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New surveys out from Pew Research Center and Experian, about the millennial generation’s mania for everything mobile, remind me of a story at a New York City high school. A science teacher there this school year cracked up visiting parents, describing how, every time she posts that night’s homework on the board, students whip out their cell phones to snap a picture.

And that’s the point: no pens, no paper, no laptops. No email, even—because mobile is how millennials roll. Indeed, according to Pew’s survey, the 12–17 teen segment of millennials (loosely defined as the generation aged 13 to 36) are now cell-mostly internet users.

Millennials are the Future of Mobile Marketing

Smartphone ownership has skyrocketed. Seventy-eight percent of U.S. teens now own a cell phone and almost half (47 percent) have a smartphone. Add to that, from the Experian study of the next older age segment the fact that millennials spend 14 percent more time each week than their generational peers engaged with mobile devices; 24 percent have a college degree; and 60 percent own a home…and you’re staring a mobile marketing opportunity in the face.

Millennials and Email

The question is, what are you doing about it? Peter Krasilovsky, vice president of industry analyst firm BIA/Kelsey, comments that, “The switch from email is really interesting and we’re still learning about what it means, because a lot of businesses have been built up on the strength of their email lists.”

“Groupon is a perfect example of a company that has millions and millions of emails,” Krasilovsky continues. “But they’re missing a large part of the generation if they don’t successfully transition to their app, which they’ve been working really hard at, don’t get permission to have a text relationship with [teens].

“When you go to Ralph Lauren, they’re asking for your email, because they want to have a text relationship with you, which is a pain in my opinion.” Krasilovsky himself admits an age issue here: “I’m 52,” he says, laughing.

The marketer’s main counsel? “Supplement [but don’t replace] email,” to get the word out about your brand, he advises. “If we want to think in retail terms, Christmas 2016 will not be ‘an email Christmas.’”

For Abercrombie & Fitch, Text Marketing Takes Center Stage

Certainly, the text relationship is all the rage in youth-oriented retail today. Billy May, who heads up ecommerce, digital, and CRM (customer relationship marketing) at the popular millennial retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, points out how his company’s recently launched “club” programs have focused on mobile communications. Customers who “opt-in”for membership receive exclusive product offers and content, plus value-added services. So, buy those new A&F capris and your digital receipt will not only enable you to return your purchase without searching for that piece of paper but will also recommend some cool tops to complement those capris.

“While we have an emphasis on email capture,” May says, “growing our text file has been a very strong focus. You do have some issues on what and how often you can communicate to consumers via text because there are spam laws. But we’ve grown our text file essentially from a couple of hundred thousand to one or more million in the span of twelve months.”

This may not be surprising considering how millennials practically live online. “They still want to purchase in a store but more than anything that millennial consumer does not differentiate between channels,” May points out. “If they’re standing in your store, they’re more apt to be staring at their phone than walking around looking at your in-store marketing.” What are they doing on those phones? “Asking their friends, or checking out [online] what else you have or checking out ‘key [recommended] looks,’” he says.

Mobile Marketing, Mobile Apps & Mobile Payments

No wonder A&F is working on an app, whose details May won’t divulge. The retailer’s first priority has been building a mobile web first—incorporating it seamlessly into its ecommerce platform—then migrating down to applications, as opposed to doing apps first and then the mobile web, says May: “We’ve seen tremendous response from consumers in terms of both traffic and sales via mobile devices”—which the new app later this year will support.

Retailers are eager to build their relationship with the consumer in order to better target content to them. And the next big thing millennial retailers have up their sleeve? Mobile payments, May says, because teens are too young for credit cards. Think of it as a retail version of Paypal.

Spotlight on Social Media

Of course mobile marketing communications—social media—go both ways. So earlier this month someone resurrected Abercrombie’s CEO’s 2006 comments saying A&F products markets to “cool, good-looking people” who fit a size ten or smaller, the mobile backlash was swift and severe.

May wouldn’t comment on that but he did acknowledge the fast pace of the new marketing model. “With mobile the reaction both positive and negative is very real-time, as opposed to historically, in the direct mail space, where you would get the results and batch them out and come up with a new campaign, and that would take four to six weeks,” he said.

“Here it happens in less than four hours.”

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Joan Oleck, Contributing Editor

Joan Oleck has built her career as a journalist, with extensive experience from various editorial positions with Bloomberg News, Salon and Business Week. She is currently a consultant at The World Bank and contributing editor to the edo blog.

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