Jeff Fromm literally wrote the book on Millennials; actually, he wrote two books on the subject. As President of FutureCast, a marketing consultancy that specializes in Millennial trends, he researches the Millennial audience, travels the world speaking on the subject, and consults with dozens of brands. I had the opportunity to sit with Jeff at our XChange conference in May, and pick his brain about this huge and influential group of consumers.

Rob Garf: Tell me a little bit about some of the myths of the Millennials.

Jeff Fromm: So I think we’ve heard an awful lot about them. Everything from they’re all broke, unemployed, living in their parent’s basements, among a collection of participation trophies they never earned and, oh, they’re narcissists on top of that. I don’t think that’s an effective way for retailers and brands to think about how we’re going to engage a consumer who’s influencing so many people. Because the reality is, today’s modern brands are often seeing that older consumers are adopting the trends set by millennials.

RG: We often hear Millennials and Gen Z in the same breath. Can you talk a little bit about how they’re the same, and how they’re different?

JF: Sure. A lot of people think Gen Z is Millennials to the second power. And that would be a terrible mistake to make if that’s how you’re thinking about Gen Z. A couple key points: first of all, they’ve learned from Millennial’s mistake of oversharing on social media. So their tendency is to be a little more private. I didn’t say they’re not going to be social, they will. They’re just concerned about managing and curating their reputation. If Millennials were all about the environment, this generation is probably going to be more about equality, and they are the ultimate multi-taskers. Don’t try to get them to put their equipment down while you’re talking to them at the office. It’s not going to work well for you if you do.

RG: That’s probably the number one sign I am not in that demographic! I cannot and never will be able to multitask. So here at Salesforce, we love retail. Commerce Cloud is all about retail and B2C commerce. What should retailers care about when it comes to this generation of consumer? What should they take note and really focus on?

JF: Well, it depends on the retail and brand and their strategy, so there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. In our recent work, we looked at affluent Millennials. We found that 64% of affluents are women. These are women who are setting trends and giving clues on category after category, so if you’re looking to participate in fashion, are you getting your clues from a 50-year-old woman or a 28-year-old woman? If I’m looking to buy technology, am I going to contact my son, who’s 20 years old? Yes, of course I am. So the reality is, he doesn’t make the purchase, but he’s influencing that purchase. So we’re seeing a lot of behavior in category after category where older consumers are adopting quote “Millennial behavior” because of this notion of influence. At the end of the day, if you’re not mobile-first, you are probably losing badly. If you haven’t thought about content, you’ve got huge opportunities to pick up traction, because just-in-time buyers want just-in-time content. And I think, in the near term, we’re going to find best in class retailers — intersection of social media algorithms and CRM tools that you provide and — looking at social CRM to identify the five, six, seven percent of their customers who are active buyers who have a significant social presence. They’re going to influence other buyers, because consumers trust other consumers.

RG: So what you’re saying is the old school way of focus groups and long term research projects to know this demographic isn’t necessarily the way? You’ve got to keep your finger on the pulse and listen to them and keep out there in the marketplace?

JF: In terms of understanding and getting insights, I love to look for empathy points and the kind of research often that gets to that is ethnography. Sometimes it’s mobile, sometimes it’s other forms. I think, when I think about research a lot of times the thing to do is to wrap up prototype ideas and co-create with this consumer. But there’s still room for traditional methodologies for some brands depending on, again, the nature of the assignment.

RG: So you hear about, “The mall is dead, stores are archaic.” Do these folks, these kids — hate to call them kids — this demographic if you will, do they like to go to the mall? And what do they look for at the mall? What are they fulfilling from going there, or not?

JF: Again, I think that there’s some variance by category. There are some things I’m confident buying online, there are some things that I’m probably less inclined to buy online. I don’t think traditional retailing’s going to end as we know it, but I think creating connected experiences is absolutely crucial. The question is how we tap into those empathy states and how we innovate to give consumers the opportunity to buy wherever they want to buy. And just-in-time buyers are going to do that. They’re going to buy where they want.

RG: So last question for you. Who’s doing it really well? Doesn’t necessarily have to be in traditional retail but who’s doing a great job of connecting to these demographics.

JF: I don’t think everyone’s going to appreciate this answer, but the number one brand we found in our research, looking at thousands of brands, wasn’t Google. It wasn’t Facebook. It wasn’t Pinterest. It was Amazon.

RG: Of course, Amazon, right.

JF: And it’s because of the notion of being radically easy to use. Any brand that makes themselves radically easy to use has an opportunity to create extraordinary value. Today’s modern consumer wants that. I also think there’s some advantages if you can look at network operator models and try to find ways to disrupt the traditional notion of supply and demand and make the consumer part of the process. Not easy to do, but possible.

RG: So, I lied, I have one more question based on what you just said, which is, there’s a lot of talk around Amazon and its Alexa. Voice as the next shopping interface in terms of, it’s so intuitive, it’s so logical, it seems like it spans many different generations. How does that fit into the Millennial and what they like or the Gen Z folks that you’re looking at?

JF: I’m an advisor to chat bot disruptor, QSR industry specifically. And so I gave a talk recently and said “You’ve got to be worried about Amazon.“ And they asked why.  It’s because consumer expectations are going to be shifting based on the changes that are being made at Amazon. When I look at the notion of what’s going to happen there, I think it’s the appropriate integration of technology, and giving consumers not only the opportunity to text to purchase or text to pay, but also the opportunity to get information from the retailer, because a lot of people are still going to use more traditional methodologies but they want to have access, and in terms of the technology space, I think we’ll see a lot of change in the near future. Probably more than we’ve seen in the last couple years, which I think will shock some people who think we’ve seen so much change and I think there’s more coming.

RG: So what I think I hear you saying, it’s not just about the purchase event, but how to engage these demographics through the research and browse and discovery event as well. To be discoverable and be able to ultimately connect the shoppers to the brands they love.

JF: I think it’s true. I think for some consumers in some categories, the excitement’s more about what happens before and after I shop than the purchase moment. And the retailer’s often thinking so much about the purchase moment and not the before and after, so I think you put it in a good way. And, you know, it varies by category.

RG: Well, this has been so insightful. Thank you for the time, Jeff.