Why email still reigns for engaging millennials

Yes, social media channels are important to Gen Y, but every account requires an email address. For direct communication with brand reps, email is the mode they prefer.

There are many myths and misconceptions about millennials, and quite a few are downright negative:

  • They’re entitled.
  • They have been coddled by their helicopter-parents.
  • They are tech-obsessed to the detriment of all else in their lives. (OK, maybe that one’s true.)

Millennials are tech natives. Having grown up with gadgets, they are savvy about what advances in technology can bring to the table, and, some say, they are obsessed with social media.

Still, are they so engrossed with their social media and mobile tools that you ought to throw the bulk of your marketing budget in that direction to reach them? Apparently not. According to the latest research, when brands target the younger generation, often good old-fashioned email wins the day.

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Millennial communication preferences

Although principally aimed at unearthing financial trends among millennials, the Millennial Research Study from The Principal Financial Group revealed fascinating nuggets about their communication preferences:

  • Email wins out for one-to-one contact. More than four in 10 respondents said their preferred method of one-to-one contact with companies is email. This rose to almost half (47 percent) for contact with retail stores.
  • Email tops social media and texting. This compared with just 6 percent who listed social media as their favored communication method with retail companies, 2 percent text messages and 5 percent each for phone calls and online chats.
  • Email is relied upon when doing product research. Email also scored strongly for research on products and services, at around double the rating for social media. Web search rated highest for research; it was the only method to beat email.

Are social media channels primarily for socializing?

Why should the above numbers be true for millennials who, we are told, live out their lives on social networks? Over at Marketing Land, Steve Dille contends that the clue is in the title—with “social” being the key word. He suggests (and I agree) that the social networks dominate the social interactions of the generation who emerged after the digital revolution started.

Since they were old enough to create their first Facebook, Twitter or SnapChat accounts (or perhaps even before), millennials have found social media to be the go-to way to communicate with friends and family. Social media isn’t the only channel this group uses, though.

Let’s not forget that email has also been a constant in their lives. After all, no matter how many bells and whistles a new platform might have, you still need an active email address in order to set up and maintain your social media accounts.

Millennials are no different from the rest of us; they have to use their email accounts for practical purposes such as notifications, account administration, product updates and, in some cases, even for work. Most check their inboxes every day; many, it seems, prefer email over social media for direct contact with the brands, businesses and other organizations they deal with.

The impact of mobile devices on email

One big factor in the enduring appeal and use of email among millennials is the ubiquity of mobile devices. The latest figures from Pew Research show that by the end of last year, 85 percent of the 18-29 age group owned a smartphone; this compares with just 27 percent of people over 65. Mobile friendly apps and email provider upgrades are making it easier than ever to access email messages on mobile and tablets.

That is reflected in the rapidly increasing proportion of emails opened on mobile devices, as compared with desktops. The latest U.S. Consumer Device Report from Movable Ink suggests that more than half of all emails opened in the first quarter of 2015 were viewed on smartphones.


With nearly another 17 percent being accessed on tablets, emails opened on desktops fell to fewer than one-third of the total. The rate of increase is illustrated by the comparative figures for the third quarter of 2014, which show smartphones at 48.5 percent, tablets at 17.5 percent, and desktops at just over 34 percent.

As with everything else in life and business these days, the pendulum appears to be swinging strongly toward mobile, the preferred online habitat of the millennial (and many of the rest of us, as well).

Email and the millennial audience

Despite any preconceived judgments we might make (or read) about millennials, it appears they still welcome, open and read emails—so marketers should take note. What better way is there to directly reach and engage with this valuable target audience, using the same authentic, personalized voice brand managers strive to attain on “hit and miss” social media platforms?

As with many things, though, millennials’ expectations and demands are different when it comes to the way email content is delivered and consumed. The traditional long-form email is less likely to be successful, and marketers should stay mindful of the following key points when targeting millennials with email campaigns:

  1. Content is still king. As Forward Push Media’s Marc Apple explained to TNW News: “Content by far is what a millennial is looking for when a business reaches out to them via email. It’s just not any content; it must be relevant and relatable content.”
  2. Video is effective and easily consumed. This generation comprises big fans of video, so integrate it into your individual messages and your overall campaign.
  3. Keep content clear and concise for mobile viewing. Your message should be visually appealing and work in a mobile format, and the content must be crafted in such a way that the value it delivers is clear. Get to the point quickly and succinctly. (This advice holds true across all demographic audiences.)
  4. Make sharing easy. To ensure your message reaches the widest possible audience, make sure it is easily sharable. Joshua Lingenfelter, director of marketing for Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University, told TNW News why this factor is especially vital for millennials: “Older generations tend to click on ‘view as a webpage’ and review the entire email in their Web browser and then forward directly to friends. Millennials tend to review the email quickly on their phone, find the info they are excited about and then share on Facebook.”

As with so many aspects of digital marketing, the millennial generation is demanding a new approach from the brands and advertisers vying for their attention. Email clearly still has a big role to play—just not in its own silo, set apart from other campaigns. It must be integrated as deeply as possible into other channels to deliver a more personalized and customer-focused approach.

Do you still see email as an effective marketing tool across all generations? Are you a millennial who hates email? Are you a marketer who tries to segment your audience generationally and test email messaging accordingly? Please let us know in the comments section.

A version of this article first appeared on v3b.com.

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