Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
A great deal has already been written on the generational differences between the “Baby Boomers” (born 1946-1964), “Generation X” (roughly those born 1965-1984) and the “Millennials” (roughly those born 1982-2004) [A]. Splitting people into categories like this is obviously an oversimplification as there is a great deal of bleed- over between categories in terms of attitudes, but major events and prevailing economic and social forces have a strong impact on our development and this means that there are some clear generational differences that can be identified. The question arises then, “What does this mean for B2B marketing and business strategy?”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a popular cautionary phrase which seems like a sensible philosophy until you attempt to apply it to something as fluid as marketing and brand image. It is always tempting to cling to what has worked in the past rather than risk change, but in the long term conservatism can turn out to be the far riskier strategy. The crux of the matter is this; while the successful message of today might well continue to appeal to the decision makers of today, this set is actually constantly changing and evolving as people retire or move on to be replaced (for the most part) by younger people whose values and outlooks may differ from their predecessors. With this in mind, it is critical to understand the way attitudes have evolved across the generations and plan your brand and business strategies to bridge this generational gap.
Some Key Generational Differences
Generation and seniority
We are entering an interesting period at the moment in B2B marketing. Millennials are grabbing attention as they become more and more present in decision making positions [E], while at the same time Generation X is poised to replace Baby Boomers as the predominant generation amongst CEOs [D].
Despite the wealth of research which has already been done on the subject it can be quite difficult to pin down the genuine changes in attitude from generation to generation. Many of the sources available online listing differences contradict each other and observations are generally centred on the US market. I’ve collected some of the better supported behaviours and attitudes identified below as well as a brief look at how this differs globally.
Top sources of information when choosing brands were trade shows, industry articles and customer testimonials
Most online activity is through conventional laptops and desktops
More likely than other generations to make decisions without consulting colleagues
Perhaps counterintuitively, it is Baby Boomers who most value speed, rating the “ability to respond quickly” as the most important factor after price in choosing a supplier in IBM’s recent study [E]
Relatively likely to be vocal detractors
Baby boomers want to know what you will do for them. Try to become a trusted source of support and advice. Frame things in terms of how it benefits them.
Reviews and comparison sites as well as vendor provided online content, trade shows and colleague recommendations
More use of mobile devices and the most likely to make wide use of a tablet computer
Decisions generally made based on hard data and measurable advantages. Decision likely to be shared with colleagues
Members of Generation X want reliable, high quality products and services that deliver exactly what they promise
The most vocal detractors, particularly in terms of writing negative reviews
Members of Generation X want to hear about specific, credible solutions to well defined problems. They are usually more cautious than other generations and more likely to base decisions on measurable factors. Make sure you make all the data they might need available so they can feel confident they are making an informed decision.
Absorb opinions and form impressions based on testimonials, reviews and online articles, but the key to conversion lies in face to face communication as this is where a basis for trust is built
Millennials predominantly access the web through their smartphones. If you are not optimizing your online presence for mobile viewing you will struggle to reach them
Decision making will generally be a collaborative process
Millennials are looking for a collaborative partner who can work smoothly with their business and shares their personal values
If they have a good experience, they are significantly more likely to share it. This is particularly important as they often have much higher visibility online so that each satisfied client is likely to influence a large number of potentials
Millennials are used to a constant flow of information and expect everything to be at their fingertips. They are more active and engaged on social media, with a large network of connections and influences. It is important to make sure that your online presence is consistent if you want the values you are trying to present to be perceived as genuine. This is particularly important as Deloitte found in their recent global study of Millennials [F] that they placed their personal values and morals as the number one factor influencing their business decisions.
Pique their curiosity with engaging, meaningful and insightful content and make it easy for them to contact you or find any information they might need about you. If you seem like people they want to work with then they will seek you out. Once they are engaged, don’t try to give them a sales pitch. Instead, discuss what they want to achieve and how you can achieve that together.
Often referred to as “little emperors”, Millennials in China have been defined by the one-child policy enforced by the countries communist government. This policy has bred a generation which is individualistic, confident and ambitious but also burdened with a great deal of expectation (and potentially several dependent older relatives).
The first generation of an emerging middle class, and a burgeoning global economic superpower, they share the enthusiasm and sociability of their US contemporaries but place more emphasis on financial reward.
Known as the “Yutori” generation, Japan’s Millennial equivalents provide a stark contrast to the optimism of most other countries. A failing economy and severe unemployment issues in the nineties and noughties have destroyed the cultural concept of lifelong job security and left the Yutori pessimistic and risk averse.
Coming of age in an economy defined by a high inflation rate and explosive proliferation of technology, Brazilian Millennials are every bit as social and tech-savvy as those in the US, but have a less optimistic view of the future. They also share the low levels of employer loyalty associated with most Millennials, but are less well prepared to change their careers due to the focussed nature of Brazilian higher education.
How does this differ globally?
As mentioned previously, generational identities are shaped by the key events and economic and social forces that shaped their development. As such, these identities vary around the world. Advancements in communication and the increasing globalisation of businesses has served to narrow this gap in each successive generation but there are still some clear differences, even when looking at Millennials. Below are some key global markets where Millennials have a very distinct personality:
What This Means For B2B Market Research
Methodology and generational bias
The differences in preferred channels of communication have obvious implications for marketing, but should also be born in mind when planning market research methodologies. Online studies and telephone surveys are likely to have some response bias towards particular generations, and this becomes even more of an issue when conducting online focus groups or recruiting through social media as although older generations may make use of social media, they are generally less invested.
