Empathy & Authenticity: Reaching The Millennial Generation Through Social Media

I’m one of them  —  a millennial.

You know who we are. The self-absorbed “me” generation expected to have neck problems from looking at our phones all day long. Born in 1990, I’m roughly smack dab in the middle of the 1982–2002 birthdate range of the generation with a bad rap.

So when I was asked to deliver a presentation about how to connect with millennials through social media, I did a very millennial type of thing: I Googled. And, to little surprise, these were the types of articles that came up.

How Millennials Are Ruining The Workforce.

Why Are Millennials So Hard To Manage?

Martha Stewart Still Confused About What Millennials Are Exactly.

You and me both, Martha. It’s as if a millennial is some form of wild thing that must be tamed. But I’d like to think my generation has more merit than that, so I set out in search of data and learned that millennials are doing much more than watching cat videos on their devices. From what I uncovered, I’ve developed a strategy for how to captivate millennials’ attention through social media.

Be Brief.

We live in a tl;dr world (i.e., “too long; didn’t read”). It’s well known on Reddit that a large chunk of text ought to be accompanied by an abbreviated tl;dr synopsis. Because if you don’t, well, ain’t nobody got time for that.

And the underlying reason is not that the millennial generation is lazy and uninterested. We are multitaskers by choice. The Nielsen/Norman group studied millennial computer activities and discovered the following pattern for one particular user: they spent the first five minutes alternating quickly between unrelated activities and then began to work on an academic paper for class — while simultaneously watching Netflix.


This common Internet behavior pattern suggests that a vast range of content is constantly competing for our attention and, at times, overwhelming our brain processing power to the point that we abandon content altogether because we simply lack the brain power to process everything at once. As content creators, we have to minimize the cognitive load of our messages to maximize usability and improve the user experience. Cognitive load is a term coined by psychologists to refer to the mental effort required to learn new information. The same way a computer slows down when too many programs are running at the same time, human brains also have a limited amount of processing power. And when it takes too long to handle the amount of information coming in, we miss important details or even simply abandon a task. Short text captions and graphics with few to no words are easier to process and therefore less likely to be dismissed.

Be Real.

We have trust issues.

An Elite Daily survey of millennials indicates that our generation values authenticity above other factors when it comes to consuming content online. Why? Millennials report low levels of social trust. Unlike generations before us, we grew up alongside digital technology and did not have to adapt.

We gravitate toward content that feels like it came from a person, not a brand.

User Generated Content

Millennials have come to trust the collective wisdom of the crowd. A 4.5/5 star average rating from 133 people just like us holds more weight than a carefully crafted sponsor ad that we know you paid to place directly on our demographic’s newsfeed. We’re “motive aware” and we place most of our trust in our closest networks of friends and family. In fact, we trust UGC 50% more than traditional media.

Because of this distrust, brands have an opportunity to build trustworthy relationships by allowing UGC to express their brand authentically. Instagram and Snapchat lend well to showcasing UGC through takeovers and content curation. On Snapchat, brands are hosting takeovers that allow a member of the audience’s peer group to take the reigns and represent the brand from a first-person perspective. Curating users’ Instagram photos is another mechanism for spreading authentic messages without a semblance of ulterior brand motivation. People trust people more than they trust brands.

Live video is all the rage right now, and I attribute its success to authenticity. That person talking on camera? They might mix up their words or trip and fall, and that’s real life. Heavily produced videos, while effective in different ways, are not authentic and it shows.

Be Relevant.

There’s a lot of different voices on the Internet, and they’re all so loud.

Everybody wants somebody to listen. Amidst all the commotion, we behave as though we have to scream to be heard when all we really have to do is whisper something meaningful.

And how do you know what’s meaningful to the largest, most diverse generation?

The economy of our upbringing has led to a non-linear lifestyle. We’re a generation that no longer reaches major life milestones in a prescribed order, and we’re all struggling to formulate unique identities. So we love social media because we can choose any identity we want and even construct different identities on different platforms. It’s all about personal branding. And brands play a significant role in how a millennial identifies within their current stage of life, whether it’s through the clothes they wear, the college they attend, or the music they listen to.

Online Behavior

A brief understanding of online millennial behavior is also necessary for knowing whether your content is relevant or not. The uses and gratifications theory suggests that people seek out media for these primary reasons: social interaction (88%); information seeking (80%); pass time (76%); entertainment (64%); and relaxation (60%). But these gratifications vary depending on the social platform. The PewResearch Center’s roundup of social media use across platforms illustrates that people stumble across news on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, while LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit users seek out information intentionally.

Users who get news when they’re doing something else online (left) versus those who find news because they’re looking for it (right).
Information Seeking
Users who get news when they’re doing something else online (left) versus those who find news because they’re looking for it (right).

Be Shareable.

Assuming you’ve established some sort of relevancy and have begun the slow process of building a relationship of trust, it’s safe to say things between you and the millennial are getting pretty serious.

As digital natives, our generation is sensitive to the idea that what we share is a reflection of ourselves, and it’s a brand’s responsibility to equip its followers with an identity that fits into their personal brand. A share  —  algorithmically and realistically  —  is a heftier action than a like or a comment. But what instigates a share? In Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, he discusses the idea that certain emotions drive people to share  —  especially emotions with high levels of physiological arousal. But it’s not just positive emotions, like awe, excitement, and amusement. It’s also anger and anxiety that activate people and drive action. Take this into account when determining whether to publish content that could generate strong feelings of dissatisfaction among your audience.

Be brief and you might be seen. Be relevant and you might capture attention. Be real and you’ll start to build trust. Be shareable and others will advocate for your brand.

To reach the millennial generation, we  —  as content creators  —  must embrace the inward/outward juxtaposition of empathy and authenticity, harnessing our abilities to take in the emotions and experiences of the millennial generation and therefore give out meaningful social experiences.