Brand It, Post It, Sell It: How Millennials Are Reshaping Business As We Know It

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Laura Murray, an FIT student by day and live music photographer by night, has a fascination with exposure: "Being able to show people things that are going on all over the world sounds incredible." She admits on her website that she has a "slight case of wanderlust" and her dream job would be a band's designated photographer. To satisfy and achieve both journeys, she had to start off with basic grassroots marketing that required little cost: she handed out promotional marketing cards anywhere she snapped photos at, made up stickers with her name on them and assisted photographers in every way possible. 

But her biggest obstacle was the ambiguity that came with a popular form of artwork like photography: she had equipped herself with skills in the field throughout high school and college but she also knew that thousands of other people her age could muster those same talents.

"It seems that everyone with an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera these days wants to get into photography, just no one knows your name," she said. It was her goal to stand out among the rest - a credo of the entrepreneurial spirit. In the usual fashion of small business, she had to brand herself. And what better way to do that by using her name.


"Besides my own personal Facebook, I try to make any other presence on the Internet geared towards associating my name with photography," Laura noted. In order to do so, she had to create a small business that would tell her viewers what they were being seeing and by whom; thus, the company formally known as 'Laura Murray Photography!' was born. Once this happened, she took to social media to establish her photographic existence online. Her Facebook page, which currently has over a thousand fans, is a living resume of her small business. Besides showcasing all of her developed work and telling audiences where it has been featured, it links to her Twitter (cleverly named "@laurashoots"), which updates her followers of her new projects and where she's shooting next; her Tumblr blog, which features the progress of those projects; and her website, lauramurrayphotography.com, which is a hodgepodge collection of everything she has done over the years, from cityscape pictures of Manhattan to eye-witness videos of Ground Zero the night the news of Osama Bin Laden's death infiltrated the airwaves.

She has made connectivity with her followers the driving force behind her digital self. Every platform she has activated online is linked back to each other, forming a social media gallery for any viewer. The Twitter account leads to the website, the website leads to the Tumblr and the Tumblr has a link to her Facebook page - an endless cycle that creates maximum exposure for her brand online. "I can upload all of the photos in a [Facebook] album and let kids tag friends that they see, therefore spreading the page to people who might not have known that it existed before," she said, "Same deal goes for Tumblr." By weaving together the World Wide Web to fit her company's needs, her reach is endless with the chain-reaction click of a mouse.

In an opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times, the essayist William Deresiewicz labeled Laura's age group of college students and twenty-something's as "Generation Sell" on the idea that "the small business is the idealized social form of our time." In a city like New York, this statement has been proven all too true. Driven with a mixture of ambition and new forms of the appropriately named "social" media, the Millennials, named for their coming-of-age at the turn of the century, have taken a hipster approach to the marketplace - they no longer rely on large corporations that are as old as their parents  and do-it-yourself has replaced do-it-for-someone-else. As a result, the product they sell is no longer tangible; it is themselves. 

But where did all of this rugged yet marketable individualism in the twenty-first century come from? How did the "go get 'em" nature of the entrepreneur model inspire a generation that is accused by its predecessors for its apathy and laziness? Michael Smith, an advertising executive at BBDO NY and a self-designated "43-year-old," explained that the Millennials are simply doing the best with what they have. 

"They don't have money for a big advertising agency," he said, "[Social media] is a natural fit because the younger generation is so savvy with it." Being savvy comes with the property: as of December 11th, 2011, Facebook has over 800 million active users, 200 million people tweet regularly and Tumblr has 37 million blogs with 46 million posts on average in a single day. According to a note posted by Facebook itself, 65 percent of these 800 million people are between the ages of 13 and 34 - a souvenir of the website's original access that was strictly limited to college students and high school students soon after. The analysis company Quantcast did a similar demographical study for both Twitter and Tumblr. The results were strikingly close to that of Facebook: users under the age of 34 made up 62 percent of all Twitter accounts and 64 percent of the total Tumblr blogs. With this being said, it is evident that those aspiring to enter the rankings of the young entrepreneurs are already pre-disposed to social media mastery. 

But what is most appealing, according to Michael, is the unprecedented amount of time and money saved by these social media tools: "When I was twenty years old, if I wanted to reach anyone this younger generation wanted to reach, it would've taken me an entire summer," he said, "You have the ability to be that connected, which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago." The example of Laura's photography is a testament to these changing times. In a matter of minutes, she can upload all the photos she took at a concert that night to Facebook and have them seen by her 1,000+ fans in no time. Rewind twenty years: the Millennials' parents would still be walking to the film store to pay to have the concert shots developed overnight in the time Laura typed her username and password at the social network's front gates.

