More than 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan famously exhorted the baby boom generation to be aware that “the medium is the message.” Were he alive today, he might observe that for the Millennial generation, the messenger is the medium.
By being constantly plugged in, both receiving and disseminating information and opinion, Millennials seem to be encoding the very act of communicating and messaging into their DNA. For them, to think is to act — to act is to transmit.
Never before have members of any generation had such capability to tap instantly into a hive mind and influence one another so quickly. They are as close to Star Trek’s Borg — a mechanically mind-linked predator species — as is nonfictionally possible. And they are our children.
Resistance is futile.
While doing research for coursework in strategic communications, I realized how typical Millennials “Jess” and “Mike” are integral parts of the most-connected generation in history — never far from a constant data stream tied to family, friends and the world at large. They are part of one vast network of information and opinion exchange. And because one of their greatest fears is missing those connections and being left out of anything, a large part of their day is spent sharing — everything.
More than 90 percent of Millennials say they check their phones before getting out of bed in the morning and that it’s the last thing they do before turning off the lights at night. They are never more than a nanosecond, a node and a cell tower away from knowing what’s going on with one another. They are the true residents of McLuhan’s “Global Village.” He was far more prescient in the 1960s than anyone today could have imagined.
“Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space,’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men,” McLuhan wrote. “It has re-constituted dialogue on a global scale.”
Millennials’ increasing interdependence on this networked community has produced some not so surprising results: They value the opinions, reviews and endorsements of friends, family and acquaintances above claims made by officials, professionals, celebrities or corporate brands.
Retailers need to acknowledge that what this target audience is sharing, via their myriad linkages, is their own expertise, their own ideas and the bargains they’ve found. If Millennials find something they like, everyone knows about it. If they’ve had a bad experience with a store or a brand, all their social networks, and their networks’ networks, are warned. They seek meaning and engagement through this sharing of key experiences — usually via smartphone.
When shopping, what Jess has that her mother didn’t is the ability to take a picture, with her smartphone, of what she’s trying on and send it out to get feedback from her friends at school, her sister vacationing in Greece, or even, heaven forbid, her mother. Individual purchase decisions have been replaced, or enhanced, by instant group approval.
And even though Jess’s actual group of family and friends might be small, they in turn are connected to ever-widening circles of influence, until everyone in the hive can potentially rejoice when she scores a great bargain on a coveted blouse at Old Navy, Aeropostale, Hollister, Gap, American Eagle, A&F or Target — all preferred Millennial shopping spots.
These and other companies should be gearing up to exploit this Millennial addiction to constant sharing and feedback by injecting themselves into the data stream where Jess and Mike live, hijacking it and shaping its course so that Jess and Mike feel they have gone to a company’s website because they want to, not because they’ve been directed there.
By having a presence and blending in where Millennials congregate virtually — through music, fashion and information exchange — these companies, brands and sites will become familiar and beloved parts of Jess’s networks and circles. They will be as hardwired into the collective consciousness as are Mike’s computer-gaming buddies.
“The most human thing about us is our technology,” McLuhan wrote. His message has been beamed into space — and the Borg are listening.
Resistance is futile — but adaptation is possible.
Bonnie Usan Flood is a media consultant and graduate student at the University of Minnesota.