Are Gen Y’s “Mistakes” a Marketing Research Opportunity?


By Greg Heist, Vice President, Research Innovation, Gongos, Inc.

Recently, a blog post entitled, “Two Common Mistakes of Millennials at Work,” (by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management) caught my eye.

In the post, McAfee points to two mistakes Gen Y (aka Millennials) employees make: Oversharing (freely sharing minute details of their lives in social media, because, after all, if they think it, it MUST be important) and Egalitarianism (“Acting as if all employees are equals, and equally interested in airing the truth” and being indifferent–or hostile–to hierarchy and assuming their opinions are, from Day One, as valid as senior members of an organization).

During my first reading of the post, I of course thought about the implications of this from a company perspective. I chuckled as I read it, since it reassured me that, as an “old” Gen Xer, I’m not alone in seeing Gen Y as a different breed altogether.

On subsequent readings, I moved on to think about how Gen Y could change the face of marketing research in the decades to come. I’d like to re-frame the main points McAfee makes in the context of what it could mean for the MR industry.

Spoiler Alert: This could usher in an entirely new era of marketing research, with a big ‘ole if…

Let’s start with the first “mistake”: Sharing. Way. Too. Much. If you have friends on Facebook, under the age of 30, you know what I mean. At any given moment, you can know where they are, what they are thinking, what they are eating, reading and watching. Growing up in the age of the Internet, Gen Y clearly has a very different view of self-disclosure.

From an MR perspective, this is almost like stepping into Nirvana, since capturing these kinds of minutiae can form the fabric of rich insights into Gen Y’s thoughts, motivations and behavior. Assuming if—and this is the big if—we can gain their attention and engage them, we can envision a new era of research that provides a deep and holistic perspective of Gen Y as a consumer.

If the first point speaks to the depth and breadth of what Gen Y will share, the second point (Egalitarianism) speaks to the forcefulness with which they will speak their mind. While seen as brash and audacious in a work setting, this sense of the inherent value of their opinion is yet another potential boon to market research — both now and in the future. In a focus group, I want that kind of passion for ideas, even when the rest of the group feels the opposite way. Multiply that passion and assertiveness to the “power of Gen Y” and the MR industry will need to invent new technology just to deal with the tidal wave of opinions and ideas flowing its way.

However, there’s a big, fat IF here worth restating: if we can get their attention and truly engage them. The flip side to this passionate articulation of their inner lives is that traditional research methods may be increasingly useless in the future.

This is truly the generation that grew up not knowing what life was like before the Internet.  They’d rather text than talk.  Tweet than meet.  Oh and by the way, they multitask on a level that is staggering – online, texting, watching TV and homework (and more!) simultaneously.

With that as the backdrop, we as researchers need to meet them where they are and engage them in a way that is comfortable and familiar to them: Short, to-the-point mobile surveys instead of 30 minute “browser busters.” Virtual video groups and interactive projective exercises instead of waiting rooms, one-way mirrors and cut-and-paste collages. Texts and push notifications to invite their opinion rather than email or–shudder!!–a phone-based screener. The list goes on and on…

In short: yes, Gen Y could help usher in a vibrant future for the market research industry. But, only if we innovate aggressively to tap into the fire hose of information that will otherwise be pointed away from us.