During a trip to London many years ago, not long after finally trading in my Blackberry for an early model iPhone, I recall looking down at my cappuccino and being startled at the sight of Queen Elizabeth staring back at me. For the first time, I was prompted to take out my phone to snap a picture of my fleeting latte art and share it on Instagram. Today, my photo is one of over 6 million uploads to date on this platform captioned with #latte, the most photographed form of coffee.

To the untrained eye, roasted beans and brewed coffee in their simplest forms all look the same, despite varying shades of brown and bean size.  As such, it has become doubly as important to differentiate your brew through more than quality and flavor to turn the heads of caffeine-seeking twenty-somethings.  Elements like latte art, cup and bag design have become fundamental in crafting an iconic coffee product or unique coffee experience that encourages shareable, and hopefully viral, content among millennials.

The Mighty Millennial Dollar

In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau released data announcing that millennials had surpassed Baby Boomers as the generation with the largest living population.  Within the next 3 years, U.S. millennials are expected to increase their spending to $1.4 trillion, accounting for 30% of retail sales. Even more notable than their spending power are the forces that drive millennials to one product over another.

At least 34% of millennials look to online networks when making a purchasing decision, and rely on social media for much more than simply posting pictures and writing on their friends’ walls. Social networks serve as primary sources of news and information for the generation, with one study showing that 88% of millennials get their news from Facebook, and that 67% believe they can learn anything from YouTube. 

As a millennial myself, I have even noticed my own tendencies to disregard resources like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and instead search directly for a location on Instagram. Like my peers, I often judge an establishment based off its profile and the quality of its content.

Let’s look at a few other defining characteristics for the millennial generation:

  1. The generation is largely multicultural. A Nielsen report earlier this year noted that 40% percent of millennials are of African American, Asian American and Hispanic heritage.
  2. Millennials are the first generation to age with the Internet. No other generation has grown up alongside a platform allowing for the unabashed expression of personal opinions, heated engagement in debates, and – perhaps most detrimental – the ability to craft an entirely contrived persona if one so chooses.
  3. The millennial generation is the first comprised of many individuals who admittedly spend more time interacting with their devices than they do with other human beings.

So what does this mean for marketers attempting to connect with the largest, most diverse generation to date? How can you change your strategy to see eye-to-eye with a group of people whose eyes never leave their 5 x 3 inch screens?

A Decreased Life Span…for Content

One of your key considerations should be understanding the life cycle of social media content, and how, or why, it is often recycled.  I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than it does text.  And, let’s admit, on at least one occasion we’ve all spent far longer scrolling to find the perfect emoji than it would take to type out our words. With so much emphasis now placed on producing eye-catching imagery, it’s important to boil down the numbers on just how fleeting the life span of your visual social media content can be if it’s not optimized:

A Facebook post usually gets 75% of its maximum exposure within the first two and a half hours, and receives a majority of its engagement within the first five. Various studies estimate the lifespan of a Tweet to be between just 18-24 minutes. Notably, the lifespan of an Instagram post depends heavily on its quality and performance, and as a result can receive peak engagement within anywhere from six to 13 hours or more. Thanks to SnapChat, and Instagram’s newer “Story” and “Live” features, these platforms are constantly reducing marketers to an even shorter time frame to engage viewers.

An Instagram-worthy neon sign by Modcup Coffee Co.

A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Likes – Coffee Gone Viral

One of the best ways to extend the expiration date of your content is to encourage sharing.  At the base level, compelling, photogenic content opens the door for customers to snap and share posts or tag their friends in your posts, essentially doing your marketing for you.

Starbuck’s “color-changing” unicorn Frappuccino (where coffee is evidently not an ingredient) is a prime example of a product blatantly created for the purpose of maximizing its reach on social media.  The frap, which debuted in April for a limited time span of only a few days, currently has upwards of 160,000 tags on Instagram.  A Starbucks spokesperson even confirmed that, “The look of the beverage was an important part of its creation, our inspiration came from the fun, spirited and colorful unicorn-themed food and drinks that have been trending in social media.”

But the unicorn Frappuccino success story and others like it presents a dilemma for a lot of coffee brands: Should we just give the people what they want, and are we selling out by doing so?  It’s important to note that not all 160,000 shares of Starbucks’ color-changing creation are positive.  Some expressed disappointment at the fact that while the frap made for a great photo, the taste was less impressive.  Still, they took to Instagram to engage in a debate that lasted days longer than the product release itself.

According to a Datassential study commissioned last year by S&D Coffee & Tea, “The language Millennials use and the attitudes they have indicate that they are deeply connected to coffee on an emotional level. For them, coffee is not just a drink, it’s an experience, so descriptors that are solely focused on the bean (such as “bold” or “Arabica”) or basic needs (such as “fresh” or “convenient”) only address one component of the picture for them.”   Moreover, Adobe’s “State of Content” Report this year stated, “Seventy percent of global consumers agree that humor makes companies more relatable, but just 14 percent rate company-created content as entertaining. Globally, ‘making people laugh’ was identified as the top personal motivator for sharing content.”

Somewhat ironically, while impressive visuals catch their attention, perceived authenticity and a point of view keeps millennials coming back to your page for more. If your brand aesthetic is one of clean lines, minimal graphics and white marble counter tops, a rainbow drink probably isn’t the right answer for your business, but it also doesn’t mean you can’t weigh in on the discussion around it.

My advice on how to keep your finger on the pulse?  Do your research on what “influencer” accounts inside and outside of the coffee world your target customer follows, and follow them too.  Pay attention to the unique language millennials are using – much of which, you’ll find, is adopted within days from newly released music lyrics and viral meme content.  Take advantage of the opportunity to play into millennials’ anxieties, humor and nostalgia and in turn open the door for them to spark their own discussions.  Lucky for you, social media has become the generation’s chosen form of escapism. And the need to share relatable content? It’s nothing short of compulsive.