Cultural organizations may be overthinking millennial engagement to their own detriment.
I write and talk a lot about millennials. I have access to a heck of a lot of data on why engaging millennials is so important for cultural organizations, why millennial board representation matters, millennial giving gripes, and – self-important millennial bias disclaimer – I’m a millennial myself.
Fellow millennials (born 1980 – 2000) may cringe at the thought of belonging to this generational cohort. A Pew Research study reveals that 60% of (actual, birthdate-verified) millennials resist identifying themselves as millennials. Whether it’s because we want to distance ourselves from not-great perceptions of our generation, or we really do hate the idea of not being unique snowflakes, most of us aren’t crazy about “millennial talk.” In my experience, non-millennials are rarely thrilled by all of this millennial talk, too.
It is critical for the long-term solvency of cultural organizations that they better engage millennials. Visitor-serving entities – both exhibit-based and performance-based organizations – are not engaging millennials at representative rates. It’s a big problem, and so we engage in all of this “millennial talk” for good reason.
I’ve been in enough board rooms of baby boomers discussing millennials to know that sometimes things get weird during these conversations. Folks under 37 are sometimes considered to be iphone-attached aliens who speak in emojis and have no interest in anything culture-related unless it involves a signature cocktail in the galleries after-hours or during performances, and the best bet for long-term engagement is simply to wait for millennials to “age-into” caring about arts and culture. (P.S.- Data suggest that this isn’t happening.)
We millennials aren’t aliens (as far as I know…)
I sit in these meetings thinking the same thing: We might get further if cultural organizations stop “alienating” millennials in internal conversations and start considering the trends impacting the market at large. Simply, it seems that millennial misunderstandings might be cleared up by better understanding this:
Much of the time, engagement may be more about the year in which potential visitors are alive rather than the year in which they were born.
In other words, cultural organizations may be over-categorizing trends impacting all generations, and calling them “millennial talk.” That overthinking (or perhaps avoidance of overall market trends by categorizing them as something else) may be one of the biggest things holding cultural organizations back from successfully reaching millennials… and other audiences as well.
Like other generations, millennials have some unique generational characteristics… But leaders approach a strange territory when those “unique characteristics” venture into the conceptual land of “every trend, behavior, expectation, or preference informed by living in a connected world.”
Innovation is not necessarily about millennials. It’s about evolving to better serve the needs of all generations based on the realities of the world in which we are alive.
This article scratches the surface of a bigger conversation. Let’s “same page” an important aspect of a more productive conversation about engaging millennials… and everyone else who might visit a cultural organization.
“Millennial talk” is often “everyone talk”
At IMPACTS, we collect a great deal of information about millennials. We increasingly find that millennials are canaries in the coal mine for engagement trends that impact larger audience segments. Much of what is happening in the world at large is evident in millennial behaviors and preferences.
1) Millennials represent diversity shifts in the US
The United States population has more racial and ethnic diversity than ever before and the US is becoming a minority-majority nation. There are already five minority-majority states wherein white non-hispanic individuals make up less than 50% of the population: California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Hawaii.
Millennials and younger generations may be driving this shift. While 75% of Baby Boomers are white, 53.65% of Millennials are white, according to the 2015 US census. This means, of course, that a whooping 46.35% of millennials are NOT White Non-Hispanic. And these “multicultural millennials” represent local markets that drive 47% of the total U.S. gross domestic product!
Talking about millennials necessarily means discussing the engagement of those with different racial and ethnic backgrounds than historic visitors to cultural organizations. Misunderstanding this may be a key reason why organizations still aren’t reaching millennials at representative rates.
Millennials may represent “the future” – but not only in a touchy-feely, “we are the world” kind of way. Millennials represent the future in a way that more closely matches U.S. demographics than any other generational cohort.
2) Millennials are super-connected to the web – like other generations
To believe that millennials “own” the web is a detrimental myth that cultural organizations cling to at their own expense. As I shared in detail recently, data suggests that millennials who profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations use social media, the web, and mobile web as their primary means of accessing information…and so do members of Generation X and Baby Boomers.
While millennials profile as the most “super-connected” of the generational cohorts, all three are “super-connected.” With index values over 100 for all three generations, all generational cohorts who profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device.
We live in a loud, connected world, and that’s not the reality of millennials alone. That’s the reality for nearly all of us alive today in the digital revolution – but especially likely visitors to cultural organizations.
3) Millennials hint toward more effective programs for all audiences
Here is an illustrative example of one of the many ways in which millennial behaviors and preferences serve as a canary in the coal mine for larger industry trends: Millennials want different memberships than those generations that came before them. While those born before 1980 report transaction-based benefits such as members-only functions and member discounts as primary benefits of membership to a cultural organization, millennials generally report more mission-based benefits such as belonging to the organization and contributing to mission impact.
But before we start discussing how millennials are particularly mission-minded as a generational differentiator, consider this: Millennials are newer to the market. Fewer of them have experience being members of cultural institutions. Thus, when they consider the primary benefit of membership, they may consider what they would truly like to be the primary benefit…. rather than the benefits most heavily marketed by cultural organizations themselves.
