The Power of Social Media: Influencing Purchasing Habits of Millennials by Xarielle Blanchette



Abstract: Research shows that online users, particularly millennials, are influenced by their peers who they can relate to. They are also more likely to support companies that give back instead of just make a profit. Research has also shown that millennials are more likely to purchase products or services that have a lot of peer recommendations.


This research paper will not only look at the how but why social media influences millennials’ buying habits. This will be done by examining ways in which social media is used by companies to target millennials and the reasoning behind why social media has so much power over the purchasing habits of millennials. In the end, ways in which brands can utilize social media sites to attract consumers to purchase their products or services will be discussed. Once social media is used effectively, it can be a powerful tool that has the potential to influence users. The researcher argues that the use of social media is one of the key ways to influence millennials to purchase a company’s product or service.


The paper is divided into five sections. The first section explores the characteristics of millennials and the events in their lives that shape their behaviors. The second section explores the phenomenon known as social media by defining what it is; then, the third section examines how it can be effectively used for marketing. The fourth section looks at the relationship between millennials and social media and how they have the power to influence peers through the social media platform. The last section ties the whole paper together by analyzing how all these factors, such as social media and the characteristics of millennials, can drive sales for a company.


Introduction


The introduction of the internet to the masses in the 90’s changed the way everyone communicates with one another. As a result, millennials, those persons that were born between 1981-1996, have become the unofficial experts when it comes to the use of the internet. This is because they learned to use it since they were at an impressionable age; while older generations would have had to deviate from their traditional methods of communication in order conform to the use of this new technology.


The internet essentially paved the way for the creation of what one knows today as social media, and it has been reported that by 2017, the number of social media users grew to about 81% of the U.S. population (Bradford, Harden, & Yen, 2018). This not only has allowed persons to communicate with their friends and family but has also created an avenue for businesses and brands to communicate with consumers and persuade them to support their businesses. It has been reported that 72% of millennials report buying fashion and beauty products based on Instagram posts (Arnold, 2017).


The influence of social media on millennials and their purchase decisions is something that the author has observed for quite some time and it has led one to wonder how and why social media is able to influence consumers. Companies that understand millennials and what motivates them have the power to influence millennials’ purchasing habits by effectively utilizing social media as part of the company’s marketing strategy.


Understanding Millennials


Millennials are often considered the experts on anything relating to the internet and social media because they grew up around the time the internet became increasingly popular. The key to understanding millennials is finding out what events or relationships played a role in shaping them into who they are and how they behave. Only then can one begin to figure out how social media influences millennials or whether it has no impact on them at all.


According to Howe & Strauss (2003) in a study based on Americans, millennials “expect technology to simply work.” Adopting new technology is very easy for them and they often look for ways to simplify technology. Howe & Strauss (2003) also characterize millennials as being special and sheltered. They claim this is because growing up, their parents would always treat them as important and were highly protective of them. It is claimed that because of this, millennials tend to have a sense of entitlement and confidence and expect frequent positive feedback.


Millennials are also characterized as high achieving and “focus on world achievement rather than personal development” (Howe & Strauss, 2003). Growing up, millenials were often pressured by parents to achieve success and avoid risks. However, they value their parents’ opinions (or any authoritative figure) in a high regard. It is also interesting to note that millennials are defined as being team-oriented and like working with others for the greater good. This team-oriented mindset causes them to be deemed a social generation as they love shopping and doing other activities with each other. This all goes back to the way that their parents and the community raised them by emphasizing collaboration. Howe & Strauss also stated that millennials are always looking for adventure; as they crave the joy of new discoveries (2003). They also stated that millennials are passionate about their values as their parents taught them that every voice matters.


It is these characteristics that help marketers to understand what drives millennials to behave a certain way and eventually leads them to buy certain things. Therefore, when targeting millennial consumers, a company’s social media marketing strategy should be aimed at building and strengthening relationships with millennials. Creating avenues for millennials to connect with peers and give feedback to the company are also good strategies. Companies that allow for this, make the millennial population feel as if their opinions matters, and this is important to millennials. Furthermore, this is what creates brand loyalty.


Social Media- Networking Platform or Marketing Tool?


“In 2008, only 24% of the U.S population had a social media profile. Fast forward to 2017 and the number of social media users drastically grew reaching 81%” (Bradford, Harden, & Yen, 2018). This phenomenon known as social media has quickly become a fundamental channel of communication within our society at large, throughout most of the world. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, social media is defined as “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).” Some examples of social media sites include Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, and Pinterest.


Almost everyone with access to the internet uses some form of social media to communicate, whether it be a mom messaging a daughter, a friend sharing photos from their latest summer vacation, or even companies connecting with their customers to inform them about what they offer. Originally, social media was just used for individuals to share their opinions on different things in the form of what one calls blogging (Keith, n.d.).


Overtime, businesses saw how beneficial social media could be to them and now use social media as a marketing tool for many companies. According to Ethel Lee of Turku University of Applied Sciences, “It appears that companies of all sizes have been translating their marketing approaches to the internet because of its accessibility to their target audience and the money required to do so” (Lee, 2013). It is the perfect way for businesses to reach their target market without spending millions of dollars on advertising on the television or in magazines.


It is reported that “college-aged students are among the most prevalent population segment to use social media sites to learn about products” (Bradford, Harden, & Yen, 2018). The idea that millennials value the opinion of others and enjoy collaboration is what makes the use of social media popular among this age group. As a result, social media has become a powerful marketing tool, which has made it easier for brands to constantly be on the forefront of people’s minds and perhaps influence consumer behaviors, especially millennials.


