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November 14, 2018

We have all heard the term with an increasing frequency: Millennials. Are they spoiled, coddled whiners or tech savvy saviors that herald the changing of our society? Actually, this article won’t tackle those larger societal questions. I will say this: every generation in positions of leadership and power feels unease when a changing of the guard occurs. Baby boomers—those born between 1943 and 1964—have been the focus of attention since the 1960s but are no longer the largest living generation. Whether they or Gen X (1965-1983) like it or not, millennials (1984-1996) and their younger siblings, currently named Generation Z, are transforming the world in which we live.

As the president of Animal Behavior College (ABC), I reach students all over North America. At any given time, we have 4,000-plus students enrolled in our programs. These are animal lovers wishing to take their passion and translate it into a viable career. While our student body consists of learners from 18 to 70, our largest demographic is students between the ages of 26 and 34. I will remind everyone that young people in their teens—really, “kids” up to 22—are NOT millennials; they are considered Generation Z (whether that name sticks remains to be seen). The relevance of all this wasn’t immediately apparent to me at ABC. What did become apparent over the last five to seven years was that our demographic started to change behaviors.

An illustration is in order. In 2001, my admissions department consisted of 12 people whose job was to answer questions from potential students interested in enrolling in our course of study. We fielded about 8,000 calls a month at that time out of about 8,050 total monthly leads. By 2010, my admissions department had doubled to 24 admissions counselors. Yet, out of a total of 18,000 leads, we were only receiving 4,500 calls per month. The rest were “request for information” forms people sent to us from our website. I remember giving a tour to some possible investors that year. When we walked through the admissions department, one of the group, a man in his mid-50s, stopped and looked around the office in confusion. Asking if he had a question, he looked at me, back at the room, then to me again before blurting out, “Why aren’t the phones  ringing?” His confusion at the dawn of a new age stuck with me. In a decade, people had dramatically changed how they requested information. We were on top of this and thrived as a result.

By 2015, we noticed a new development. By this juncture, call-ins had dropped to about 1,500 per month. Leads were up, which was good, but a disturbing trend was occurring: we were reaching five to seven percent fewer leads than we had just a few years earlier. Why? It made zero sense to me why anyone would take the time to fill out a Contact Us form, send it back to us and then not return our calls. My management team and I debated this quite a lot that year but frankly were stymied. At one of our meetings a 20-something year-old assistant came up to us afterwards, saying she thought she knew the answer. Honestly, I was only half paying attention at the end of a long day when she said simply, “text them.” “Wait, what?” I asked. “Text them,” she repeated. It was like a light bulb exploded albeit slowly inside my head. I’ve been texting since 2003 but far less in a business capacity. It hadn’t really occurred to me or the other folks born well before the turn of the century that…well, I am sure everyone over the age of 40 understands what I was going through.

The simple fact was that our student body feels more comfortable doing a great deal of communication through texting. So, we started scheduling phone calls via text. After just four months of this, the percentage of potential students we reached increased by 5.5 percent.

So, what does this mean for everyone reading this article? When trying to reach millennials and Generation Z, consider the lessons we’ve had to learn along with a few others:

  1. Make sure your website is mobile-friendly. In 2017, Millennials spent an average 223 minutes per DAY online via their phones. If your website isn’t easy to use on a smartphone, slow to load, or clunky, people will tune out and go someplace else.
  2. If you want to reach people with information about specials, services, etc., use social media or texting to do it. Had you told me seven years ago that I would have a social media ambassador in my employ, I would have nodded politely as I looked for the nearest exit. Today, we have two. What’s more, we have found social media in the pet business has some real advantages. People love seeing cute puppies and kittens. They delight in seeing pictures of the pets they love. Visual imagery like this stimulates emotion in a way that few other retail establishments can. We have had great success on Facebook, where we have created a small community of animal lovers; and Pinterest, where people share pictures of their pets. Our YouTube channel offers tips to pet owners on a variety of topics. The positive feedback from the interaction of people sharing tips, stories and supplying answers to questions asked about our school goes far in establishing what our social media marketers call “social proof.”
  3. If you offer services like dog training classes at your store, consider having people enroll online for these classes. This makes it easier and allows you to more effectively control class size and limit no shows. Have a staff member remind students about class via text to enrolled students as well.
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