While non-millennials are generally less likely to report “supporting the organization” or “contributing to mission impact” as primary benefits of membership compared to millennials, an important finding arose in the data that applies to all audiences: Mission-based members are better members than transaction-based members, regardless of age cohort. Millennials brought light to this finding, but the U.S. market is increasingly cause driven and sector agnostic on the whole.
It’s about strategy, not tactics
It seems that nearly every time that I write an article, conduct a workshop or speaking engagement, or take part in a client meeting about millennial engagement, folks fidget through strategy talk.
“Just tell me the best theme for our after-hours cocktail event!”
“Just tell me what exhibit or performance to put on next! I hear millennials love nostalgia so we’re hoping to tap into that!”
“Just tell me what social media platform to use!”
These are good questions, but their answers (Here’s one: It depends on your goals, but it’s a good idea to prioritize Facebook, in general) won’t necessarily lead to magical, long-term millennial engagement. Cultural organizations are not likely to “one-off program” themselves to success.
Why? Because one-off programs and initiatives are tactics.
Whatever attracted a millennial’s (or anyone else’s) attention may not exist beyond that program or initiative by the very nature of it being a special program or initiative. In order to find success, cultural organizations may benefit by making millennials and minority audiences into regular attendees who feel comfortable visiting at any time – not just during a super special one-off event.
How do you reach millennials? Shift your thinking from “short-term solution” to “long-term engagement.”
“Millennial talk” may be an excuse for lack of innovation
Millennials don’t “own” digital engagement… or transparency or personalization or authenticity.
These trends are impacting all audiences! Those “hot topic” macro-trends that the visitor-serving industry often attributes to millennials do not belong to millennials, so why do we pretend that they do? For instance, in a world of alternative facts, most audiences are seeking integrity from organizations, not just millennials.
I posit that we call everybody talk “millennial talk” for three, primary reasons that may not even be on the forefront of cultural leaders’ conscious minds. I’m not certain that they are correct, but I believe that they may be worth consideration.
A) Perhaps it is to put challenging conversations in a box.
It may be that categorizing nearly any reference to trends as “millennial talk” provides a convenient way to “other” the conversation and neatly wrap it up in a bow. This may be especially enticing, as the reality is messy and can be overwhelming. Admitting that cultural organizations must more effectively engage all audiences by making major changes isn’t exactly… clean. And it doesn’t sound easy because it’s not. This may be all the more reason to try and fit it in a neat box so that is doesn’t touch anything else on the shelf.
B) Perhaps it is to justify not being expert on emerging trends.
Cultural organizations aren’t considered more trustworthy than newspapers for no reason! These organizations are made up of content experts. But these organizations also tend to be siloed and hierarchical and run by folks with some fancy (deserved!) advanced degrees. When we pretend “increasingly everybody in this connected world talk” is “millennial talk,” we may be engaging in a form of cognitive dissonance. It stinks to admit that we’re not expert at such a critical area of our own job as industry evolution and potentially long-term survivial!
To the extent that this may be happening, I’d like to share a reminder: We’re all learning and facing major trends together. Hire great people who can keep tabs on trends and how the world is turning and allow them to be the first chairs in this metaphorical symphony that you are conducting. To be an effective leader, you don’t need to be best in class at playing all of the instruments.
C) Perhaps it is an excuse to deny urgency.
I’ve noticed in conversations that some folks still think of millennials as somehow representing only the future. Millennials represent right now. Millennials are the largest generation in the labor force and we have trillions of dollars in spending power. We may be mostly the children of Baby Boomers, but a vast majority of us are adults, with the oldest among us clocking in at 37 years old. (Our generation technically snagged Lin-Manuel Miranda by a mere 20 days, and I don’t feel badly bragging about it.)
If millennials represent the future to some leaders then, “millennial talk” may be considered a discussion about the future. Although that thought might be comforting because it implies that we can table these conversations, it’s incorrect… and it hinders organizations from evolving to maximize long-term sustainability.
Millennials often serve as canaries in the coal mine for critical trends facing visitor-serving organizations. They let us know not that something is coming, but in many cases that something is already here. They hint toward which trends may grow stronger because they are born of the connected world in which we all live.
Don’t get me wrong! Data suggest that are plenty of characteristics that are uniquely “millennial!” Generational studies are important and here’s a good amount to help you dive into information about millennial visitors to cultural organizations. It’s a smart move to consider these characteristics, but it’s also a smart move to consider that many of them are the result of growing up in a connected world. Today, we all live in a connected world.
There’s a line that we may cross wherein “millennial talk” becomes less of an incentive to innovate, and more of an excuse to silo and avoid difficult conversations.
And when we do that, it becomes difficult to successfully engage any audience.
It’s up to all of us to make sure that we see that the line exists.
In the present, we all live in a connected age that places value on personalization, shared experiences, digital engagement, authenticity, integrity, and serving a social mission.