Actions: Consider carefully which generations you are targeting when planning a study and choose your recruitment approach with this in mind. Where attempting to reach all generations, consider at least soft quotas to ensure a healthy mix. In particular, when conducting a survey using mixed methodologies (such as a combination of online recruitment through social media and telephone interviews), enforce quotas within each methodology to avoid confusing methodology bias with generational differences.
When attempting to target Millennials specifically, favour short, engaging surveys with curiosity-driven incentives such as a limited feedback of results upon completion. Alternatively, harness their social nature through online focus groups and research communities. Fostering a community environment of research participants working together to find a better way of doing something appeals directly to the motivations which drive Millennials.
It’s worth noting too that the pervasive presence of Millennials in online social environments is a valuable source of information in its own right. Ethnographic studies of sentiment and associations expressed in online social channels can give a pretty good approximation of a “Millennial eye view” of a topic. Want to know what Millennials think of your business? Start by taking a hard look at how people talk about you on Twitter or how your employees represent you on LinkedIn.
A strong brand image is often the first step towards winning the emotional argument in any purchasing process, be it a consumer or B2B market. Indeed, studies have shown that in many cases the decision of who to buy from is made much earlier in the process than people imagine; the brands that seem a natural fit from the outset are often the ones who end up being chosen [C]. The problem with this is that the associations which come along with a brand can be very hard to change; usually requiring significant effort and investment (just ask Skoda!).
The danger then, when assessing how well your brand image is working for you and deciding if any action needs to be taken to change brand associations, is that unless you pay attention to how your brand image is seen across these generational cohorts, you could lose out to brands which more effectively appeal to younger generations. The time and effort required to change your brand image means that if you wait until changes are visible at the overall level, it may already be too late to avoid erosion of your share of the market.
This is particularly important when dealing with “Millennials” moving into more senior decision making roles. The higher emotional weight given to brand values and the reduced attention paid to conventional advertising channels means that it is very easy to be displaced as a preferred brand if specific provision is not made.
Actions: Where possible ensure there is a quota for respondents in the Millennial age group which is large enough to allow you to identify how millennials currently see your brand and what they ideally want from a brand. Identify what changes could be made to make the brand more attractive to this cohort going forward.
The interconnectedness of Millennials online means that marketing efforts to change brand perceptions should be carefully coordinated to present a consistent brand identity across all online touchpoints. In particular, harnessing employee advocacy through strong, brand consistent presence on LinkedIn and other social media platforms is an effective way of cementing any changes you are making.
Segmentation studies aimed at identifying the needs and priorities of customers can also benefit from consideration of generational differences. By examining how the priorities of generations differ and identifying which segments are more strongly represented in each generation, we can get some idea of which segments are likely to grow over time.
As decision makers are replaced, it is possible for the current solution to no longer be a good fit. If the current supplier does not offer a more appropriate solution, then there is a risk of displacement in favour of a supplier who does.
Understanding which offerings are most likely to appeal to each generation can also help marketing. Messaging through each channel can be tailored to focus on offerings appropriate to the generations who rely on them as well as being pitched to appeal to their values.
Actions: Again, quota for Millennials and identify which needs segments identified over-index in this cohort. By examining the needs of younger generations and introducing offerings tailored to meet them, you can avoid the danger of Millennials becoming disaffected and seeking a new partner when they move into a decision making position (or attempt to poach those currently working with another supplier).
Remember that Millennials value ease of doing business and, thanks to companies like Apple and Google, have come to expect technology to work smoothly and consistently from the start. Make sure this is a central consideration whenever you are developing an offering aimed at Millennials.
Employee satisfaction and loyalty
One of the main focusses of Deloitte’s recent global study of Millennials has been an examination of what drives loyalty amongst Millennial employees (in terms of employee retention). According to the study, around two thirds of those surveyed expected to leave their current employer within the next 5 years. The main driver of this defection appeared to be the business failing to provide opportunity or support for their development of leadership skills and pursuit of leadership roles, but it is important to get a clear picture of what else drives Millennial employee satisfaction in your organisation if you want to retain them. Indeed, Millennials themselves have identified prioritising employee satisfaction as the top requirement for a business to be successful [F]. This is particularly important to businesses in sectors with skills gaps such as the oil and gas industry, civil engineering or construction.
This BBC article [G] provides an example of a business making concerted efforts to build employee loyalty amongst Millennials.
Actions: When conducting employee satisfaction studies, particular attention should be paid to Millennials and what factors influence their loyalty. Work hard to meet the expectations of your young staff and harness employee advocacy to attract new talent.
As generations shift their roles in the world of business decision making, the rules of engagement are also changing. Traditional marketing messages focussed on selling products are losing their potency and new avenues are opening up to replace them. Never before has a generation been identified that is as tech savvy, joined up, emotionally driven and work focussed. To engage effectively with Millennials requires a new way of thinking and market researchers need to think differently about how they can tap into the behaviour, attitudes and needs of this new breed of decision makers. Much of this change is driven by technology, but technology is also providing fresh sources for collecting market research data and affording greater insight than ever before. It is clear that the changes taking place present businesses with both a challenge and an opportunity and those B2B companies that recognise the importance of the Millennials and know how to listen and respond to their needs, will be the ones that will collect the big prize over the coming decades.