Ask an Expert: Avoid hard sell when marketing to younger generations

Q: I get that I have to market to a new customer, i.e., Gen X and Gen Y. I'm not really tapped in to what works with them. Is there something that works with them better than other things? — Dave

A: I agree, there is a new consumer out there these days. I'm part of the end of the Baby Boom generation, and when we're talking 'bout my generation, yes my generation, many of the elders are getting ready for retirement; we are no longer the much-coveted 18-54 year old demographic.

That distinction goes to those folks at the other end of the spectrum – the alphabetical generations: X, Y, and Z:

• Generation X makes up just under 20% of the U.S. population. Born between 1965 and 1979, they are now starting families and buying the houses that we aging boomers are selling.

• Generation Y (also known as the Millennials), born between 1980 and 1994, is more populous than Gen X, making up fully one-quarter of the U.S. population.

• Generation Z (also sometimes referred to as Generation V, for Virtual), is less important to most small businesses, as they are younger and not yet independent consumers.

Growing up after Watergate and coming of age during the two Iraq Wars, both Gen X and Gen Y are generally suspicious of big institutions, big business, the government and the media.

Independent, self-directed, and technologically savvy, reaching them is a challenge because they take everything with a grain of salt.

They are different in other significant ways as well:

• Unlike earlier generations, equality of the sexes at work and at home is a given for them.

• They tend to delay marriage until their late 20s.

• They have little brand loyalty.

• They consider themselves entrepreneurs. Even if they don't start their own business, they have entrepreneurial careers.

• Even more than Baby Boomers, Gen X and Y parents dote on their children excessively and spend accordingly.

So how do you sell to a group that is intrinsically distrustful and cynical? The secret is to use those qualities to your advantage.

Of course you must avoid any hint of a hard sell — nothing would turn them off more. What they want is authenticity. They are not going to simply trust what they read, what your brochure says. They want to see and understand for themselves the value of a product or service.

The other important thing is to reach them where they are: Online. More than almost any other generation, Gens X and Y spend time on the Internet, networking, shopping, reading, watching, meeting, and gaming.

That means you have to be there too.

One especially potent way to reach them is through the plethora of social networking sites out there like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and so on. The savvy marketer who wants to tap the Generation X and Y market will likely have a significant online social networking presence.

Moreover, according to the website for the book Groundswell,

"Gen Yers — 18- to 26-year-olds who came of age with broadband, cellphones, and iPods, among other things – stand apart from older generations because of their hands-on approach to the Web. Marketers trying to anticipate future consumer trends should tune in to Gen Yers. As these do-it-yourselfers become a primary consuming audience, they will carry with them their cross-channel shopping enthusiasm, active blog usage, and reliance on the information-scouring powers of Google.

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