The Millennial Challenge

Research Points to Three Keys for Effective Communication

If you believe what you read, Millennials create no small amount of angst for managers. Much of what is written focuses on intergenerational differences in attitudes towards work-life balance, career advancement, organizational loyalty, etc. While understanding these issues is important, this type of thinking doesn’t always give us practical advice for how to communicate with this important part of our workforce.

In this short article, I’ll share a few insights that researchers have uncovered about Millennials’ expectations surrounding communication that should help managers and leaders connect with them. The aim is simple: create messages and materials that engage and persuade this important and growing segment of the workplace.

Born Digital

The advent of the personal computer is the key to understanding Millennials’ communication preferences. On one side of this seminal moment is Generation X and Baby Boomers; on the other side are the Millennials. Why is this important?

Consider some of the changes personal computers have brought to how we communicate:

  • Multi-Media Documents contain text, sound, images and video.
  • Hypertextuality  Documents can be supported with web-based                                                          information and applications through the hyperlink.
  • Virtual Editing Documents can be shared and edited without                                                          restrictions of place, time or even language.
  • Open Source Public editing, critiquing and sharing of content.
  • Mobility Anywhere, anytime personal communication.

Millennials were born into a world where reading and writing was learned on computers. They are digitally literate. Their first steps into communicating included playing, learning, socializing and working with computers. They are Digital Natives (Prenksy, 2001).

Baby Boomers and Generation X are certainly digitally competent; after all, they invented these technologies. But they became literate in a world of printed texts, face-to-face interaction and unidirectional broadcast media. These are Digital Immigrants. For them, multi-media communication is a second language.

As Digital Natives Millennials have different basic expectations. Effectively reaching them requires communicators to both understand and maximize their use of communication technologies. For some, this might include rethinking their entire communication approach. Researchers point to three specific insights into what Millennials expect from communication campaigns. Keeping these in mind will help employers reach this key part of the workforce.

Quality is a Must

Fair or not, your communication materials and methods are judged against every other communication touch point in this audience’s life.

Today anyone can build a beautiful, responsive website with a full array of features like video, built-in blogs, audio, full social media integration and more. And they can build it themselves for free. Technology has become easy and relatively inexpensive. It looks great and it works across multiple platforms. Can you say the same for all of your organizational collateral? The first rule of quality is seamless integration of great content with easy-to-use platforms.

Everyone enjoys beautiful design when they see it. Stunning photographs, the right font and a great layout can give someone a reason to engage with your materials. Spending the effort to design great communication collateral has always paid dividends. But it hasn’t always been necessary. What is different about dealing with Millennials is that they don’t distinguish the textual content from the visual content.

Research has shown that Millennials add to or detract from a message based upon production values. Where previous generations might enjoy the beautiful website or document, they really were “reading” a document for the information embedded in the text. Millennials are more likely to take in a document as a whole experience. This results in bad information being given more credibility by great design. And the reverse is also true: great information will not be recognized if it is surrounded by bad design.

Thus, employers must make certain print and digital collateral is of the highest quality. At a minimum, organizations make sure their communications meet the minimal threshold of common social media, commercial websites and other sources of information.

Go Anywhere

Maybe you’ve seen the ad where a man is watching a football game that seamlessly follows him from TV to TV to smartphone to laptop as he moves through his house, to his car and to his office. He never missed a minute of the game.

Many of us enjoy sharing articles, photos and videos with our friends. On any given day, I’ll access the same content on a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a 60” television. To me this is a wonder. But, like high-quality production values, this kind of platform and content flexibility is a given for Millennials.

They use mobile computing devices, like smartphones and tablets, at far greater rates than other generations. The Pew Research Institute tracked smart phone usage in 2014. Adoption was nearly 90% by Millennials in the United States, versus 58% for all Americans, and 49% for those over age 50.

And the way they use their devices is different. Millennials use mobile technology to gratify a myriad of personal uses that can often be very intimate to their selves. These uses include social connection, health monitoring, personal companionship, personal finance, information gathering, romantic connections and entertainment (Pearson, et al.).