However, besides 'standing out' and branding oneself to appeal to a larger audience, another method to the marketing madness that "Generation Sell" has attained is the art of expanding niches hidden in bigger companies. With the product range covered by companies like Amazon and Google, young entrepreneurs have sought to specialize in the nook and crannies of these websites rather than conforming to their larger layouts.

Michael Costaras was annoyed with YouTube; as an NYU student, he found it difficult to find entertaining prank videos in the cluttered mass of the millions upon millions of videos uploaded everyday, especially when he wanted to procrastinate studying for an exam. "YouTube is too big. It is basically a video search engine," he said, "You use it when you know exactly what you're looking for - not to browse." Costaras wanted a website he could go to where the videos were of quality, not quantity, and searching for them would not be an issue. So he decided to create the site himself.

Reaction Faction, an Internet start-up that describes itself as 'the Exclusive Prank House,' was founded on this alternative idea. Its logo features a clown and the name for the site was derived from the nature of the videos submitted: users have the ability to watch candid camera pranks and the comical reactions that ensue. To immediately start garnering viewers, Costaras created a Facebook page and Twitter account to inform the social media universe that the website would be having a grand opening contest that offered $100 each, a small initial investment in comparison to much larger companies, to the five funniest pranks, which would be judged by Costaras and the site's other webmasters. He also wore and gave out t-shirts that had the domain name 'rxnfaction.com' written on them to take the marketing off the computer and onto the streets.

The contest was a hit and Costaras received over fifty unique videos for the website's launch, all of which are now featured on the homepage. The contributors are now awarded 'Prankster Points,' which translates into t-shirts and other prizes to come based on their activity with the website. Although it is currently a simple prank video headquarters online, he wants the website to transform into something much bigger: "We also hope upcoming comedians and entertainers use Reaction Faction as a forum to gain exposure." 

What Costaras did, along with which thousands of others his age are now doing, is the use of inward looking marketing or, in other words, asking the question, "What would I want?" instead of "What would they want?" In an e-mail message, William Deresiewicz explained that this thought process separates the small business generation from the past. "You tend to begin from personal passion or desire- what you want to do- rather than perceived need- what you think other people want," he said. This "Generation Sell" that he coined is not selling products for other companies; they are selling the oddities and quirky aspects of their varying identities to customers.

This indifference towards what the mainstream is selling is what gives the entrepreneurial youth its hipness tendency. Hence why the use of social media and the do-it-yourself design it offers has become customary - it allows specialization to thrive. To Deresiewicz, this is key: "Design seems to be very important - web design, product design, store design if there is a retail space. In other words, the package, and the package is all about looking hip." And, contrary to popular belief, this is not a marketing movement that is necessarily a byproduct of the 2008 recession; according to Deresiewicz, the notion to downsize came long before but the consequences of these rough economic times have created a bastion for people like Laura and Michael. 

We are in "an economy that's less conducive to large, slow-moving corporations and more conducive to small, nimble ones," he explains. As the Internet sped up everything, businesses that stuck to the usual brick-and-mortar structures to maintain the face-to-face relationship with customers are only now catching up the exponential acceleration of society that has taken hold. Small businesses have grabbed hold of these people that are on the go and formed an entirely different kind of relationship with them; one that is much more intimate and longer lasting than the outmoded salesperson pitches of Willy Loman types. 

"Social media is central to the small business craze. The new entrepreneurial spirit predates them but they put it on steroids," Deresiewicz said. Whether it is checking in on Foursquare or being updated via Facebook, customers have become collaborators with these new companies and the creators behind them. However, the branding does not stop there; by even joining these websites, we can all have a chance to become a product. "They've enabled everybody to become a 'business' or a 'brand,' even if they're not selling anything. Basically we've all become instant entrepreneurs of ourselves."

Forget about the commune mindset of the hippies, the anti-conformism of the beatniks or the nihilistic nature of the punks -"Generation Sell" has no time for that. It continues to package and deliver itself via start-ups and social media with little care of who agrees or not. From organic food trucks to vegan bakeries, from micro-blogging to tweeting, and from digital photography to online prank videos, the individual and his or her preferences fuel the DIY culture but not in the corporate sense that has been established over the past thirty years. The old way of doing things will either be adapt or disappear. It's the human brand that is now cool - buy in or be square.


[jsurico15@gmail.com/@JSuricz]

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