The Science Behind Social Media Marketing


According to Hannah Kuchler of Financial Times, London, estimates from Forrester Research indicates that “social media marketing spend in the U.S. is forecast to more than double to $18.7bn in 2019, from $8.2bn last year” (Kuchler, 2015). With the growing popularity of social media platforms, companies and marketing agencies now have to find a way to take advantage of these platforms that allow them to easily access consumers.


Companies have figured out how to target their consumers that use social media by tracking online users’ actions and compiling that information into a database (Hill, 2015). This online tracking is done either by canvas fingerprinting (an online tracking technique that allows websites to identify and track users by drawing data from the sites used) or cookie syncing (allows “entities” that are tracking you online to share information by sharing notes in an attempt to better tailor the site to you) (Hill, 2015). The data collected allows companies to profile users into behavioral categories to target users with relevant ads.


Another strategy used by marketers is scheduling their social media posts at a perceived optimal time of the day that will lead to high audience engagement. According to a Harvard Business Review study, “Research on circadian rhythms suggests that content platforms like CNN, ESPN, National Geographic, and others can enhance their profit by at least 8% simply by posting content following the biological responses of their audience’s sleep-wake cycles and targeting content types to when the audience is most naturally receptive to it” (Kanuri, Sridhar, & Yixing, 2018). This example clearly shows the effect social media content can have on sales.


As a result, simply creating a social media account for your business will not be effective unless the company employs a strategic approach to posting content. Companies that tailor their content to attract millennials (and their desires) are more likely to persuade them to purchase their products than a company that does not.


The New Marketing Experts- Millennials


“Engaging with millennials in a personalized, authentic way is the key to a successful marketing strategy” (Marks, 2016). As mentioned earlier, millennials are very team oriented and love working with other millennials which is why the strategy of using their peers as brand ambassadors is seemingly effective. The modern-day brand ambassadors that appear across all forms of social media are known as social media influencers.


It was reported by Rebecca McCuiston, senior vice-president of influencer marketing agency 360i that “92 percent of people trust word of mouth, according to a Nielson study and influencers help marketers gain word of mouth at scale” (Kuchler, 2015). When millennials are the ones telling other millennials about a product or service, they will listen because they can relate to them and trust them more as oppose to the idea of a big corporation trying to sell them something. Jason Stein, president of Laundry Service, a marketing agency in New York, says, “Brands that use Instagram photos in their email and Facebook campaigns see higher click through rates, engagement rates and conversions- getting customers to do or buy something after seeing an ad” (Kuchler, 2015). The more authentic a brand appears to be, the more likely it is for that brand to garner support from millennials and develop a sense of brand loyalty.


Therefore, companies can no longer exclusively approach marketing strategies internally. Seeking the feedback of millennials and encouraging this population to externally act as brand ambassadors is the most effective marketing strategy today.


Turning Social Media Posts into Sales


Once companies understand what motivates millennials, they are better able to predict consumer behavior (Danziger, 2004). In Danziger’s book Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need, her simplest answer was “Because they do need it!” (Danziger, 2004). In an attempt to satisfy their desires, consumers buy things they think they need. When online users constantly see ads for a product or service related to something they are interested in or a social media influencer whose opinion they value is constantly using said product or service, that sparks a desire in the consumer to attain what they are constantly seeing others use. Danziger also expressed that a person’s value system influences purchase decisions.


This goes back to the fact that millennials are passionate about their values and desire to “support brands who give back to society instead of just making a profit” (Marks, 2016). Millennials are a young and vibrant generation; therefore, “brands whose marketing strategies position their products as enhancements for experiences are the ones best received by millennials” (Marks, 2016). It is also claimed that a person’s spending is closely linked to their passion, value and personal tastes for specific products (Danziger, 2004). For example, a social media influencer travels to an exotic island, stays at a specific resort and shares their experience on social media via photos and videos. When ads about the same resort pop up on their social media feed, there is a great chance that a millennial planning their next vacation to the same exotic island will stay at the same resort they saw advertised on their social media several times. This is because they have now developed a sense of comfort, trust and familiarity with that resort.


Figure 1. Bar chart showing the percentage of social media users that make purchase decisions based on different actions on social media. Note: Retrieved from https://www.invespcro.com/blog/social-media-influences-purchase-decisions/

The data shows that sharing additional product information influences consumers most to make a purchase decision which strengthens the argument that millennials love when companies are transparent and authentic with them (Marks, 2016). Product recommendations also ranked high in the chart and this fact is true of millennial shoppers who often rely on peer recommendations (Arnold, 2017). This research is important because it specifically studies how social media influences the decisions of millennials. As this generation continues to gain financial independence, understanding their purchasing habits will continue to be an area of study.


Conclusion


Although the concept of social media marketing is not new, it remains a phenomenon to this day because of continued innovations in the information technology world, such as the creation of new social media apps and new features within the apps that aim to cater to the ever-changing needs of its users. As a result, there is still a need for continued research on the impact of social media on consumers. This paper examined how social media can be utilized to influence the purchasing habits of millennial shoppers.


No longer is social media used to simply communicate with family and friends. Companies are now striving to master the use of social media to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive online marketing world. The best way to maximize profits would be by first understanding millennial consumers, such as their characteristics and needs; then by tailoring social media posts to entice users to buying products or services being offered. Social media is indeed a powerful marketing tool that can be used to influence millennial consumers. Its impact is far-reaching, and it has definitely changed the dynamics of the marketing industry.


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