In 2015, Millennials became the largest generational cohort in the US population and the largest generation in the US labor force. Research studies by the IBM Institute for Business Value, Google/Millward Brown Digital, Sacunas (now Merit), and SnapApp/Heinz Marketing have shown that Millennials are now playing significant roles in B2B purchase decisions. So it seems clear that we are in the early stages of a generational shift in B2B buying.

This generational shift raises an important issue for leaders of B2B companies:  Do the attitudes, preferences, and behaviors of Millennial B2B buyers require a different approach to marketing and sales? 

The popular view among industry pundits is that Millennial buyers have distinctive characteristics which require different marketing and sales methods and tactics. One recent research report emphatically stated that “the Millennial buyer is impacting the entire buying journey and the old marketing and sales tactics won’t work.”

In reality, many of the claims made about the attributes of Millennials are greatly oversimplified or just plain wrong. The global research firm Ipsos recently characterized Millennials as “the most carelessly described group we’ve ever looked at.” In a detailed analysis of Millennial attitudes and behaviors published earlier this year, Ipsos wrote, “Myths and misunderstandings [about Millennials] abound, with bad research jumping to general conclusions based on shallow caricatures about a group that makes up 23% of the population.”

Most researchers define the Millennial generation as individuals born from about 1981 through about 1997. The two other generational cohorts relevant to B2B marketing and sales professionals are Generation X and Baby Boomers. Generation X is typically defined as individuals born from 1965 through 1980, and the Baby Boom generation is defined as individuals born from 1946 through 1964.

Clearly, B2B marketing and sales professionals must recognize that Millennials have become active participants in the B2B buying process, and they must be prepared to engage Millennial buyers on their terms. But recent research has shown that Millennial B2B buyers are more like their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts than is usually recognized. To develop and implement effective strategies and programs, marketing and sales leaders must be able to separate Millennial myths from Millennial realities.

Millennial Myth vs. Millennial Reality

One of the most pervasive myths about Millennial B2B buyers is that they are digital addicts who prefer to do everything online. According to this myth, Millennials access and consume information primarily, if not exclusively, via digital channels, and they tend to view other means of communication with a certain degree of disdain.

Like many myths, this one has a basis in reality. Millennials are the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital technologies. Many Millennials have been using digital technologies since they were children or young teenagers. Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers, on the other hand, largely began using digital technologies in their everyday lives as adults. So, it’s probably accurate to say that, on average, Millennials are more comfortable and more proficient with some digital technologies than older generations.

But there is strong evidence that the “comfort and proficiency gap” has narrowed significantly. For example, the research by Ipsos found that large majorities of all three generational cohorts access the internet on a daily or almost daily basis, and that Gen X-ers are almost as likely as Millennials to use a smartphone to go online. Ipsos did find that Millennials spend considerably more time online on their smartphones than older generations, which indicates that the comfort gap hasn’t disappeared completely.

The Ipsos research demonstrates that members of all generations are now relying on digital technologies to obtain information and communicate. This isn’t something that’s unique to Millennials. The similarities between Millennials and Generation X are particularly relevant for B2B marketing and sales professionals because most of today’s B2B buyers will be found in these two generational cohorts.

Research also shows that Millennial B2B buyers, like older buyers, rely on non-digital sources of information to support buying decisions. In a recent survey of B2B buyers by the IBM Institute for Business Value, study participants were asked what sources of information they are most likely to turn to when researching a vendor’s products or services. The following table shows how nine sources of information (digital and non-digital) were ranked by respondents in each of the three generational cohorts:

As this table shows, the three research sources most preferred by Millennial buyers are all non-digital. In the study report, IBM suggested that one possible explanation for this somewhat surprising result is that Millennial respondents view online research as routine, and that they were focusing on sources of information that could provide richer insights about what it would be like to work with a particular vendor.

Ipsos addressed a similar issue in its research and found that the distinctive attribute of Millennials is that they typically draw on a broader and more varied pool of information resources than older generations. Millennials tend to seek out more sources of information, and they seem to be more comfortable than older generations at integrating information from multiple sources.

Two Key Takeaways

To sum things up, the idea that Millennial B2B buyers are digital addicts who prefer to do everything online is a myth. The evidence just doesn’t support it.

The available evidence does provide two key takeaways for B2B marketing and sales professionals.

  • First, it’s critical for B2B companies to provide marketing and sales content and messaging in digital form and to leverage digital channels to engage potential buyers. But this isn’t only because Millennials are now active participants in B2B buying decisions. The reality is, buyers of all ages now rely extensively on digital content and digital communication channels.
  • And second, it’s vital to remember that Millennial B2B buyers want to interact with a potential vendor in non-digital ways. Millennials may be “digital natives,” but at some stages of the buying journey, they value person-to-person interactions.
Top image courtesy of ITU Pictures via Flickr CC.

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