A New Era in Social Media? Why Millennials Aren’t Sharing Anymore

Recently, my entire class of undergraduates told me they don’t post on social media anymore.

Slowly, quietly, and without anyone really noticing, Millennials have stopped using social media the way they’re supposed to.

There’s no disagreement about which social media platforms Millennials are — and are not — using. Most of them have Facebook, but it’s not a place to share thoughts and updates ad nauseam anymore. Instead, they’re using Instagram, Snapchat, and other channels where grandparents and prospective employers can’t spy on them. There’s plenty of demographic data out there that illustrates this point.

What’s less obvious is their behavior on these platforms. For instance, Pew research tells us that 88% of Millennial-aged U.S. adults use Facebook, and 59% use Instagram. But what that data doesn’t tell you is they don’t post personal content to either channel very often, if at all.

I sort of stumbled upon this in my first class of the semester, teaching social media to undergrads at Xavier University. The class of thirty was paired up and each student was told to research their partner on social media and then introduce them to the class. As the students shared their findings, I was pretty shocked to discover that no one posts anything original to their social media accounts. Instead, they follow other accounts and occasionally share stuff… But they don’t actually share their own thoughts or photos. I thought, Wait a minute. Can this be true? And they all nodded their heads.

After further discussion and reflection, I felt compelled to share some of these students’ thoughts, and some of my reactions.

Why Millennials Don’t Share Status Updates Anymore

A major driver: Competition.

There’s so much pressure to publish content that generates a lot of likes and comments…so much that many people would rather not post at all. The bar has been set so high — by everyday users, by influencers, by brands — that they’re no longer confident in their ability to craft amazing content.

Another big reason: Being present.

A Millennial expert friend of mine said it well:

"While the Internet is a beautiful place for many things, it can’t replace human touch and physical support when it’s needed. We are remembering that it’s important to experience things with our friends in the wild as well as the web." -Savannah Peterson

Believe it or not, consciously deciding to experience something with the people around you is often more gratifying than posting about it online. And Millennials are figuring this out. My students asked me, “Why would I post about something I’m doing when my friends who would see the post are experiencing it with me?”

This decline in sharing has been reported from time to time, notably in April of last year, when leaked Facebook data revealed there’s been a decline in personal updates on the platform:

"Facebook has been struggling to reverse a 21% decline in ‘original sharing,’ or personal updates, from its 1.6 billion monthly active users."

But this behavior goes beyond Facebook. Millennials are Tweeting and Instagramming less, too. (At least according to my student focus group.) This trend shows that there’s something bigger happening here.

"Millennials have come to learn about social media’s less positive impacts, and that in turn changes their attitudes and behaviors." -Dennis Devlin

Social media users (especially young people) are moving away from public broadcasts that “live online forever,” leave you open to abuse, and let Mom, Dad, your boss, the neighbor, your teachers and the guy down the street know exactly what you’re up to. Simultaneously, this has led to an increase in the attraction of smaller, closed networks such as private Facebook groups, direct Snapchats, Snapchat groups, protected Instagram feeds, and messaging apps like WhatsApp, FB Messenger and GroupMe.

As a social media marketing professional, the obvious question becomes, how does this impact brands who are spending lots of time and money marketing on social media?

How Brands Can Cater to Millennials’ Social Media Preferences

In order to win attention and loyalty from Millennials on social, brands need to pay more attention to popular and emerging one-to-one social media avenues. At first glance this might sound impossible (or even unethical), but there are actually a number of legit ways to present your brand in these forums.

#1. Activate your fans with engaging offline experiences

"It makes more sense to invest in creating experiences that people will talk about within their own networks instead of wasting time talking about yourself. Your fans already know you’re awesome." -Autumn Heisler

Autumn, my partner in crime at dooley media, nailed it: Instead of talking at your fans with tons of promotional material, sometimes it’s best to create magical moments for them to experience and love — then sit back and let them do the talking (posting) for you.

In order to win big on social media, I believe you have to BE a social organization. The way you do business needs to invite people in, to make them want to be a part of your movement, and to compel them to bring others along for the ride.

There are tons of ways to do this. On one side of the spectrum, there are relatively simple ways to encourage social interactions:

● Include social icons and hashtags on your packaging

● Set up a photo booth at your event

● Ask your email list to share their experience online

● Launch a contest where you reward people who use your hashtag on Instagram

● Give customers insider-access or sneak peeks to your store/factory/kitchen/etc. (Photos encouraged!)

