For decades, many companies have focused their marketing efforts on baby boomers, and with good reason. The sheer size of this generation—some 76 million people—makes it a lucrative target audience.
But while boomers were in the bulls-eye, some new kids were arriving on the block. A lot of kids. And although they are adults now, the millennial generation—so named because it comprises people who were born or came of age around the turn of the century—has now surpassed boomers and is the largest living generation in U.S. history. Unlike the boomer generation, which is shrinking, the millennial cohort is still growing because of immigration, and it is projected to peak at around 81 million people in the years ahead.
While this presents huge opportunities, the trick is to continue serving the still-large but graying boomer population while engaging the growing wave of younger consumers.
This is especially a challenge in local television news. How can an industry with a mass product—a newscast—build and maintain loyalty with two vastly different audiences?
Millennials are different
Millennials are very different from previous generations, and not just in obvious ways like the adoption of technology. Some call them “digital natives” because they grew up with technology at the exact same time technology became easier to use. Think of the simplicity of Apple or the ease of using Google and Amazon. It’s a generation that’s tethered to technology, wears it, sleeps with it and simply expects it to work well and be ever present.
For news organizations, technology itself won’t attract millennials because technology is just a given—they expect you to have it.
But if simply putting news content on these platforms won’t be a differentiator, failure to do so may make you irrelevant with this audience.
More surprisingly—given all product choices available—is that countless studies show millennials are actually the most brand-loyal consumers ever. In a vast sea of buying options, it seems, they find comfort in choosing the familiar. This means there is hope for television news stations to build brand loyalty. They just have to figure out how to do it.
What do millennials want?
I set out to learn what creates brand loyalty for other companies and if that can be applied to local television news. I also wanted to see what millennials themselves said it would take to build a preference for a specific news station. I sent a survey to a national sample of millennials aged 18-29 (those in the younger cohort) in March 2017. I received more than 400 responses.
The top brands respondents they said they were loyal to, when asked via an open-end question, were, in order, Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola, Amazon and Starbucks. When asked why they named those brands, the most frequent answers revolved around quality, affordability, taste, service, health and company values.
And when asked what would erode the loyalty to their favorite brand, the top two reasons were a decline or absence of quality, and not wanting to be associated with a brand that didn’t share their values. Indeed, a lot of other research has shown that brand values are very important to this generation.
So what’s this got to do with news? Hang with me ….
I then asked via an open-ended question what local television news stations could do to build a brand preference. The top themes: accuracy, credibility, quality and unbiased content. In their words, this meant “stick to the facts,” don’t be biased,” quit sharing opinions,” “enough with an agenda.”
Another recurring top theme was the importance of involvement in the local community, and the desire to be associated with brands that share their beliefs and values.
Yet another question asked respondents to rate a list of attributes that they view as important in building a television news brand. By far the top answer was accuracy and credibility. It ranked 20 percent higher than the next most common answer, which was “entertaining stories.” More about that later.
I also asked: If breaking news happens right now, is there a specific local station you’d turn to? More than 60 percent said yes. The reason? That’s the station that’s most accurate and credible.
When combined with other open-ended comments throughout the survey, it becomes loud and clear that what millennials desire with any brand dovetails with what they want in a news brand. First and foremost they want quality, which with news seems to translate as “accuracy,” and they want involvement with entities that share their values.
Local stations need to understand that with millennials, it matters greatly which causes they affiliate with, their sponsorships and the corporate values they project.
It’s also interesting to note things respondents indicated are not of great priority in building a news brand: the newscast name, slogan, logo, and gimmicks/contests to entice them to watch. Having the latest technology and use of social media are of midrange importance, likely because these things are simply a given.
Respondents also indicated that being entertained is important in their news brand decision. While millennials say they want content that’s accurate and unbiased—the No. 1 answer—they also want it delivered in a way that’s interesting and entertaining. Exactly what constitutes entertainment was not well articulated, although many respondents mentioned the desire for reporters who are humorous and make the news interesting and fun to watch.
Additionally, they want a way to personalize the news so they see just the stories they want. And why not? Millennials are used to personalization and customization of other types of content; think of how they build playlists for music, select movies and TV shows on demand, customize ringtones and so on.
More broadly, think of how apparel makers offer custom-fit clothing; Coca-Cola creates bottles that are personalized by name; and even McDonald’s, which built an empire based on standardized food, now promotes Signature Crafted Recipes so no two hamburgers are alike.
So why wouldn’t millennials want television news personalized just to their liking, too? (I will leave the debate as to whether this is good for an informed society to others.)
Perhaps letting an audience customize the news it encounters by topic—much like the way Pandora lets listeners pick just the genre of songs they want to hear—will win the hearts and minds of millennials.
What to do
Short of a local station gearing the entire newscast to millennials regardless of what other audiences want—much like cable news networks can do, but which isn’t practical on a local level—the challenge is still that local TV news is a mass product that must appeal to a broad range of viewers. It would also be ideal if stations could use their digital subchannels (e.g., station 8.1, 8.2 and so on) to create different news for different audiences, but the economics of that are not feasible.
The good news though is that what millennials want more than anything else— accurate, credible, unbiased content—seemingly would appeal to all viewers. If a station can build their news brand around this—and walk the walk—it at least will have the foundation that millennials say is important.
Creating personalized news genres and focusing on entertaining delivery would then take it to the next level.
Finally, as a marketing guy who for years has encountered colleagues and clients who think a good brand is simply achieved via a fancy name, logo, slogan or color, my research reiterates those things don’t matter much to a millennial audience. Content is still king
The survey turned up these other findings about technology:
- Despite their attachment to technology, respondents said they’re as likely to encounter local television news the old-fashioned way—by watching it live—as they are to see it shared on social media. Watching live was preferred more by males than females, and females skewed toward seeing it shared on social media.
- Much lower on the list of ways they encountered news was the station’s website, following reporters on social media, email notifications and the station’s app, which ranked dead last, with just 3 percent saying they got news this way.
- Less than 50 percent indicated they had any news apps on their mobile device at all. But those most likely to have an app were men, and those who own a home as opposed to who rent or live with parents.
Importance in building a brand preference for a specific local news station
*Rating (0-100, 100 being most desirable)
Scott Fiene is assistant dean and assistant professor of Integrated Marketing Communications in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. He has more than two decades of professional marketing communications experience. Contact him at Safiene@olemiss.edu.