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Meet the millennials

In business and in life, few topics spark a livelier conversation right now than the subject of millennials. In fact, no one seems to be sure who "millennials" are.

That's not surprising. The last generation the U.S. Census Bureau officially defined was the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Any generational definition after that is created by media and consulting firms, which is why those definitions are all over the map.

But for the sake of argument, let's call the millennials anyone born from 1980 to 2005. They're the most diverse generation in history. They're the biggest since the boomers. In a couple of years, they'll be outspending the boomers, too. And they look at things differently. So if you hope to recruit them -- as employees or as customers -- you'll have to try to see things their way, and approach them accordingly.

For example, ask a boomer to name the age at which a person becomes an adult. The most common response is "18." Ask a millennial, and you'll get a number closer to 30. Boomers had their first paying jobs in their early to midteens. Millennials? Age 24.

(Note to boomers: Before you launch a tirade here and that bulging vein in your forehead explodes, keep in mind that these were your kids. If they weren't working at 18, it's because you picked up the tab. If they were still sitting at home at 27, it's because you let them. Deep breath -- relax. That's better.)

Millennials as a group aren't as driven to "succeed" as previous generations were. They're not going to spend their 20s working long days. So if you're pitching your company as the place to get on the fast track to success, or promoting your products or services as status symbols that show they've arrived, your message is likely to fall on deaf ears. But lifestyle? They're all about it.

Like everyone else, they like humor. Lighten up when you speak to them. They're social, but maybe not in a "let's grab a beer after work" kind of way. More texting and social media, less face-to-face. So use the channels they're using to talk to them.

Let's clear up one popular misconception about this group. Millennials aren't brand-disloyal or even brand-apathetic. Because they're starting everything later, they just haven't had time to establish where their loyalties lie. That's an opportunity -- because you get to help them decide.

Tell them why they should want to work for you or buy from you. Build a case that will appeal to them. Keep in mind they prefer "local," and are wary of "corporate."

Yes, they feel entitled. You would, too, if you'd been raised in the same "everybody passes, everyone gets a trophy" world they have. And here's an odd outgrowth of that upbringing: They often lack confidence. Ask yourself how that should shape the way you manage, set goals and measure performance -- or the way you address their needs as customers. They need encouragement, direction and reinforcement. Offer it to them, and you'll gain a great deal of trust.

Likewise, that will affect how you market to them -- but it comes with opportunities. For example, a bank that offers millennials an app that shows them where their money goes and aids them in setting goals and saving for them has seen dramatic changes in spending and saving patterns among this group. So explore ways to create tools that guide them toward the behaviors you want to encourage. In the process, you'll build trust and loyalty.

And here's the thing about loyalty: Millennials share. If they have an awesome service experience or love your new product, they'll be all over social media about it. If you stumble, they'll share that too -- which gives you a chance to get into the conversation and put a human face on your company.

Above all, think of the phase of life the millennials are in. If you're a marketer, they're just beginning to become the customer you want. The lifetime value of a customer acquired at that stage, if you can build a relationship now, is enormous. They're the future of your business.

If you're hiring them, the same is true. Yes, a lot of them will show up late for work. Yes, every day. And yes, their cellphones will be as permanent and visible as their tattoos. But if you can inspire them, and coach them, and help them find the place where they can excel and have an impact -- if you can give them a vision to follow -- they're the future of your business, too. And the future starts now.

Allen Howie is president and creative director of Idealogy Marketing + Design. Idealogy provides marketing, branding and design services focused on increasing clients' brand recognition and profitability. Howie's newest book, "The Marketing Minute," was published in April.