I recently ventured into the Millennial kingdom that is SXSW. I wasn’t in town for any of the conferences, I couldn’t make any of the tech shows, but a friend gifted me a music pass—my all-access visa to the Millennial Generation, aka Generation Y.
The crowd was not unfamiliar to my Millennial self: midriff-baring, pink-haired college kids and androgynous beer-in-hand twenty-somethings with screenprinted totes. They were picnicking on the astroturf rooftop of the Whole Foods Market flagship, heads bobbing to romantically named bands like Leopold And His Fiction and We Were Promised Jetpacks. Migrating in packs down the center of 6th St., they were amassing selfies and flaunting the ultimate SXSW status symbol: all-access wristbands.
The Land of Screaming Brands
While the festival scene felt like your standard hipster-bar dance party, this was clearly not local-loving Brooklyn. This was a screaming contest of megabrands attempting to hold the fleeting attention of the social-sharing crowd long enough to garner a hashtag or an overtly branded photo-booth selfie.
On one hand, I rolled my eyes at this. On the other, I felt empowered. In a microcosm where every brand was begging for my attention, I bestowed affection where I chose. Pandora earned a shout-out for gifting me an open-bar VIP pass and St. Ives for offering long, high-quality chair massages. Numerous others got nothing. As for the abundant hashtags, I doubt they influenced my spending habits.
If Gen-Y is indeed the hashtag-loving “Facebook Generation” that we believe them to be, why isn’t all of this social media buzz targeting them more effectively? Something fails to add up. At times we seem to know what makes them tick. Yes, the number of likes on an Instagram photo is a badge of social standing and yes, based on the high number of Press Pass holders with prosumer Nikons I’d say that lifestyle bloggers are still an influential “thing.”
But other assumptions are misguided. Unlike their lackadaisical and tech-obsessed stereotypes, this crowd has a strong bias toward marrying virtual reality with real-world action. During his set, Ben Harris, lead singer of the UK band Dirty Vegas, promoted inspiration as something that, “unless you live it, you can’t really get it.”
For all of their social sharing, Gen-Y seems to be mastering a duality that includes the desire to unplug and get out there.
Trickle Up, Trickle Down
As Gen-Y moves beyond the social sharing platforms that they themselves launched, their older counterparts are Facebooking, tweeting and virtually sharing like never before. According to iStrategy Labs, the number of teens on Facebook has declined by 25.3% since 2011, while users 55+ have exploded with 80.4% growth.
Baby Boomers and Gen-X aren’t the only demographics to feel the Millennials’ influence. Gen-Y, unlike their predecessors, are increasingly incorporating their children into their existent lifestyles. Sure, they’re pragmatic, yes they experience a priority shift when adding diapers to the monthly budget, but their social experiences stay—yielding a new breed of youngsters pattering around SXSW with miniature headphones, ironic mustache temporary tattoos and a fresh set of values that we can’t yet understand.
The implications of this upwards and downwards influence are huge. On one hand, perhaps the social sharing tactics that no longer work with Gen-Y will captivate the Facebook-loving Boomers. On the other hand, the future of Gen-Z’s sharing will likely be so extremely diversified that this one-platform-reaches-all luxury will not exist.
Game Change, Please
One certainty from the rooftop crowds of SXSW—from the Kardashian-esque, selfie-snapping teens to the young, hipster families—is that ultimately, as Gen-Y’s generational influence and spending power continues to grow, cracking their code will be vital to brand success. It’s understandably difficult—they’re savvy, fast-changing chameleons whose short attention spans “may actually be finely tuned bullshit meters,” according to Jennifer Lentfer in Fast Company’s article, “Can the World Handle Complexity?”
As SXSW demonstrated the pure ineffectiveness of social media shouting matches, perhaps conversation is a better route. It’s easy for Gen-Y-founded brands to reach their peers, but big brands must rely on true conversations. This means breaking down stereotypes, hanging out in their world and enabling evolution to happen as rapidly as they do.
Rebecca Huffman is a Senior Trends Analyst at LPK, where she fuels brands with the strategic, future-forward thinking they need to solve tomorrow’s wicked problems. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @RebeccaHuffman or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.