October 31, 2014

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Perceptions, Millennials and CSR: How to Engage the New Leaders of Tomorrow

The Millennial generation expects corporations to contribute to society – presenting new challenges for brands looking to capture these younger Americans' affinity and business.

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By Sarah Cahan, Cone Communications

With graduation season well underway, thousands of Millennials* are getting ready to enter the workforce, diplomas and ideals in hand. Numbering more than 80 million Americans, they are the largest cohort the U.S. has ever seen. And they are the first generation to grow up alongside corporate social responsibility (CSR) – in fact, a large majority have never known a world without cause marketing and CSR reports.

Millennials are hyperaware of, and have high expectations for, corporate social responsibility efforts to make the world a better place. CSR can help companies grab the hearts and minds of this formidable segment, which accounts for more than $1 trillion of current U.S. consumer spending.

According to the 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study, when companies support social and environmental issues, Millennials respond with increased trust (91 percent) and loyalty (89 percent) as well as a stronger likelihood to buy those companies’ products and services (89 percent).

CSR Matters

CSR does more than shape Millennials’ brand perceptions – it influences a variety of personal decisions as well, from what they buy to where they work:

  • What to buy or where to shop (84 percent)
  • Where to work (78 percent)
  • Which stocks or mutual funds to invest in (64 percent)
  • Which products and services to recommend to people (82 percent)

In particular, this tendency to weigh social and environmental commitments Cone 2013 Social Impact Studywhen making critical financial choices may indicate a greater sense of empowerment to make well-informed and personally beneficial decisions – one that prior generations may not have felt as strongly.

Although economic development is the number one issue Millennials want companies to address, they put less emphasis on it than the general population (36 percent vs. 44 percent general population). Younger Americans are slightly more concerned with a variety of causes, ranking poverty and hunger (16 percent), the environment (15 percent), human rights (11 percent) and education (10 percent) almost equally important.

This less singular focus may be the result of the myriad world-changing events this generation has witnessed in its still-young life, from acts of terrorism and financial crashes to international political upheavals.

The “Always Connected” Generation

Social media and the very act of sharing are in Millennials’ DNA – spending upwards of five hours a day engaging with user-generated content, they are history’s first “always connected” generation. From Facebook and Twitter to Instagram, they’re sharing their lives online and expect companies to be equally forthcoming. When information isn’t readily available, Millennials are slightly more willing than the general population to dig beneath the surface to learn about operations and commitments. More than a third (36 percent vs. 29 percent general population) has researched a company’s business practices and support of issues.

Similarly, their predilection for social media influences how they think about engaging in cause.

When it comes to getting involved in social impact, Millennials may perceive their job to be more about sharing information about issues and initiatives with their networks and less about donating or other more traditional cause activation elements. With 29 percent of Millennials visiting social networking sites several times a day versus 19 percent of Generation X, their high level of engagement with CSR through social channels isn’t surprising:

  • Sixty-four percent use social media to address or engage with companies around social and environmental issues
  • Thirty-four percent use social media to share positive information about companies and issues they care about with people in their networks
  • Thirty-two percent take to social media to learn more about specific companies and issues
  • Twenty percent leverages social media to directly support corporate social impact efforts, from signing pledges to making donations

But Millennials will not hesitate to critique either: one-quarter (26 percent) takes to social media to share negative information about companies they feel aren’t living up to their promises.

Doubtful of Impact

Despite their high expectations for social impact and willingness to uncover CSR details, Millennials are somewhat pessimistic about the ability Social media consumptionof companies to effect change – just 15 percent think companies can make significant progress toward social and environmental issues. But their skepticism isn’t limited to companies – they doubt their own capacity to make positive change as well, with just one-in-five (21 percent vs. 25 percent general population) believing their purchases have significant impact.

Turning Insights to Action: Engaging Millennials in CSR

Millennials are a must-engage group when it comes to CSR. Not only are they today’s consumers – they are tomorrow’s leaders and they are shaping the very way businesses operate. Conveying CSR efforts to Millennials requires a unique approach. Companies have to uncover Millennials’ distinctive passion points, and engage them in a way that speaks to their personal drivers.

Here are three tips for engaging Millennials in CSR efforts:

  • Meet their deeply rooted needs to connect and share: The “always connected” generation lives in a world in which information is available at the swipe of a finger and where they serve as an entirely new group of influencers who can magnify a company’s efforts and accelerate positive change. Make CSR information readily available and easily shareable in a variety of channels and be prepared for open, two-way dialogue around issues and initiatives.
  • Set low barriers for involvement—and a spectrum of participation opportunities: Millennials want to be involved in CSR, but their engagement may look very different than traditional donation or volunteer models. Give them opportunities to advocate by sharing information with their diverse networks, as well as new ways to show who they are by what they support.
  • Let them know what’s in it for them: Millennials question corporate and personal ability to make positive change. Assuage their cynicism by clearly articulating how and why individual and collective action delivers impact, but also motivate their ongoing participation by communicating personal benefit from engagement.

*Definitions of what birthdates mark the Millennial generation vary, although most experts consider individuals born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s to comprise the generation. Cone Communications’ research segmented Americans ages 18-34 to represent the Millennial cohort.

About the Author:

As Cone CommunicationsResearch & Insights senior insights supervisor, Sarah Cahan drives the creation and execution of industry-leading corporate social responsibility research and analysis, including the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study and the 2012 Cone Communications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker. Her team produces the award-winning Prove Your Purpose CSR newsletter and blog, which offer cutting-edge trends and real-world best practices to hundreds of Fortune 500 and nonprofit executives every week. With nearly a decade of communications and CSR experience, Sarah brings forward-thinking consumer insights and corporate implications to life for clients and thought leaders alike.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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