You know that doctor friend of yours that couldn’t enjoy Grey’s Anatomy? Or the police officer that audibly groaned when the team on CSI poured plaster into a stab wound to make a cast that matched the murder weapon? That’s how I feel when I see most social ads. I scroll and I shout “that’s not how you’re supposed do that!” Amongst this blog’s audience, I know I’m not alone.

We spend our days working with brands to develop real and authentic messages, experiences, and products that help connect them with their ideal audience. I happen to be a frequent member of those audiences. I was born almost smack dab in the middle of the twenty year span between the early 80s and early 00s, so fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on which thinkpiece made the rounds that week – I get the “millennial” label. A label that gets me the full firehose from my fellow marketers.

Why do my social feeds make me feel like a doctor watching an episode of House? It’s because I constantly see brands wasting their time and their money broadly talking to millennials instead of trying to understand the individuals behind the label.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I understand how the millennial craze caught on. Appealing to young customers is a common strategy for a reason. They often spend more than they save and have the potential to become lifelong customers. With the latest iteration of young people, we can tack on a few more tendencies such as a tendency to prefer the sharing economy over ownership, valuing experiences over tangible goods, and a strong digital literacy. Thus, I can’t go a day without seeing the world millennial forced into countless headlines.

But despite the term ‘millennial’ being shiny and new, it’s a relic from an outdated way of thinking. Those traits we listed above can be the basis of a great user or customer, but the only thing that actually defines a millennial is their age. If your strategy makes your customer’s age its core goal instead of their actual behaviour, then you haven’t moved out of the era where Nielson demographics suggested there were only four types of people in the world. We should do better. We can.

Finding your Audience

Aaliyah once sang “age ain’t nothing but a number” and she was onto something. Interests, relationships, locations, and a whole litany of trackable behaviours are all going to paint a much clearer picture of your users. Filling up your canvas starts with primary research, and lots of it.

Get out there and talk to current and potential users. At Invoke, this research gives us the base from which we develop effective strategies. We work with our partners to generate lists of actual and potential customers and their traits. Then, a combination of surveys, one-on-one interviews, and workshop sessions help us refine who we’re talking to, who we want to talk to, and how we can do it.

If you haven’t done intense user research before, no sweat. The team at usertesting.com – a very useful tool – has put together this guide to get you started.

Taking the Stage

As digital marketers, we have unprecedented control and tracking over who sees our content and where they are seeing it. With the level of specificity available in ad targeting systems, digital marketers can’t in good conscience espouse the benefits of ad targeting and still pretend that “millennials” holds any meaning.

Want to learn how to reach out to people with specific interests on Facebook? You can do that. More interested in people talking about your industry on Twitter? Yup, you can do that too. What about people living in the ephemera on Snapchat? Give them ten seconds of your time now. That’s all going to be a much better indication of who they are than the fact that they were born in 1987.

This targeting means you won’t be wasting impressions on people that don’t care. Instead, you make an impact by showing relevant content. To reiterate advice you’ve surely seen before: just don’t be too relevant. We want to be helpful friends, not all-knowing deities. Successful engagement strategies don’t start with “make everyone feel creeped out”.

Don’t Leave the Youngsters Out

After all your research and test campaigns, you may find that the services and products your brand produces may still appeal almost exclusively to a young audience. That’s fine, we’re not trying to exclude them, we just need to focus on the specific people that want to hear from us.

If we fall for too many articles that tell you “what millennials like” then we risk forgetting what our actual audience likes. Looking at overall numbers might tell you that millennials are more likely to use Snapchat, but why should you care? What are your millennials doing? Figure that out and you’ll know where you can reach the right people, and how to talk to them.

I’ve seen the results of this offline too. Personally, I run a weekly comedy show here in Vancouver where I have the benefit of literally seeing every face that walks through the door. How’s that for analytics?

About 90% of our audience lands between the ages of 22-32, the coveted millennial. The decades-old approach would be to target our marketing efforts at people in that age range, but that would’ve failed us. If we had set an age range of “22-30” on our Facebook ads, we would’ve missed out on our single biggest fan: a guy in his late 40s. Over the last year and a half of weekly shows this guy has only missed four of them. Four. A bunch of people in our audience may have their age in common, but every single member of our audience cares about comedy. That’s what brings them together and identifies them, not their age.

With the right research, you can learn these things about your users. Consider your users. When you figure out not only the core passions that directly relate to your business, but also the common interests they share beyond that, you can craft the right message for every segment of people you are targeting. The kind of message that they can connect and identify with.

So stop thinking about age and start thinking about what actually defines your users. If all you think about is millennials, you’ll never find your target audience. If you’re having trouble forgetting about them, this Chrome extension will change every mention of millennials to “snake people”. You’re welcome.