April 24, 2018

Understanding Millennials Still Matters | From the Bell Tower

Not all that long ago, academic librarians spent considerable time talking about Millennials and how they differed from previous generations—and how we could change to serve them better. While we’ve moved on to other issues, Millennials are still out there.

Thinking much about Millennials these days? Probably not. Perhaps five years ago, academic librarians were eager to learn as much as possible about Millennials. In case you’ve forgotten, that’s anyone born between 1979 and 1994 (ages 19–33). That seems to include just about everyone who is in college right now as a traditionally enrolled student, plus many others who attend as adult or online learners. Quite possibly there are more Millennials attending college right now than there were when conference presentations and articles about Millennials were all the rage.

Learning about Millennials was undeniably valuable. It was impossible to ignore the emergence of this swell of digital natives, and academic librarians needed to understand better how they differed from previous generations. Just how different were they? That was part of the ongoing debate. For every expert who claimed Millennials were unlike any other generation that ever came before, other experts argued that Millennial behavior demonstrated little that was new, especially in their modes of learning. No one, however, could ignore their digitally immersive existence. Although Millennials may no longer garner much attention from academic librarians, a new report suggests we need to get them back on our collective radar screen.

They Are Not Impressed

Believe it or not, there is an organization that continues to research Millennials. Since 2009, Achieve has produced the Millennial Impact Report, which shares data on the Millennial generation’s behavior. The primary target for these reports is fundraising organizations that want to know how to connect with Millennials—but primarily with their wallets. You can see the obvious connection for college and universities that want to reach their Millennial generation alumni for contributions. A news article in the Chronicle of Higher Education put this into perspective by sharing the results of the latest report that revealed a problem with fundraising websites in higher education. The sites simply underwhelm, at least for reaching Millennials and giving them a reason to get engaged. Stale information, poor mobile connectivity, and a lack of engagement-worthy content are big web turnoffs for Millennials. While the report focuses on gift-giving and fundraising, academic librarians will find some useful takeaways worth a closer look.

Millennial Trends

Among the things we can take away from this report is that Millennials are more focused on the cause than the organization. This suggests that librarians, in their communications with Millennials, should focus on what students care about, academic research and success, and spend less time talking about the library as an organization. Make sure students get the WIIFM factor behind becoming a good researcher. Have a good student achievement story in your repertoire. Millennials get behind organizations and ideas backed by solid success stories. The report offers good advice for connecting with Millennials through websites and social media. They like to see fresh news delivered on the web, so keep things up-to-date and relevant. Many academic librarians already use social media to reach out to students, which is a good thing, because 75 percent of them like or retweet content. But it only works if we deliver share-worthy messages. Keep routine announcements to a minimum, and look for more creative ways to let students know what the library has to offer. For example, archival photos, matching sentences from scholarly articles to disciplines, or surprise facts about the library building.

Find the Passionate Users

Perhaps our secret weapon is something simple—passion. Millennials’ top reason for emotionally connecting with any cause is their passion. Seventy-nine percent say that’s the primary motivating factor for why they choose to put their support behind an organization. If academic librarians are willing to focus on connecting with students who are passionate about research, using special collections, or developing search expertise and cultivating relationships with those students, it can help to build a core of passionate users—and that can ultimately translate to more word of mouth buzz about all the library has to offer. The Millennial Impact Report offers more of these types of insights, so spend some time with it to discover other possibilities.

Let’s Remember Development

While increasing alumni support for the library was hardly the first thing that came to my mind when reading the report, it did occur to me that academic library administrators struggle to maintain a steady flow of donations to the library. When I say “donations,” I mean money. Alumni are all too happy to drop their book collections on us. Which might occasionally lead to a unique find but is no way to fund a major renovation. The old adage that no one graduates from the library sums up the challenge in creating the emotional connection that stimulates alumni to develop a relationship that leads to acceptable levels of contributions. So while our primary interest may lie in areas other than development, improving our understanding of Millennials could certainly enhance our ability to build those relationships.

My gut instinct is that helping students achieve academic success, offering recognition for outstanding research, or developing their passion for primary research materials will do much more for us than static “donate to the library” buttons on our websites. The report is a must read for library development officers, and the message throughout is that we have to do a better job of communicating our story to Millennials, using the media and technology that works for them. In fact, this message from the report is a good starting point for every academic library organization: “Explain more succinctly what it is exactly that you do.”

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Chris Bulin says:

    I found this interesting considering the recent publication of this article http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130801172600-69244073-what-millennials-really-want-out-of-work which refers to this research http://jom.sagepub.com/content/36/5/1117.short

    I think there is certainly more than can be done to engage users at all levels, but I don’t think we necessarily want to fall into the trap of thinking that it is all about generational differences.