The motto of almost every publisher and media group, according to the speakers at last week’s Digital Media Strategies conference is “We must first and foremost understand our audience”.

An admirable sentiment with which we in the audience wholeheartedly agreed.

This was then followed by a barrage of crass generalisations from the speakers.

“All young people use is Snapchat” Johnston Press stated, “and they only respond to news with emojis at the end”.

Another speaker trotted out the age-old line that “The Millennial’s short attention span needs to be considered” in a digital strategy. So congratulations if you’re not old  and you’ve managed to read this far!

My favourite was from Hearst, who asserted that “Millennials just don’t shop in supermarkets any more”. If you’re under 30 and happen to see a Hearst employee in a supermarket, show them your shopping basket and point out that not only do you still have to eat, but that contrary to popular belief, we don’t live off take-away apps!

“Hearing a presenter declaring that all young people want to use is Snapchat was quite a shock” a fellow 25-year-old attendee stated. “To many in the audience it was humorous, but I’m sure that the few Millennials at DMS16 felt this to be, in some ways, a sign that there is a long way to go in understanding how young people consume news.

“Disproportionate ideas do not help bridge the fundamental gap between the majority of publications who have been around for a long time and young people.”

Ageist rhetoric

Perhaps as one of the mystical millennial breed I am particularly sensitive to the ageist rhetoric, although in conversations afterwards, a couple of people were fuming about outdated stereotypes used against generation X and Y too.

There was one exception. Mimi Turner from The LAD Bible gave a sensitive and well-informed breakdown of what drives their mostly-Millennial audience, and it wasn’t what any of us expected. Terrorism and global security are at the top of their minds, followed closely by employment, housing and male depression.

“By understanding what our audience care about, we can surface some really strong themes and content” Mimi explained, when delving into their digital strategy. Half of all British men and a fifth of British women in the 18-24 age bracket are engaged with the brand.

Mimi attributes the success partially to the way they approach conversations. “It’s not always what people are saying to us, it’s about what they’re saying to each other” she concluded.

The LAD Bible’s example is one we can all learn from. If publishers truly want to understand, engage and monetise their audiences, they need to start doing a darn sight better job of figuring out what they care about.

So why bother attempting to understand the Millennial audience at all? “You don’t spend any money, so why do you matter?” one attendee responded when I observed the lack of youthful input.

Ladies and gentlemen, sit tight.

A voice which needs to be heard

Firstly, technology has more or less levelled the playing field in the digital media industry. The fresh-faced 20-somethings on their first coffee run in all likelihood know just as much [about digital media] as those who have been in the industry for 40 years. Yes, the experience is lacking, but there’s an insight there; a voice which needs to be heard.

Secondly, we spend money! Just ask anyone at Netflix, iTunes or Spotify. The trick here is in convincing us that your content is valuable to us, and this can’t be done unless you understand what drives us.

The Millennial generation have grown up with phones at their fingertips, connecting with people all over the world and viewing life through a completely different lens. For the most part, they’ve never bought a print newspaper, don’t give a fig about brand loyalty and are growing up to have totally diverse habits of content consumption.

To top it off, more than half the world’s population are under 30. As Denise Law from The Economist pointed out in her presentation, digital has enabled them to reach out from their traditional “older male” print audience to diverse “intellectually curious” younger readers all around the world, and it’s paying off.

“Young people are natural innovators. Ultimately, we are the gatekeepers of 21st century journalism” another Millennial at the conference summarised.

Publishers, you are so close to nailing it. After overcoming the hurdles of changing internal culture, experimenting with platforms and battling with ad blockers, you’re all embracing the customer-centric membership models.

Don’t throw it away now by forgoing the chance to learn what those audiences, no, those individuals actually care about. Then, maybe just maybe, you can take my money.

*There are two definitions of ‘Millennial’ – those literally born in the millennium, and those who were born in the late 80’s/early 90’s and who have grown up with technology. The latter is the accepted definition in a workplace and industry context.

Esther Kezia Harding is a digital editor & designer at Page Lizard, a provider of digital services and technology to publishers, membership organisations and professional bodies. She regularly writes about technology, digital developments and their impact on the future of publishing.

Image used courtesy of Eric Sonstroem via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.