The Bullshit Detector Generation

Scholastic (the company) is the brain behind the American publication of the Harry Potter book series, hosts the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and, most importantly, is the lead publishing company concerning the advancement and promotion of children’s literacy. Although not one of the “Big Five” publishing companies—Penguin/Random House, MacMillan, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette— it is known best for its distribution of educational materials to teachers, kids, and the like.

Scholastic (the building) is mid-sized and in the depths of SoHo. Its 20-something floors hold multiple children’s and educator’s magazines, small libraries, and editorial offices, as well as a rooftop garden and cafeteria. With red and white adorned walls and staircases, a giant stuffed Clifford the Dog, rooms wallpapered with book covers like Strega Nona and Goodnight Moon, and an oversized Harry Potter treasure chest, it’s almost like a museum with books exclusively from my childhood.

For me, it’s a dream come true. Filled with fond memories from my childhood, it’s a dream that’s been marketed to me my whole life.

What brings me to Scholastic for the first time is not children’s literacy or the infamous statue of Harry Potter playing Quidditch (although the statue is pretty cool), but the Designing Books for Tomorrow’s Readers: How Millennials Consume Content conference. The conference is sponsored by Publishing Technology and presenters come from all walks of the publishing industry—Vice Presidents of marketing at book publishing companies, owners of bookstores, and editors of online magazines. Since Scholastic is all about education and this conference is meant to educate book publishers and marketers about how to market their books to a specific audience, it’s an appropriate location. The conference itself even takes place in the Scholastic auditorium—an overwhelmingly red room with a stage where many educators, performers and authors have stood and presented before.

In general, the purpose of the conference is to uncover what types of content the millennial generation enjoys reading (specifically books), how they enjoy reading it and how best to market that content to them. Basically, the conference is all about me, what I like, and how to best connect with people like me.

I am at this conference to learn about myself and what other people think of me. As a 20-year-old, I am at the tail end of the millennial generation. I am one immersed in technology and social media, I am one with moderately wealthy parents, I am one with a relatively liberal attitude and an almost-complete college degree. I am a part of a group of people who knows where they come from and what they want, and aren’t afraid to get it. I am a part of a generation that most other generations resent because they struggle to understand us and what we want.

“You can tell by the lack of hair on my head and presence of hair on my chin that I’m not a millennial,” chuckles Randy Petway into the microphone. Petway has worked in the publishing industry for more than 15 years in strategic development, ensuring the continued growth and research of marketing for Publishing Technology as Executive Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. Despite not being one, he understands millennials inside and out.

The question Petway says he is most often asked is: “Why study millennials? What’s so important about millennials?”

The answer lies in $200 billion of annual spending as consumers in the United States. Millennials are a significant 28.7% of the population, and surprisingly outnumber Baby Boomers by 11 million people. Although not a growing generation anymore, they are still significantly young and have a huge influence over Generation Z, the generation right after millennials. And most importantly, millennials are the ones growing up, having kids. They are the ones that are going to be parents soon enough if they aren’t already, buying books and products for their own kids. The illusion of control of society is being passed on to the millennial generation.

So yeah, millennials matter.

The term “millennial” was coined by Neil Howe and William Strauss in theorizing what a generation is. Where a generation stops and starts is determined by important historical events and social trends in a period of time. How this generation thinks is determined by what happened to them as a group as kids/young adults, so they’ll share common beliefs and behaviors, and be influenced by what the generation before them believes as well.

The millennial generation (also known as Generation Y) is defined as young people ages 18-34. They are defined by Columbine, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Teach for America, the election of the first African American President, the BP Gulf Coast Oil Spill, the introduction of same sex marriage, the Great Recession, and health care reform, among many other cultural markers. They are defined by the Internet, instant messaging, music downloading and iPods, MySpace, teen magazines, Harry Potter, cell phones, texting, American Idol, blogging, Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, Facebook, smartphones, apps, etc. Most importantly, they are defined by what other generations make of them.

Petway recognizes the struggle of publishing professionals attempting to understand millennials, which mainly consists of looking past what you think about them for the truth. “What you want to do is separate perceptions from reality. You want to market based on reality,” he advises. He uses something he calls the “Eye Test–“ asking yourself if what you’re seeing in real life matches what you’re seeing statistically. The statistics and demographics marketing companies are producing to figure out how to sell to millennials mean nothing unless you look at it on a smaller scale and find real life examples of who these people really are.

Larissa Faw, a journalist for Forbes and Mediapost who specializes in the study of millennials and workplace trends, has spent a good amount of time analyzing misconceptions about my generation. She agrees with Petway and the concept of his Eye Test: “This generation is not about age or gender or income level, but about the life stage,” Faw explains. “You can have an 18-year-old living in their parents’ house, or you can have an 18-year-old living on their own. You really don’t know. Millennials should not be generalized.” When you focus on these generalizations, there’s always the possibility that they are so far off from reality and what millennials are really into that you’re not going to be able to sell them what they’re looking for.

As a millennial myself, I’ve found that a lot about me and my life has been generalized and assumed. We are advertised, sold and given information on what others think we like. A common misconception about millennials is that they spend all of their time online, which can’t be farther from the truth. Surprisingly, about 80% of the millennial generation watches regular television daily, not using accounts like Netflix or HBO or milling around on their computers. “They still consume content old-school style,” Faw jokes.

Which is true: in terms of books, 79% of millennials read in print. Although this is not exclusive, (51% still read digitally, whether on e-readers, computers, tablets or their phones) it speaks to the types of readers they are. Some people prefer the accessibility of an e-reader or reading on their phones, while others enjoy the tangible and traditional newspaper or book.

Another problem that marketers and publishers have struggled with is figuring out not only the medium through which millennial readers read, but how to reach out to them to give them the content they want to see. The leading way that millennials find and choose new content is not through social media (although social media does play an important role in advising consumers what to read next) but through word-of-mouth. “Millennials are great bullshit detectors,” Jessica Stockton Bagnula, co-owner of Greenligh Bookstore in Brooklyn says. “They’re are not ashamed of the stuff that they care about, so when they like something they won’t be afraid to spread the word.”

Word-of-mouth works so well is because it’s personal. There’s a noticeable oversaturation of advertising getting in the way of quality content. Sure, social media and ads are right there in your face, public libraries and bookstores give recommendations based off of what you’ve already read, and online communities like forums and blogs have good suggestions. But even I have to admit that I am more likely to read something my friend is advising me to read rather than an ad that’s about what someone thinks I like.

Because millennials were born and raised in the age of the Internet, they have always had all types of information at their fingertips. Every day millennials are exposed to hundreds of advertisements, social media notifications, and other types of content. “I think millennials are flooded with so much information that they have learned to react to and sort through all of this information quicker,” Petway explains. “You have to build relationships between the reader and your product. This might mean you’re boosting authors, readers, writing style, genre, whatever. You have to ask yourself: ‘Can I build those relationships between my consumers and my products to prepare for the next big thing, and meet my readers’ demands?’”

Building these relationships between content and reader is what most marketers struggle with these days. Millennials recognize authenticity and good content when they see it, and look past the smoke and mirrors of advertising and misguided misconceptions to get to what they want to consume. There’s a huge difference between giving millennials what they want versus telling them what they want –they just have to be listened to, which is something that marketers still don’t understand.

“The other day I found myself tapping on a window that I thought was a touchscreen,” Petway joked. “You have to think about this generation in terms of people who have grown up with it and people who were in the world and grew into it.”


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