We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they don’t leave these expectations at the workplace door. Millennials equate mobility with one of their key values — work-life balance. They expect the workplace to take advantage of computers’ ability to remove geographical and temporal barriers through telework and virtual organizational platforms that make their work lives better (Meyers & Sadaghiani).

Marketers have been tackling the problem of mobility as they try to reach audiences that can be anywhere at anytime. They use a strategy called Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) to reach Millennials in a fragmented media landscape (Smith). Emails, social media, websites and traditional ads work together but also separately to reach this audience in various situations. Messages are optimized to work on each platform but coordinated to drive the desired action.

Important workplace messages would benefit from an IMC approach to reaching Millennials (Owen). Fortunately, the access to affordable, easily configured technologies like social media, video, podcasts and apps has never been greater.

Opinions Matter

Unless you’ve attended college in the last decade you’re likely unaware of a website called It functions just like is sounds. Students “review” their professors based on a number of criteria including perceived fairness, difficulty and even “hotness”. The reviews on are highly subjective and even can be vindictive, but many students use the site to decide which classes to take. is a product of our time, where democratic, bottom-up, open source and uncensored opinion is a part of journalism, politics, business and our personal lives. This is social media.

The age of social media has coincided with the arrival of Millennials into the workforce. They are early adopters and avid users of all things social. They expect an opportunity for their opinion to be voiced (and want it to be heard). If such an opportunity doesn’t exist they’ll create one. Consider the implications of a

Both their own opinions and the opinions of their peers matter a lot to Millennials. In fact, Millennials often refrain from forming opinions unless they see those opinions validated by others via social media (Kim). Millennials both want their voices to be heard and are open to persuasion and social buy-in. This is a key to success for those organizations that use social media strategies to build consensus (Bradley & McDonald).

Social media is the most challenging aspect of Millennials’ communication expectations. It’s much more a management challenge than a technical one. Most organizations use a hierarchical, top-down management system that often insulates decision makers from those who implement their directions. Millennials are often resistant to this structure.

Instead, they are comfortable with open, often public communication because they are conditioned by social media to enjoy interaction between themselves and large brands, political leaders and opinion leaders in an open forum (Meyers). While many, if not most, organizations are uncomfortable with an open approach to communication and find the suggestion of providing a platform for employees to freely voice their opinions and concerns very disturbing.

Still, the upside for employee attraction, innovation, engagement and retention might soon push more employers to adopt internal social media strategies around various initiatives. For example, Smith’s consultants have seen dramatic benefits arising when clients have integrated focused social media into wellness programs.

Tomorrow Today

The challenges organizations face when engaging Millennials today are producing the standards for employee outreach and education tomorrow. High production values, flexible delivery platforms and open engagement will continue to be touchstones of great communication both inside and outside of the workplace in the coming years.


Bradley, A. J. & McDonald, M.P. (2011) The Social Organization: how to use social media to tap the collective genius of your customers and employees. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press

Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2014–  2019

Kim, Ji Won. (2014, February). Scan and Click: The uses and gratifications of social             recommendation systems. Computers in Human Behavior. 33, 184-191. 

Myers, Karen & Sadaghiani, Kamyab. (2010, March). Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’ Organizational Relationships and Performance. Journal ofBusiness Psychology. 25, 225-238.

Owen, R. & Humphrey, P. (2009, July). The Structure of Online Marketing Communication Channels. Journal of Management & Marketing Research, 2,  54-62.

Pearson, Judy C., et al.(2010). Motives for Communication: Why the Millennial Generation uses Electronic Devices. Journal of the Communication,  Speech and Theatre Association of North Dakota. 2, 45-56.

Pew Research Center. (2014). Mobile Technology Fact Sheet.

Prensky, Marc. (October 2001). “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”. On the Horizon 9 (5): 1–6.

Smith, Katherine. (2012). Longitudinal study of digital marketing strategies targeting Millennials. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 29.22, 86–92.


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