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Generational marketing explained: Everything you need to know

Marketers need to meet consumers on the platforms with which they are most comfortable, whether that be print, digital or a combination of the two.

Effective marketing strategies attract and engage the right person with the right message at the right time. This is especially true when marketing to people of different generations -- known as generational marketing.

With any type of marketing, the target audience is often a defined group within the total addressable market. And within those groups are subsets of these buyer personas.

For example, if a company offers a platform to connect school districts with quality substitute teachers, the target market is school administrators around the country. But within that market are several personas with different backgrounds and experiences. Some administrators may be well into their lengthy careers, whereas others are coming into these roles fresh out of college with a degree in educational administration. And the way businesses market to each of these personas matters, as each group uses different tools in their home and work lives.

When considering that the target market can span multiple generations, marketing teams are becoming savvier about how they develop campaigns for these different audiences.

What is generational marketing?

Generational marketing is when the target audience is segmented and targeted by generation, which is determined by the year in which they were born.

Despite commonalities across generations, each also has its own set of beliefs, preferences and shared experiences that influence the ways they think and act -- especially when it comes to making purchase decisions or how they interact with brands. Technological developments over time, financial stability and educational exposure all influence how these generations approach interactions.

The six main generations are the following:

  1. Silent Generation
  2. baby boomers
  3. Generation X
  4. millennials
  5. Generation Z
  6. Generation Alpha

Each generation has different attitudes, and it is their mindset that defines who they are as individuals and consumers. Some groups respond well to technology and innovation. Others prefer their comfort zone with products and services they desire to remain the same, with little change in the offerings or industries.

A generational marketing strategy should not be a company's sole approach to segmenting an audience. More traditional customer segmentation factors, such as geography, income, interests and behaviors, are still key attributes to successful persona-based targeting.

Generational breakdown

Generational marketing strategies were born when marketers realized that each age group responded to different messages on different channels. Each generation uses social media differently, and some have more brand loyalty than others.

Attempting to target all generations at once can result in ineffective marketing. The messaging may be too broad and may not resonate, removing the personalized experience that most people seek from a brand. Different messaging that meets the users where they are -- meaning the channels with which they engage -- is more likely to net better results.

While this approach is a more effective method, it is necessary to understand how to target each generation effectively.

Silent Generation

Years born: Before 1945

Characteristics: The Silent Generation is the oldest generation to market to. This audience is looking for products and services that make life easier. They are loyal to the businesses with which they spend money, and they value stability in that way. They also want respect and value relationships with those they do business with.

Marketing strategies: TV, print, radio and direct mail, such as postcards, newsletters and fliers.

Most responsive to: Simple, straightforward content and imagery that relates to the age group. This generation values family, community and respect.

Baby boomers

Years born: 1946-1964

Characteristics: Baby boomers grew up in a post-war time of economic growth. Given their age and time in the workforce, they have the most purchasing power and discretionary income. Baby boomers have lived much of their lives without modern technology but have embraced it with the use of social media, mobile devices and online shopping. They are motivated by good deals and can be loyal to brands from which they buy.

Marketing strategies: Traditional advertising, such as print, radio and TV; loyalty programs that drive toward in-store purchases and in-person interactions; and social media as an entry point into brand or product research and easy online shopping.

Most responsive to: Customer service and simplistic and easy-to-understand content.

Generation X

Years born: 1965-1976

Characteristics: Gen X is the smallest generation and grew up in a recession period. They are cautious with money and are more skeptical of brands. This generation is hesitant about change and innovation, preferring to stick with what they know. Gen Xers respond well to nostalgia and word of mouth and reviews from other users. They have also had modern technology for a good part of their lives.

Marketing strategies: Traditional advertising; loyalty programs; word of mouth, email and social marketing; and incentives, such as discounts, freebies and coupons.

Most responsive to: Honest and clear messaging, clear paths to purchasing, email marketing campaigns, customer service, offers and social media.

Millennials

Years born: 1977-1995

Characteristics: Millennials -- also known as Generation Y -- were the first generation to grow up with modern technology. It is the largest generation in history, so brands must market to a wider audience to build a large customer base. Millennials place importance on authentic brand messaging and seek out brands that support social and environmental causes. This generation relies on user-generated content and the value of word-of-mouth advertising. They prefer brands that offer lower prices rather than price drops from offers and deals.

Marketing strategies: Multichannel, user-generated content, influencer marketing, social media marketing and content marketing.

Most responsive to: Brands that support causes, social media marketing, reviews, honest brands, price-to-value ratio and digital marketing.

Generation Z

Years born: 1996-2012

Characteristics: Gen Z is the most diverse generation and the most tech-savvy. While many in this generation are still young, they hold a large amount of spending power. Gen Z values financial stability because of the stress they experience surrounding personal debt. They rely heavily on reviews and recommendations through social media more than other generations and engage with brands who use social selling techniques. Gen Zers are also less likely to sign up for loyalty programs, despite looking for ways to save money.

Marketing strategies: Influencer marketing, reviews, videos, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, mobile interactions, and social selling and advertising.

Most responsive to: Testimonial and influencer marketing, short videos, social and economic causes, and apps on smartphones.

Learn more here about how to market to Gen Z.

Generation Alpha

Years born: 2013-present

Characteristics: This is the youngest generation – and the next generation of consumers. The majority of Gen Alphas own a tablet, and they are influenced by social media. They also influence the purchasing habits of their parents – especially when it comes to food and drink.

Marketing strategies: At this point in time, marketers must consider the parents’ values and target Gen Alphas through social media and video marketing.

Bonus microgenerations: xennials and zillennials

With such a range of years that these generations cover, sometimes, a group of people are caught right in the middle. There is not a definitive line about where someone should fit, so a microgeneration is created.

Xennials

People born in the early millennial or late Gen X time frames make up the microgeneration of xennials. This group grew up with technology but did not have social media in their childhood and teen years. They were also more mature and aware of what was happening post-9/11 than most millennials who were barely teens at that point.

Years born: 1977-1985

Characteristics: Xennials value time as a luxury. Many are in jobs that require long hours, so mobile and easy-to-navigate customer experiences are key. They are not digital natives but adapted to technological advances and embrace the use of technology in their purchasing decisions. They can also be skeptical of the motivations or values of established industries, so transparency is appreciated.

Marketing strategies: Digital and traditional marketing; social advertising; subscription plans; revive or reintroduce old products or relate to old products; keep content relevant and up to date.

Most responsive to: Transparency, nostalgia, easy paths to purchase, subscription models, home delivery of big-ticket items, health and self-care.

Zillennials

People born in the early Gen Z or late millennial time frames make up the zillennial microgeneration.

Years born: 1993-1998

Characteristics: Zilliennials are frugal, have a strong work ethic but also want a better work-life balance than older generations. They were also raised to be practical and want to do meaningful work. An interesting fact about zillennials is they were alive when 9/11 happened but not old enough to know what was happening or details about it.

Marketing strategies: Social media marketing, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, text messages, short videos.

Most responsive to: Transparency, sustainable brands and special promotions.

Commonalities between generations

Despite the differences between generations, brands can take advantage of the commonalities of each generation. While companies may not use the same channels or messaging, the strategies can follow similar approaches.

For example, honesty and integrity are characteristics that consumers look for from brands across all generations. Being straightforward with messaging and offers results in a stronger relationship with the market.

Each generation also prefers personalized communications and experiences from brands with which they have relationships. There is a strong desire for one-to-one acknowledgement from advertisers. While not every channel appeals to each generation, email has been one that every group expects communications from.

Learn more here about how to create a multichannel marketing strategy.

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