A next-level approach would be to give your fans the inputs to create and share content on their own. How? One great way to encourage social sharing is through a sponsored Snapchat geofilter. This is an inexpensive and fun way to let your customers share their experience with their network in the way they want. Taco Bell, a hit with Millennials, is a force to reckon with on Snapchat. The brand’s sponsored Cinco de Mayo lens let users turn themselves into a taco. Simple idea, but hilarious. And it earned over 200 million views. This approach works especially well for Millennials who would rather post on their controlled Snapchat stories versus public Facebook Newsfeeds.

But the gold medal in crafting a social-optimized brand goes to Patagonia. Sure, donating their Black Friday sales gets them a lot of attention, but their fans buy into it because Patagonia’s business philosophy, their people and their 100-year outlook is what KEEPS people’s attention and KEEPS them talking. There’s a reason why they only spend one-half of one percent of their revenue on marketing. People believe in Patagonia. From the beginning, it’s been a brand focused on crafting high-quality products that their customers want. Their love of nature and compassion for people comes through in every aspect of the brand, and its customers are proud to be part of that community. So it’s no wonder they lead their industry on social. (This episode of the How I Built This podcast shares Patagonia’s story in greater depth.)

#2 Provide content for them

If Millennials are nervous about posting content that they’re afraid won’t meet the standards of the channel, then brands can provide a solution to that problem by doing the hard work of creating great content for them!

One example I love is the promotion of Season 2 of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black.

By hosting a Twitter event, creating a hashtag for one of the characters, and giving great, shareable content to fans through a custom app, the campaign earned 98,407 social mentions in one week before the Season 2 premiere, with 98% of them positive.

What do your customers love about your brand? What does buying into your brand say about them as a person? Find creative ways to deliver content that lets your fans express these feelings, then invite them to share.

#3. Influencers

"Millennials won’t follow Under Armor but they will follow Steph Curry wearing his Under Armor shoes." -Kendra Ramirez

When I posted on Facebook (yeah, I still use it!) about the experience I had with my social media students, my connections shared a lot of great feedback and ideas. I love Kendra’s comment about her children because it illustrates perfectly one of the best ways to interact with Millennials on social: influencer marketing.

This approach is not limited to just those brands who can afford NBA star endorsements. In fact, any brand can afford to take a micro-influencer approach to social media marketing by asking existing customers and fans to participate in their marketing campaigns. I asked my students, and they said they’d absolutely participate in a campaign as long as the reward matches the effort.

To get your own micro-influencer campaign started, research the popular Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter accounts in your community. This could include anyone from a high school fashionista with a couple hundred local Instagram followers, to the local Mom-blogger with a couple thousand Pinterest fans who shares recipes and travel advice. Reach out to the appropriate people and start a conversation about your goals, their approach to social media, and how you could best reward them in return for a few authentic, branded posts.

If you find the right influencers, the content posted by these third party partners will be ripe for Millennial re-sharing (since it’s not worth the pressure for them to create posts themselves!).

#4. Facebook Groups

“Facebook is often used by us mainly for its group functionality. I know plenty of classmates who only go on Facebook to check the groups they are part of and then quickly log off.” -Andrew Watts

If you had Facebook in college, you know that one of the best utilities of the platform is the ability to keep people in your student org/dorm hall/class group/etc. updated on important activities through a closed Facebook group. Beyond university halls, there are thousands of groups out there, from photography lovers, to local parents, to neighborhood watches and more, and they are really popular places to connect with like-minded people on the channel.

The difficulty for brands who want to reach people through Facebook groups is that they’re limited to personal profiles, meaning company pages can’t join them. But you can join them as yourself — and so can the influencers you’re tapping to spread your message for you.

Which Facebook Groups are active in your local community? Or maybe your audience congregates on other channels like Reddit, Ello, Medium, or LinkedIn? If you can authentically communicate brand messages in these targeted forums, you could soon see BIG results.

#5. Ads

Finally, paying to play is sometimes the best bet when it comes to social marketing. As long as you carefully craft engaging ad content and accurately target your ad buys, inserting yourself in the newsfeeds of the people you want to reach can be very effective.

Since so many Millennials are mostly “lurking” and scrolling through content rather than contributing, then you can at least be sure that people are seeing your brand online, even if they aren’t always joining your public conversations.

Let’s chat about it!

What are your thoughts on Millennial social media use? Do you have any stats or stories that back up or refute these ideas?