Reaching the 'impossible generation'

Millennials and news consumption: a topic that always sparks a heated debate among those in the (online) publishing industry – and for good reason.

Standpoints on the topic vary. Some believe this generation consumes as much news as their parents – but simply on different channels. A recent survey in the United States showed that millennials are regular news consumers who rely on journalism for information, entertainment, and guidance on how to vote.

Others believe that this ‘digital’ generation just isn’t interested in news stories at all – or at least not to the extent of previous generations. A recent article in The Washington Post reported that young adults spend loads of time on their smartphones, but hardly check any news apps (citing a Reuters Institute survey of UK and USA youngsters).

It’s a worrisome issue: if news organisations struggle to strike the right tone to entice this generation now, what’s going to happen down the line? We reckon it’s worth taking a moment to unpack all this.

Is it possible to reach the hard-to-get-generation?

Publishers want to connect with new young audiences to stay relevant and in business. But it’s not easy to reach the millennial generation. Here, we’re about to dive into the world of the digital natives who do connect to news, but - to misquote Ol’ Blue Eyes, that famous non-millennial - “do it their way”. We’ll talk to some brands and platforms who’ve been actively trying to engage millennials to find out if it is possible to reach the ‘hard-to-get generation’.

In the course of doing this survey, we learned some things that might be relevant for you as well. Naturally we’re going to share them with you, so here are the key takeaways:

  • The first and most important thing we noticed is that very often publishers talk about millennials and not with them. Many that are creating a dialogue across generations aren’t actually acting on the learnings of those conversations.
  • Secondly they fail to understand what the fundamental characteristics of the most popular channels are that this generation is spending time on and therefore don’t have the insights as to how they can optimise storytelling on these platforms. Sometimes it’s the characteristics of the channels that are the most demanding. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a different mindset: the news content should support that.
  • Thirdly there are quick wins that will help to connect more easily with this most-wanted audience. Just look at successful initiatives and take time to understand best practices on various platforms.

And last but not least our advice would be: fail forward and fail fast. Just begin, try, experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. Iterate on that and become better.

Who are these millennials?

Let’s first define the millennials. This generation is also known as Generation Y (or simply Gen Y). The early 1980s are generally seen as their starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years, with 1981 to 1996 being a widely accepted defining range for the generation. Millennials are sometimes referred to as "echo boomers" due to a major surge in birth rates in the 1980s and 1990s, and because millennials are often the children of baby boomers. This generation is comfortable in their usage of digital technology and social media.

graph of amount of millennials in US
Who are these millennials?

What’s the problem, then?

If not ‘pure’ digital natives, like their younger counterparts in Gen Z, millennials are pretty damn near fluent in digital technology. Coming of age in a world where wifi and smartphones were like water from the faucet, social media is their playground. They may have been part of the world pre-internet, but it remains a hazy memory.

connecting to news in the digital domain is therefore a no-brainer for them

What’s curious is that publishers have failed to clock this pattern of behaviour - even as many editors start to fall into this demographic themselves. It’s essential that they do, for the sake of their long term strategy and growth, but efforts are falling short, and when we hear publishers bemoan the lack of engagement among millennials, what they’re actually talking about is the lack of engagement on traditional channels.

Many publishers struggle to connect to Gen Y

The bottom line is publishers know they need to find new ways to reach young people. And not just reach them – they need to turn them into engaged consumers of news. We’ve all learned in one way or another that trust arrives walking and departs riding. So building a sustainable relationship with the generation of the near future is vital.

reuters institute quote
From “How Young People Consume News and The Implications For Mainstream Media”, Reuters Institute
Favourite news outlets per age
Favourite news outlets per age

A brief interlude in which we consider some recent research on the matter

First things first, the key question is: what are the habits of young people when it comes to the news? Various studies carried out by prominent institutions have given us a glimpse into this. But they don’t completely answer the question.

For example, research by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, conducted in 2015 showed that so-called millennials consumed news and information in strikingly different ways from previous generations. This research revealed that up to 69% of millennials get their news daily. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

On the other hand, reports from different corners of the world tell different stories. Let’s take some research done by scholars in Spain as an example. There, the good folk at Jaume I University in Castellón in 2012 showed that just 28% of young people (then aged between 16 and 30) read either online or conventional newspapers each day. Now, this does sound bad, doesn’t it? So, if young people don’t read newspapers, nor care about online news outlets, where do they get their news?

the answer is social media

It’s not as straightforward as social = Facebook. There are new kids on the block, and they’re… much cooler

A digital news report by the Reuters Institute shows Facebook’s popularity as a place for news has declined. The 2018 report showed that only 32% of people aged between 18 and 24 used Facebook for news in the week prior to being surveyed. In 2016, 45% of people surveyed in the same age group reached for Zuckerberg’s much discussed platform.

The truth is, Facebook’s news feed is being replaced by other social platforms, such as Instagram, Instagram Stories and Snapchat, as well as personal messaging apps, such as Whatsapp.

It would be easier to take from this that Facebook’s out and Instagram Stories are in, but it’s not as simple as that. The question we need to be addressing is why is Snapchat appealing? The answer is simple: visualisation, context, and channel appropriacy. Things don’t succeed on Instagram because they’re on Instagram. If they succeed - and that’s a big ‘if’ - it’s because content is created there with the specific channel, and the ethos of that channel, in mind.

so, who's doing it well?

