Sharalyn Hartwell, the Executive Director, Magid Generational Strategies at Frank N. Magid Associates joins us once again to offer up some research-based insights on connecting with Millennials. In part one of our interview, Sharalyn addressed how best to think about communication platforms when trying to engage Millennials, with a specific focus on university engagement. Today, Sharalyn helps us focus on messaging and offers some tips on how to engage the digitally-wired generation.

JS:  When it comes to universities messaging to Millennials, one thing that I see that is often overlooked is the fact it is a one-size-fits-all message. While many people equate the Millennials with the “save the world” mentality, help us understand, in general, types of effective messaging that can be more on point with this important demographic.

SH: The tone of the message can many times be even more important than the message itself. For universities, the message is also, in many cases, more important than the platform in which you deliver it. Millennials have an expectation of customization.  It’s helpful to remember that a generation has a mindset. There are things that happen in society, that collectively they share as an experience that help to shape how a generation views the world.

Spongebob Squarepants image courtesy
Spongebob Squarepants image courtesy

For Millennials we often point to Nickelodeon and Disney. Millennials were the first generation to grow up with entire networks devoted to programming for them. For the rest of us, pre-Nick and pre-Disney, we had to wait until Saturday morning for programming that was just for us. This paved the way for what we call the “me filter” that Millennials tend to go through. It’s not a narcissistic viewpoint, but more of looking through a filter that says “how is that relevant to me?” because they are used to having content served to them in a customized way.

JS: Let’s take this and apply it to a university looking to connect and engage with Millennial alumni.

SH: Sure. From a university perspective, you have to ask yourself how your message is answering the question “how is this relevant to me?”.  If a university sends out a one-size-fits-all message, Millennnials will react to it differently than Baby Boomers. However, it goes deeper than that within the Millennial generation. A humanities graduate will react differently than an engineering graduate within the subset of Millennials, because they have had fundamentally different experiences.

JS: Is it really that different from our generation (Go Gen-Xers!!) where the expectation of customization goes to another level? What degree of customization are you talking about to differ between our generation from Millennials?

SH: If they’re getting communication from a university where they likely have a lot of debt, they may or may not have the job they desire, they are going to want their school to acknowledge that to some level.  Boomers want the personalization factor because their generation wants the pat on the back, while Millennials think “you should know who I am.” There is a difference in the mindset and the reason for it.

The Millennial generation looks for personification. The university – and this goes for other organizations that have touch points with Millennials – has the opportunity to be viewed as a friend by the Millennials.  I believe this is an opportunity for universities to develop relationships.

JS: What are the archetypes of the message universities should be considering in hopes of best connecting with this coveted demographic? At the risk of oversimplifying, the Boomer mindset lends itself to being successful for the “name on the brick” methodology of fundraising, or, messages from the president of the school being well received. What parallel types of messaging can be drawn for Millennials?

SH: Millennials have a cohort perspective and are likely more motivated by helping people like them. Baby Boomers, by contrast, are driven by a more public recognition factor. There is an element of “look at what I did” to Boomer given. This isn’t the case with Millennials. They care about the greater good. They would be driven by knowing they can contribute to another’s experience that will mirror the one that they had. Gen Xers, on the other hand are cynical and want transparency of where their money goes. If they give $100 for the bleachers, they want proof it went to the bleachers and not administrative costs.

To get really tactical, for the Millennial generation, a school will need to paint the picture the purpose for the new stadium is enabling more kids to enjoy the same experience they did and it will directly impact their younger brother or sister or friend. You can see that subtle difference. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to every member of a generation, or any generation, but there is enough of a seam with Millennials that this is applicable.

Millennial giving is about the impact they have on other people and how they can be a part of that. You and I have talked about Kickstarter. The reason it works so well with Millennials is it taps in to this essence that you can contribute a little bit and instantly be part of something that is so much bigger than you.

JS: I love that example. I particularly love showing it to Baby Boomers who start firing questions like “why would anyone give to that?!!! What do you get for it?”  All you need to do is show the billions of dollars of microtransactions at the top of the page. The market is beyond proven at this point.

Sharalyn, thanks again for dropping by “The Works” at TeamWorks Media (virtually) and sharing some of your insights to our audience. We look forward to connecting again soon!!!

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  • Sebastian on Jun 11, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Really enjoyed Sharalyn’s perspective. I am getting set to graduate next week loaded up with so much debt it pains me to type this, yet I have received 3 emails and 1 phone call in the last week (and many more emails in May) asking me to donate a class gift of $20.13. Most of my friends I’ve talked to are similarly insulted by the University already coming to us for money. It’s not about the amount; we are all strapped for cash and haven’t even started paying off the loans we took out to pay for tuition in the first place! I guess Sharalyn is right when she suggests a University overlooking this fact is a quick way to turn off the millenial demographic…

    • Jay Sharman on Jun 12, 2013 at 5:27 am

      Sebastian: thanks for sharing! I’d be curious, to the points above, what your university could be doing right now, from your perspective to best connect with you.

      • Sebastian on Jun 12, 2013 at 10:50 am

        The most off-putting aspect for me is the full court press approach (email barrage, phone calls, etc) when we are still students…doesn’t exactly set a nice precedent to look forward to as an alum. Jumping off Sharalyn’s point, I think there is a way for universities to leverage our contributions towards “enabling more kids to enjoy the same experience [we] did” in the form of ideas rather than money at this point. Kids are trying to enjoy their last few weeks in college; Universities should use this opportunity to get feedback and perspective…wait a couple months (at least) to come knocking for money.

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