Connecting with millennials: How do we talk pet care with our largest yet most elusive audience?

Millennials, right?

They’re an increasingly important audience for all industries, but with more than 24 million millennial pet owners in the United States, they’re now our largest pet-owning population. If we’re not talking to millennials, we’re not talking.

Even if you are a member of the coveted consumer group of young adults between 18 and 35 years old, millennials and their buying habits are hard to pin down. They’re finicky about the brands they choose, prone to seek out bargains, and prefer to shop online. They want retailers to “entertain” them. They see shopping as an experience instead of a necessity. But they’re one of the largest generations in history, and they have money to spend. So how do you harness that power and turn it into gold-plated kibbles and bits?

Difficult but worth it

According to a study by Wakefield Research, millennials currently make up 27 percent of the adult population in the U.S. and by 2018 will offer $3.39 trillion in spending power. But attention spans are shorter than ever and information is absorbed in an ever-increasing number of ways. It’s a large, but fractured, audience.

The good news is that millennials take unprecedented care of their pets. After all, you probably don’t see many members of the Greatest Generation taking selfies of the teacup pups they carry in their Baby Bjorns. Millennials pride themselves on treating their pets like children (or better than children, in some cases).

The Wakefield research shows that 76 percent of surveyed millennials said they were more likely to splurge on a luxury item for their pet than for themselves. There are a few reasons for this trend. While seeing pets as part of the family isn’t exclusive to millennials, they take it a step farther and view pet ownership as a way of preparing to have a family. It’s a generation that gets married later in life, so this intel checks out. Millennials are also far more likely than other generations to make impulse purchases to pamper themselves; it stands to reason that this impulse extends to their “children,” so they are more willing to splurge on higher-priced pet products than other generations. In fact, Wakefield points out that millennials are more than three times as likely as baby boomers to spend on pet grooming services like coat styling and coloring, and nearly twice as likely to purchase clothes for their pets. One man’s “splurge” is another man’s “necessity.”

This generation extends its luxurious impulses and (possibly) over-caring to pet health. According to Wakefield, the majority of those surveyed are interested in going BPA-free on toys, spending a little more on natural and organic food or seeking out hypoallergenic cleaning products. The desire for healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle is projected as needs/wants for their pets, possibly an extension of human trends in nutrition, ingredients and exercise. In short, what they want for themselves, they want for their pets.

So it’s an audience that should be easy pickings, especially if you offer any sort of high-end or health-conscious pet product. But, as usual, it ain’t that easy. There are a few things we need to talk about when we talk about talking to millennials.

Make them trust you

Forbes states that millennials value authenticity when seeking information. Especially when looking for news, millennials respect information that seems to come from a person. This is why they rely on personal blogs or social media when investigating a topic. If they smell a sell, they tend to move on. They can grow to trust corporate sources, but they have to feel that they’re receiving honest, relevant information.

We’ve already established that this audience goes above and beyond when caring for their pets, so a pet care company that starts a blog or other means of more personal communication needs to be very aware of offering genuine advice, stories and conversation. Any thinly veiled advertising will fall on deaf ears.

Engage them

The Forbes study also showed that 42 percent of millennials are interested in “co-creating” products with companies. Where traditional marketing is directed at an audience, millennial-focused marketing, especially in the pet care sector, should talk with the audience. Even if it’s just an illusion, millennials want their voices heard, to be part of something bigger. Anyone who has watched the explosion of Kickstarter, the world’s largest platform for crowd-sourced funding, knows that this is true. As of late 2015, nearly $60 million had been contributed to Kickstarter projects by more than 10 million people, and more than half of those contributors are under the age of 34.

Millennials want to be part of something. They want updates and information. Even if it’s somewhat superficial, making messaging seem like a conversation is an increasingly important avenue. Sure, you have something to sell, but what if you make it seem like the audience is part of a solution when they take action?

Talk to them in “their houses”

This audience wants engagement and authenticity. They want conversation instead of getting “talked at.” It’s the audience that social media was built for, so using it is no longer optional. Sixty-two percent of the respondents to the Forbes poll said that they’re more likely to become loyal to a brand if it engages on social media. We’ve already established that millennials tend to trust blogs, so seeking out influencers in the blogosphere is certainly a way to be heard when we speak.

But again, millennials can smell a rat, and the 37 percent who own pets are even more prone to seek out “the sell.” They’re less concerned with brand loyalty, so appearing loyal to them is more important than ever. If you’re engaging them about better ways to help them take care of their “kids,” this generation is more likely to come back to see what you have to say. And then, you have them.

Offer content, content, content

So where does this leave us when addressing the millennial pet-care consumer? Engaging them. Earning trust. Exploring ways to offer genuine content in every cutting-edge medium. Not blatantly selling products. If we can inform this ever-expanding audience about an issue they didn’t even know they cared deeply about (say, what a pet food label is really saying), offer multiple ways to absorb the information, and let them make their own conclusions about the best way to care for/splurge on their pets, we’re more likely to make that connection.

And that’s what good marketing is, right? Making connections. No matter how many legs those connections might have.