How Do You Market to Millennials? Answer: You Don't

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Advice on how to market to millennials fills blogs, websites and seminars — it's a hot topic in financial circles. With all that free marketing advice, you may wonder why community banks are doing such a poor job of acquiring them.

A 2014 Harris survey found big national banks are siphoning off more than two thirds of all millennials. That's especially surprising because more than half of their accountholders don't trust the very bank they are using.

With such a high level of distrust in the industry's Goliaths, why aren't community banks more successful in reeling in these younger customers?

Many possibilities come to mind: smaller banks aren't listening, or they don't have the right products, enough branches or a convenient ATM network.

It also may be the advice is simplistic. Articles detailing the "10 ways to reach millennials," or "what every banker needs to know about millennials" suggest a one-dimensionality that may be ideally packaged for a blog but way too cut-and-dried for a marketer wrestling with a diverse audience and unique challenges.

Most advice is based on viewing millennials as one homogeneous group — an inherently flawed approach. Advice-givers usually describe millennials as tech-savvy, entitled, optimistic, parent- and community-centered. That's ludicrous. It's tantamount to saying everyone born between 1980 and 2000 acts, responds and can be marketed to the same way.

There is simply too much economic, geographic, and demographic diversity within the group to make meaningful generalizations.

Like members of pretty much any group, millennials are individuals first and millennials second. Demographers and sociologists may like to group consumers, but when bankers market to the average instead of the individual, it's a losing strategy.

My employer, Liberty Bank, is located in Logan Square, arguably the hippest, hottest area in Chicago. It's teeming with millennials. Beards, nose rings and tattoos are everywhere. Despite some physical commonalities, it would be a mistake to view them as homogeneous. A 28-year-old may be an artist or a budding partner in law firm, a schoolteacher or a waiter. Some will be good prospects, others will not.

Individuals are shaped more by parental values and community than their date of birth.

Millennials are frequently touted as "tech-savvy." Yes, they grew up with technology, but that doesn't mean they are more technically proficient than the rest of us.

Michael Wesch, who pioneered the use of new media in his cultural anthropology classes at Kansas State University, reports that many of his incoming students have only superficial familiarity with the digital tools they use regularly. He counts only a small fraction of students as true digital natives.

Millennials don't flock to the newest app or digital product. Most are incredibly pragmatic. They gravitate to apps that make things easy, intuitive and convenient.

Advanced technology should be a financial byproduct, not a goal.

Bank of America conducted a survey on the investing behavior of millennials with assets over $1 million. (Yes, there are millennials with that kind of money.) The survey found them to be almost "perfectly at odds with their stereotypical depiction." They were ambitious, entrepreneurial and willing to work with those who understand their unique needs. Counterintuitively, social media and blogs were among their least commonly used sources of financial and investment information. TV news broadcasts, an old-fashioned source, came in first.

Millennial marketing may be a trendy buzz phrase but it's never a substitute for a carefully developed marketing plan.

Nielsen, the research firm, divides the U.S. population into one of 58 financial clusters with similar demographic and lifestyle characteristics. It's a great tool for matching financial products with prospects having the highest propensity to buy.

Millennial marketing, on the other hand, is based on a cruder premise: assume everyone within a certain age segment exhibits the same behaviors.

It reminds me of the animal zodiac found on paper placemats in Chinese restaurants. Everyone born in a given year is infused with the same personal characteristics. Those born in 1980 ("year of the monkey") are said to be "witty, intelligent, and have a magnetic personality," while 1990 (year of the horse) brought us "active and energetic" people, and so on.

I always found the zodiac placemats good for a chuckle, but apparently millennial marketers seriously think this way.

Kevin Tynan is senior vice president of marketing at Liberty Bank in Chicago.

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