The long and short of it: Yes, Millennials pay attention

Common theme: Millennials are a diverse group -- but they can all handle more than 140 characters at a time, suggests media maestro David Chauvin.
By DAVID CHAUVIN //

Of all the misconceptions about Millennials – a group that will comprise 50 percent of the workforce by 2020 – the one that annoys me most is that the generation possesses a gnat-like attention span.

This stereotype is nonsense, to put it bluntly. As much as I loathe the misconception, however, I see why people believe it. Millennials are, after all, the generation of Twitter, Vine (RIP) and bite-sized viral Facebook videos.

It’s inaccurate to believe that the popularity of these media over the last decade indicates eroded attention spans. Brevity is not the same thing as indifference. Nonetheless, the popularity of short and easily sharable content has led communications professionals to shape entire campaigns around 140 characters (or 280) and 15-second soundbites.

Now, there are signs that long-form content is coming back in vogue – and brands, marketers and media professionals must be ready.

First, some clarifications. There’s no widely accepted definition of what constitutes the differences between “long form” and “short form.” For our purposes, think of any article over 300 words or any video over 2 minutes as “long.”

So why are communication campaigns built around long-form collateral becoming better suited to address the tastes, sensibilities and – gasp! – attention spans of Millennial audiences, and younger?

Well, consider some of the conceptions about the Millennial generation that hold true. Millennials are more educated than prior generations; by some statistics, they are the most educated generation in U.S. history, with anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of Millennials possessing college degrees.

Millennials are also extremely well-read, particularly compared to elder generations, with research suggesting that around 80 percent of Millennials have read at least one book in the past year.

David Chauvin: More than one way to market to Millennials.

Younger Americans, having come to age in post-9/11 America and during the Great Recession, tend to be more socially conscious and frugal, but data indicates that up to 75 percent of Millennials are willing to pay more for socially conscious and sustainable brands (though, to be fair, it’s usually true that all generations, in their younger iterations, tend to be more socially and politically active).

And, unsurprisingly, Millennials are attached to their devices. Approximately 94 percent of the generation owns a smart phone, and studies suggest they aren’t using them inanely: Millennials are insatiable consumers of news and content.

But it’s consumed differently. According to the American Press Institute, “news and information are woven into an often continuous but mindful way that Millennials connect to the world, which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment.”

In other words, technology has made it unnecessary to sit down and read the newspaper cover to cover; news and information are all around us, at all times.

This all makes a pretty compelling case for long-form as a preferred style of communication for Millennial constituents. It makes sense; Millennials have grown up with the entirety of the world’s information quite literally in the palm of their hands, thereby developing a taste for experience and a thirst for knowledge, with an unlimited timeframe to learn.

Short-form content is a useful tactic to get attention when the platform and situation call for it. But prioritizing short bursts of information above all other modes of communication is an insult to the intelligence.

Think of Millennials’ relatively high literacy levels as a benefit. Audiences can understand complex messaging better than ever before, so take advantage of this with longer, more creative and more ambitious content. An intense devotion to smart devices may, on the surface, indicate a short and scattered attention span, but a slightly deeper dig reveals a great opportunity for communicators.

Can’t get enough: For Millennials, the news never stops.

Think about this: The average consumption of news has risen more than 20 percent over the past three years. Surveys by McKinsey & Company suggest that the increase is driven almost entirely by people 35 and under, thanks mostly to the Internet.

With an audience that devoted to consuming, why wouldn’t you stretch out your messaging and give readers, listeners and viewers something to dig their teeth into? It simply doesn’t make sense to give 15-second snippets to an audience willing to give you 8 percent of its day.

It can be difficult to let your consumers know who you really are in a series of tweets or micro-videos. Long-form content lets your audiences into your culture, and statistics back up that this can be a very good thing for your brand.

And since many Millennials prefer experience over possessions, communicators should expand their creative output to satisfy the diverse interests of these consumers. Your content shouldn’t only be determined along long- and short-form terms – there are innumerable ways to tell a story.

The New York Times has catered to expanding Millennial interests by utilizing all forms of storytelling in compelling long-form content, from investing heavily in podcasts to producing a television show for FX and Hulu. These new storytelling platforms provide deeper context to reporting, allowing consumers to better understand the importance of a story, which is essential in today’s ever-changing news cycle.

Let’s be clear: Millennials are a large and diverse group, and any attempt to make definitive blanket statements about the generation is a fool’s errand. But years of research – both analytical and anecdotal – give us insight into some generalizations about Millennial preferences, and help us shift our communications strategies accordingly.

Know your audiences, and be prepared to give them in-depth, professionally made long-form content when appropriate. As with all things, balance is key.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of Great Neck-based public relations firm Zimmerman/Edelson Inc. and former director of communications for the Town of North Hempstead, among several government positions.