A young marketing pro at my table, himself a millennial, shocked the room with his response: "Stop trying so hard."
His words seemed blasphemous. In a world desperate to connect with this generation -- as of 2015 the largest on Earth -- why would one do anything short of, well, anything?
The thing is, this young man was right.
That's not to say millennials aren't important. Far from it. At 75.3 million strong and more diverse than any previous generation, they represent more than a fifth of U.S. consumer spending. Baby boomers, on the other hand, are retiring at an ever-increasing rate, meaning their disposable income is steadily becoming less of an economic or charitable driver. Ignore the millennial generation, then, at your peril.
But the single-minded obsession with reaching them strikes me as narrow, near-term thinking. The all-eggs-in-one-basket approach rarely works out. Not so long ago, the flurry of activity centered on baby boomers—the very ones causing so much hand-wringing now as their influence declines.
In reality, the consumer of all things—products, services, information, ideas, etc.—is remarkably varied. Even a single generational demographic can't be simply defined. Not every millennial is (insert your stereotype here). For every 25-year-old allegedly disinterested in her community, there's another leading a change initiative. For every child of the '80s unaware who his political leaders are, there's a counterpart working tirelessly for a candidate or cause.
Simply put, there is no one kind of millennial. Certainly there are common themes, but to think there's a "secret formula" that will singularly engage all (or even most) millennials is futile.
The other concern is that the millennial-only approach shuts off opportunities with other generational groups. Take baby boomers; they still represent nearly 75 million Americans, slightly fewer than millennials. Most are still working—indeed, many intend to work far beyond the traditional retirement age. That means they’re still impacting the economy, still involving themselves in politics, still giving to charity. Their legacy can yet be tapped.
Then there is Generation X, the post-boomer group born between 1964 and 1980. These people are well into their working and family years. Again, they have interests, ideals and potential. Why is no one talking about connecting with them?
And let's not forget that the last millennial was born nearly two decades ago. That means we’ll soon see a new group, so-called Generation Z, enter the workforce. Yet there’s almost no discussion about how to engage this group.
Are millennials a crucial part of the mix? Absolutely. Should we be thinking about how to engage them? Without a doubt. But good public relations looks at all relevant audiences, considers their unique traits and builds connections.
There is no single formula, no single generational solution. It's not about winning the love of one age group, but understanding how to communicate with and be real and relevant to the broad, diverse community.