Taking the Pulse: Understanding and Communicating with Millennials

September 16, 2019

Taking the Pulse: Understanding and Communicating with Millennials

Do you wonder how—and where—to best communicate with millennials about your school?

MaryLeigh Bliss, editor in chief at YPulse, and her team decode and demystify millennials and teens for many industries. They rely on regular surveying of 13- to 33-year olds to get to the heart of this generation’s beliefs, habits, and preferences. As a presenter (at our 2016 annual conference and across the country), Bliss provides valuable insights schools can use to craft messages and strategize how to cut through today’s barrage of marketing messages to connect with millennials. While this article references her 2016 EMA presentation, YPULSE continually collects data which continues these trend lines.

Why so much talk about millennials? Bliss reminds us that based on its size alone, this generation represents an influence and buying power that no industry can ignore. For independent schools, the need to understand millennials and what is important to them is especially critical; younger millennials are our current and prospective students, and millennials are becoming our current and prospective parents.

YPulse MKTG Spring 18The Millennial Backstory
All generations are shaped by the events and realities they collectively experience.

Millennials are more diverse than previous generations. They grew up in a time of invention and access. Despite living through the 2008 recession (and still facing a sluggish economy and extraordinary student debt), millennials are known to be optimists who believe they can make a difference. This optimism and passion may be traced to what Bliss calls the “special snowflake syndrome,” in which every child is told he or she is special. Millennials were also—unlike generations before them—given a seat at the family decision-making table. “They were asked their opinions, they weighed in, and they influenced what happened in the family,” Bliss asserts. This resulted in a different relationship with authority and a confidence in their voice.

Also shaping their childhoods was the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle. Constant coverage of dramatic events—according to YPulse surveys, the most notable to millennials being the mass shooting at Columbine High School—made parents protective and kids cautious. Being bombarded with media also forced millennials to become masters at filtering content.

Lastly, millennials share a belief (as young people and now as parents) in the importance of education. Bliss explains that for this overscheduled generation, “Every moment of their time was scheduled with the intention to get them into the ‘right’ college.”

What’s important to them in their interactions with the world?
Feeling confident in their voices and their unique roles, being expert consumers of media, and living through frugal times are among the factors that impact millennials’ preferences and expectations.

Millennials expect to see authentic representations of diversity. “When it comes to media, entertainment, and marketing, they want the diversity that they experienced growing up to be reflected back at them,” says Bliss. 

They are visual. Note, for example, their move from text-based social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to the more visual Instagram and Snapchat. Bliss advises marketers, “Taking all that information you have and making it into a visual [for example, an infographic] is far more likely to grab their attention than to hand them a pamphlet that they have to read.”

Social media usage

Millennials are experience-oriented. For example, over 90% would prefer sharing an experience online rather than an item purchased.

Millennials filter information. Bliss says, “This is a generation that, again bombarded with messaging, has learned to filter it out.” The messaging that breaks through the noise must be compelling, personal, authentic, and—usually—brief. According to YPulse surveys, 72% agree with the statement, “I would like it if brands acted more human,” and 70% say advertisements “usually bore them.”

As school marketing teams consider specific marketing tactics with millennials, these expectations and preferences are important to keep in mind.

Where do Millennials Spend Their Time?
The short answer is on their phones. Millennials self-reported that they check their phones 14 times an hour. Bliss advises that whether or not this constant connection sounds

Bliss advises that whether or not this constant connection sounds “natural” for you personally, it is shortsighted to ignore it as a reality: “Being where they are has become incredibly important…which means you have to think [mobile] because that’s where they’re spending so much of their time.”

On which social platforms should schools focus? Bliss reminds us “this is a generation addicted to innovation” that moves from one platform to the next. While Bliss thinks school marketing professionals should be aware of all platforms, she emphasizes, “Don’t try to be everywhere. Think about the story you want to tell and the personality of your brand and then, after learning about those networks, knowing who all of these players are, you can figure out where to tell that story the best.”

Millennials as Parents
NAIS President Donna Orem regularly presents on trends related to millennials as parents. Relying on trends similar to those which Bliss covers—including a challenging financial reality, passion, tech savvy, the desire to be unique (and to have children who feel unique), and the expectation of diversity, among others—she also explores this generational cohort’s behaviors as parents. They embrace shared parenting, run democratic households, and feel a pressure to be perfect as parents. Given all these trends, Orem encourages schools to take a step back and explore whether their enrollment and marketing efforts1:

+ Consider prospects’ possible stress about debt load/offer financial education
+ Inspire (perhaps by demonstrating how you live your mission)
+ Make each family feel their child is unique
+ Demonstrate your school’s impact (not just on academics but also on happiness and citizenry)
+ Don’t assume a traditional family makeup
+ Direct communication to mothers and fathers (and children)
+ Provide up-to-date online, mobile-ready information
+ Make use of social networks of potential and current families
+ Demonstrate how your school values diversity

Bliss entreats school personnel to embrace two trends crystallized by YPulse surveys:
+ Surprise and delight: Having been marketed to more than any previous generation and having grown up with digital solutions (think Amazon’s “If you are interested in this…” tool), this generation is “gravitating towards those marketing campaigns that provide [moments of surprise and delight] and those services and tools and unexpected things that give them moments of randomness.”
+ Unique is the new cool. Perhaps because they were told they were special, and perhaps to stand out on social media, 65% of today’s teens would rather be considered different than normal. This impacts personal style and consumer choices (e.g., hotels and restaurants). This desire for uniqueness is only amplified in parenting: Bliss reports that “92% of millennial parents want their children to know they are special and unique.”

These last two insights about millennials suggest a tremendous opportunity for marketing teams to build on their own unique school cultures and on the surprises and delights found on campuses every day to craft messaging that resonates with the important audience.

1Orem, Donna. “Looking Ahead: Millennials.” NAIS, May 2016.


Previous Article
Character Counts and Counting Character: A New Way to Measure Skills
Character Counts and Counting Character: A New Way to Measure Skills

Assessing an applicant’s character may be one of the more challenging aspects of the independent school adm...

Next Article
Taking the Leap from Admission to the Head’s Office
Taking the Leap from Admission to the Head’s Office

by Patricia Kong  Admission professionals are uniquely poised to lead. With deep knowledge of a school, its...