter in her teens or 20s knows that she often literally sleeps with her phone on her pillow or night table.

Both editorial and business leaders of premium original-content sites are frustrated by the lagging efforts of brand marketers to communicate with millennials online.

"Beauty brands still tell us they love advertising in magazines," even if they are trying to reach millennials, says Jon Steinberg, president and chief operating officer of BuzzFeed.

"Marketers are still mostly looking at digital media as a place to use direct-response advertising as opposed to branding, general-awareness advertising," agrees a chief revenue officer who oversees several major websites devoted to women's interests. "There's still a perception that traditional media needs to be a big part of the budget. And TV is still getting a growing piece of the pie, even though TV viewership is down and it's much more fragmented than ever before."

Furthermore, the chief revenue officer points out that only a fraction of the dollars devoted to digital advertising are spent on placing branded advertising campaigns on the original-content sites favored by millennial readers. "There is a perception that digital doesn't do as good a job at branding as traditional media," the chief revenue officer says.

But why do baby-boomer CMOs have that perception?

I've been in numerous meetings with baby boomers who admit they feel overwhelmed by all their new media options. Many don't understand the difference between small, personal blogs; aggregator sites that have little engagement with visitors; and original-content sites like BuzzFeed, Thrillist, YourTango, JustJared, Jezebel and HelloGiggles.

"Big players like Google and Facebook receive the bulk of the digital media ad spend," says Andrea Miller, CEO and founder of YourTango, an original-content site for women focused on love and relationships. "Many advertisers are almost paralyzed by all the digital website choices they have for campaigns, so they stick with what they know and have trusted for decades -- traditional media brands.

"Even when brand marketers devote budget dollars to digital advertising campaigns, they typically allocate the lion's share to legacy-brand websites," she adds.

Yet these legacy brands have done a poor job of developing high-traffic websites that update at the speed millennials want.

Plus, many boomer marketers simply cede all decisions on digital advertising to their hired digital agencies, and those agencies spend most of the dollars they receive on network advertising. The agencies rarely devote their efforts to developing exciting branding campaigns for specific websites.

"It's easier for many of these marketers to give their digital-advertising dollars to someone else and let them figure it out for them," says Ben Lerer, CEO of Thrillist, a young men's original-content lifestyle site. "They think it's less risky."

Yet there's no way baby-boomer marketers would ever hand over their advertising dollars to an agency to be placed willy-nilly on traditional-media plans with no idea where the bucks are going.

To the contrary, they obsess over their branded campaigns, carefully choosing which magazines and TV shows are most positively aligned and should carry their advertising. Alignment is critical.

They can absolutely have that alignment online if they become familiar with the premium branded- content sites that focus on the demographic those marketers are trying to reach. Ironically they need only look at some of their traditional-media partners to find role models. TV networks and movie studios have already done a great job of this, and place exciting tune-in campaigns on digital websites.

Despite boomer-CMOs' reluctance to dive in online, marketers can create wonderfully exciting immersive campaigns that will engage the millennials they should be trying to reach. "The web gives lots of high-impact branded opportunities -- site takeovers, skins, push-downs, embedded videos and interactive ads," said YourTango's Miller.

Digital publishers are doing their darndest to lure baby-boomer marketers out of their traditional-media comfort zones, but it's far harder than it should be.

Clearly, millennial consumers are way ahead of the marketers, who should be laser-focused on winning them over to their brands and gaining their loyalty.

And that creates an opportunity. The CMOs who decide to all-out embrace digital advertising in order to "own" millennials will end up being huge winners.

Bonnie Fuller is editor-in-chief and president of

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