The quick answer is: those who create content for their audiences, alongside their audiences, and in formats their audiences habitually use. They know their demographics, and they serve them the content they enjoy, need and ask for. In this respect there’s not much that’s different to writing for any other market.

But what about Mic? Yeah. That one didn’t pan out particularly well. State of Digital Publishing’s Vahe Arabian sums up their demise thus:

“The problem with Mic was that they tried to grow too fast, and they tried to become big and become more generalised... they lost the connection with their audience.”

So, a laser-like focus - and the ability to hold to the strength of your convictions is key. Time for an example.

Visualisation of the content is key

For this example we find ourselves in the Nordics, at Norway’s most read online news website, VG, where a comment made by a 19 year old that she didn’t read the publication because “it made her fall asleep” spurred them into action. There, at the start of 2017, a team started working on the VG Snapchat Discover project, designed to get younger readers reading their brand. Their results were enviable. Their daily edition is now read by approximately 220 000 to 250 000 people - and in a country that has a population of 5.3 million, that’s impressive. More than 30% of those readers are between 13 and 17 years old, while just over half of them are female.

So, why Snapchat? Well, simply - as video journalist Jonathan Falk Systad, from the project says - because this generation, particularly at the younger end don’t sit and watch the evening news on TV. They’re used to having everything they need in the palm of their hand.

“In that regard, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media have become a perfect way to stay updated - they’ve become a place for news.”

Critically, what those channels also have is a unique way to present stories, be it news or something less serious. The team spent considerable time dissecting how the format worked, and how people used it before publishing content on it themselves. Now, they usually focus on a single topic each day.

“We try to tell a story in six snaps, and there’s the possibility to have several interactions with readers within those six snaps. It’s important to us that each snap can stand alone.”

There's a teaser of what you can see on the next slide, and it’s a format that Snapchat users intuitively understand - even if it remains unfathomable to those not using it.

The approach is different too: “we have to literally explain everything like we’re talking to a complete outsider”, Jonathan explained. “Many of our readers, when it comes to current affairs, are exactly that.”

here’s the thing, though. How future-proofed is this approach?

What happens when Snapchat gets usurped by the next Kadashian-Jenner-approved channel?

It’s just about matching the content you want to communicate with the channel - and making sure these things connect with your intended audience. Right now it might be all about Snapchat, but at VG, they’re not wedded to that platform. Here’s Jonathan Falk Systad again:

“Snapchat will die out someday, and something else will come out of it. We have an understanding of what might work elsewhere”

Millennials are similar to everyone else in a striking, simple way: they like to read about stuff that concerns them

In this post of Der Spiegel they talk about the lack of trust millennials feel towards traditional media. In a survey they did together with the University in Mainz, they found that 42% of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 check alternative sites rather than traditional news sites. These sites are not always particularly trustworthy but - and here’s where we need to sit up and take note - they serve attractive content that meets the interests of the millennials.

Right now you can either respond - as VG did to that outspoken 19 year old - and innovate, or do nothing and risk losing a significant demographic at a critical juncture.

other publishers doing this well:

  • World famous and has many different content forms. Is visible on multiple channels but has the most relevant content on their own portal. Famous for Interacting with their audiences and creating lots of ‘help me figure out what to think of this’ content.
    Best example is maybe the ‘labels’ they use to generate feeds with specifically labeled content.
    (But the Quizzes are the most irresistible ones)

  • The young version of the national news. They operate under the banner of “sharable news”!
    With loads of Instagram stories on all relevant news topics and explainer videos presented by people in the same age-group as the people they are trying to reach. It’s a public broadcaster - so there’s no commercial business model (and the tax-payer in the Netherlands is financing this initiative) but it really serves a purpose and has a loyal following.

  • Lots of videos. Simple. Here’s what they say: “Vice is the definitive guide to enlightening information. As media and brands are vying for consumers’ ever-divided attention, it is increasingly important not just to get noticed, but to build meaningful relationships”.

  • The German regional news outlet Badische Zeitung, based in Freiburg, launched their own title for younger audiences. Fudder is a great example that proves younger audiences are interested in more local stories as well. Finding the right balance between local, regional, and global content is what has helped them strike gold. And, they even charge for their content which is proof they are doing a good job. Instead of a classic paywall, they have launched a Friends club where as a member, you’re able to read all the stories on the site. It’s an appealing prospect, and it’s clearly well-positioned.

We’ll leave you with this...

At Buzzfeed they sometimes create content at the place it’s likely to be consumed. You’ll make things differently at your desk than you will on a shaky seat at a bus stop, so we have it on good authority that that’s what they quite literally do from time to time. Is it bonkers? Maybe. Is it inspired? Absolutely. Acknowledging where your stuff’s going to be consumed is important. A different perspective isn’t a luxury - it’s what will propel you forward. Go find your metaphorical bus stop.

(There’s a part two of this article - and that’s where you’ll find ten tips to help nurture your millennial audience. Stay tuned for that)

And, as ever, if you’d like to see how smartocto could work for you, get in touch!

And if you'd like to read more from us, stay updated with our newsletter: