7 Tips for Engaging Millennials from Noelle West

There’s very little we don’t know about Millennials at this point. We’ve spent years researching and analyzing these people. Entitled is a word that gets thrown around a bit, so is narcissistic. But Millennials are also very civic minded; they have a passion for causes.

The 2014 Millennial Impact Report, for example, found that 47% of employed US Millennials surveyed said they had volunteered for a cause or nonprofit in the past month, while 87% donated money toward a nonprofit during the prior year.

“Millennials are craving that their lives stand for something and they want to live for something bigger than themselves. They crave this idea of a purpose and they are constantly seeking it,” said Noelle West, a communication and strategic planning consultant that specializes in helping small and medium organizations connect with Millennial supporters.

The way she sees it, Millennials grew up in the 80s and 90s with plenty of material possessions,  but realized quickly that things weren’t all they were cracked up to be; like the person who gets rich and then realizes that money isn’t everything.

Instead of seeking out products, Millennials search for purpose, and anyone or thing that puts that purpose at the forefront of what they do. So now every organization out there is chomping at the bit to connect with Millennials. Still, many are having a hard time doing it and very few do it well.

That’s where West can help.

Not only is she a Millennial herself, but also she spent five years leading numerous Millennial engagement campaigns as the Communication Director at Invisible Children. We heard her speak on the panel “Connecting with Millennials” at AMA San Diego’s 2015 Cause Conference last week, along with our own Senior Associate Colette Kessler, and her insights were so helpful we wanted to share them with you directly.

So, without further ado, here are her seven tips for connecting with Millennials:

1. Identify your authentic need.
It seems like every time you turn around, someone is talking about being authentic. What does “authentic” mean at this point? For West, being authentic isn’t about what you say, it’s about what you do. She refers to this as an authentic need.

An organization’s authentic need has nothing to do with sustaining the institution of your organization; it has everything to do with finding a way to make a tangible impact on whatever issue you are addressing.

Let’s say your organization taking on a big issue, like fighting poverty. That alone is way too big for people to understand. Finding your authentic need within that issue means addressing the best possible solution for that problem today.

West’s Invisible Children team would create campaigns based on the answer to one question: ”What is the greatest need of this issue right now?”  At first, the greatest need was in keeping resources in central Africa to fight the LRA; they did that by drawing attention to the issue with a film, #KONY2012.

But this approach also let them know when their mission was off. When they couldn’t figure out how to genuinely talk about their mission, they would recalibrate. So when they realized that awareness was no longer making the most impact, their mission pivoted and they focused on developing a communication network throughout the region where this rebel group was acting so people could get information about what was happening in real time.


2. Show and tell, emphasis on the show.
Millennials are savvy, especially when it comes to marketing. And they are super aware that marketers have studied them to death and keyed in on the idea that they like causes. This makes Millennials skeptical, especially so of any organization claiming to do social good.

“A lot of people are cause marketing and ‘talking the talk.’ Now Millennials want to see that people are ‘walking the walk,’” said West. This means you can’t just tell these people you are doing something good, you have to show them the good you are doing again, and again, and again.


3. We’re busy. Simplify it.
The issues that nonprofits address are complicated. It’s easy to over explain your organization’s cause or mission. Big mistake with Millennials.

And before you go there, it has nothing to do with Millennials short attention span. They don’t have short attention spans. They have too little time and too many messages being thrown at them. But you can help them out.

“Don’t be afraid to speak in short, brief, simple messages upfront and then create an opportunity for your Millennials to learn,” said West. “Nonprofits often have complex problems and complex solutions…but if you are trying to give clarifications and qualifications upfront, you will lose [Millennials] before you even had a chance to grab their interest.”

West notes that Invisible Children was criticized for how it simplified the problems addressed in #KONY2012. But she stands by the approach of drawing in viewers with a simple and (this is important!) emotional story and credits it for the film’s virality.


4. But leave us a trail…we are information hounds.
Millennials love to dig in to a topic that interests them…you just have to interest them first. So start simple, but create a lot of layers of information that they can discover at their own pace.

“If you went on a date with someone and you started just dumping all of your baggage and nuanced information on him or her, at the first coffee, they wouldn’t come back for a second date,” explains West.

And just as you learn more about someone the more dates you go on, Millennials like to learn and love something in their own way and on their own timeline. “You can’t expedite or bully it,” she said.


5. Don’t create victims.
“There are some really dark things [out there] and we’re bombarded with them all the time, but we have to – in our storytelling and our messaging – find a way to show resiliency of the people we are supporting.”

So talk about the people you support like they are your friends, not like they are faceless victims.


6. Don’t leave us hanging.
“Never key up Millennials with a tragic story without giving them something to do that is impactful,” advises West. “There’s nothing more deflating for a Millennial than being told something and then being left high and dry with it.”

Even if you are asking for a donation, don’t just leave it there, advises West. Millennials are a curious lot. Let them know why they should give to your organization, what their money will do, and how their dollars are going to impact the issue.

“And, if you can’t show that, then you need to work on your mission and your metrics.”


7. We’re not stuck to our screens.
Yes, Millennials love their screens. But they don’t live their entire life online. Believe it or not, a lot of them actually like to have social interactions offline, in the real world.

“Millennials want powerful shared experiences. They are all about experiences. When you have those shared experiences offline, you’d be able to have much richer experiences online.”

Real-world events are super important for organizations that want to connect with Millennials, explains West, who talked about regular events she put on with Invisible Children.

“[Those events] helped to drive our authentic messaging because we were having to say our message to people’s faces…Once you meet that donor, who gives $50 a month, then you think about them when you send those emails. You think so differently about what you’re saying,” West said. “That’s a really powerful thing for anyone trying to communicate with Millennials because they want that authentic communication.”