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VICE Australia’s Commercial Director schools marketers on millennials

Alex Light knows a thing or two about what millennials want.

VICE Australia’s Commercial Director Alex Light knows a thing or two about what millennial consumers want, which is why we picked his brain about what it takes to connect with this notoriously connected generation.

M Authenticity. We throw the word around a hell of lot, but why is it so crucial for brands to maintain a sense of authenticity when marketing to younger people?

AL It should be obvious, really. Millennials are the most marketing-savvy generation we’ve ever seen. They’ve grown up being surrounded by ads and they know when they’re being marketed to – though that’s not always a bad thing in their minds. They don’t reject all brands, all the time, but what brands need to recognise is that young people, more so than older generations, really don’t appreciate it when they have advertising shoved in their face.

Interestingly, and you’d think this to be the opposite, technology has given millennials the power to avoid blatant attempts on the part of brands to sell them stuff. Ad blockers, the rise of on-demand video and the continuing fragmentation of media means that if you want an ad-free experience, you can probably get it. Millennials have an inherent understanding of the digital realm that previous generations simply don’t. They know that if a brand is going to interrupt their viewing time on platforms like YouTube, with autoplay ads, they can simply go elsewhere to consume that content.

Brands need to explore different ways of reaching this generation of consumers. They have to stop interrupting and start figuring out what it means to be truly authentic, and authentic in a way that’s on a younger consumer’s terms, in a way that they’re going to respond to in a positive way.

M The ways in which younger generations consume content is constantly changing. How does VICE keep ahead of the curve and maintain a solid connection with its millennial audience?

AL Ha. We hire them. Our team is made up of, among others, insanely smart, savvy young people. We recognise that to connect with our audience, we need to understand them – what better way to understand young people than to have them among our ranks?

We also have an amazing feedback loop with our audience. When we publish something, we know straight away whether or not it’s being positively received because our readers and viewers tell us, loud and clear, and we listen.

These elements, combined with regular audience surveys, gives us super-rich, meaty data about what young people want to read about and watch.

M What are some of the most frustrating misconceptions you’ve seen that marketers can and do make about younger generations?

AL One of my strategists recently conducted in-depth research into what our target audience, millennials, want from VICE. Going through the very early stages of the process, she typed into Google, ‘Millennials are…’. The top predictive results for her search were ‘millennials are dumb’, ‘stupid’ and ‘screwed’. I think these are all common perceptions of younger people. Older generations look down at this insanely well-educated, digitally savvy, change-oriented and, for the most part, financially stable generation and think they’re lesser – to their detriment, I think.

Then there are those misconceptions that millennials are narcissistic, vain, selfish and uninterested in anything that doesn’t relate to their lives directly, and these, too, are simply not true. This is a generation teeming with revolutionaries; tertiary-educated and socially aware revolutionaries.

Many younger people feel powerless when they compare themselves to their older counterparts, but the ‘soft’ power they hold over, say, the purchasing decisions of the older generations is massive. Think about it: everyone goes to millennials for advice on how to use apps, how to program their phones, navigate social platforms and for their insights into all things digital in general. As well as this, they possess a real thirst for knowledge and are eager to know more about the world and the people in it. If brands who are quick to discredit the value of younger people took a moment to just scratch at the surface of what millennials are capable of, they’d be seriously impressed.

M Any examples of brands who have completely missed the mark in their attempts to reach younger consumers?

AL I won’t name anyone specifically but one of my bugbears, particularly in content marketing, is the profile piece as a means to veil a brand’s blatant sell. You know the ones I’m talking about, those ‘story behind their success’ pieces, about what they do, why they’re great and “Oh by the way here’s how they use our product in their lives…” The most frustrating thing about this style of content is that it ultimately falls flat, especially with a millennial audience, because it’s providing readers, viewers or listeners with precisely zero value.

Brands need to get over the ‘celebrity’ piece for its own sake. Instead, they should be focusing on enabling their audience to do something valuable, meaningful. The trap is when you get into that thought process that says, “Let’s just follow cool people around and show how they use our brand.”

Our 2016 survey data shows that the number one biggest change, year on year, has been the power of celebrity influence – it’s in serious decline. Millennials are now looking to people who are much more relatable than a celebrity ever could be. And we’re tapping into this shift. We scout out authentic influencers, people who actually have something of value to add to the conversation – who we know will resonate and connect with our audience – and we provide them with a platform to share their stories and point of view.

M How does VICE’s platform strategy work in action? And which platforms and content formats have you found to be the most effective in connecting with younger audiences?

AL Facebook has played a pivotal role in driving traffic to our website. YouTube has been instrumental in driving our growth as a content brand, but it was a rocky start for the team.

Before we started publishing to YouTube, we developed a strategy centered around what we thought people wanted from the platform: short, fluffy content. Cats videos, fails, that sort of thing. We had a show, Dos & Don’ts, which lasted all of two episodes. It wasn’t right for us and our brand, and the content wasn’t something to be proud of. We weren’t adding any kind of value for the audience. So while we thought it was right for the platform at the time, we were wrong.

We learnt a hell of a lot from that experience, one of those lessons being what, exactly, constitutes YouTube success, and this show simply wasn’t made to last. Our documentaries and our long-form, news-focused, topical stuff, on the other hand, has been and continues to be a huge success on the video platform.

Snapchat is a pretty wild platform. We are one of the founding partners for the brand’s Discover offering. We have a team in New York, about 12 experts, who look after our presence on Discover, publishing and surfacing about 12 stories every day. There’s a sense of temporalness about Discover that no other platform has – each one of our stories is available for just 24 hours, then they’re gone. We try to play to this, for example, by premiering a new piece of content on Discover and making it unavailable on any other channel for a week.

Snapchat’s strength lies in the fact that it drives an audience into daily content habits. Our engagement levels on the platform are off the charts. Our best performing video, for example, was a video that earned an average viewing time of 20 minutes. The video itself, is 20 minutes in length, by the way… To be fair, it was VICE CEO Shane Smith talking with Obama about the US prison system, which is obviously an important and genuinely compelling conversation, but regardless, it’s rare for any brand to earn that kind of engagement on any channel. Ever.

M What’s your best piece of advice for marketers trying to connect with younger generations?

AL Get on it. Get started now. There’s a real urgency to do it. Your business is inevitably going to fail long-term if you don’t try to understand young people, if you don’t make yourself relevant to them, and, importantly, if your business isn’t able to adopt a more agile approach to communicating with them. The speed at which communication is evolving is insane, and while this isn’t a challenge for young, digitally savvy consumers, it’s a big problem for big business.

I would say to marketers that they should consider partnering with agencies, publishers and other businesses that are deeply involved in the worlds that exist within this demographic – they can educate and upskill you and your teams, and connect you with influencers who can develop your brand as a trusted voice among young people.

Alex Light is the Commercial Director of VICE‘s Australian operation. You can get in contact with Alex via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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