When actions have consequences: are Millennials changing corporate and government behavior?

The Millennial generation, often decried for not wanting to take individual responsibility, is sending its reply loud and clear: “You first”.

The year is 2018. Recent hits like “We Ain’t ever Getting Older” have topped the charts by hitting a resonant chord with youths who want to push off adulthood. Any yet, the Millennial generation being referenced has fully graduated into the workforce. And in this very same moment, corporations and their key individuals are being called to account, often by Millennials — and the call is being heard. A wave of corporations and governments have been taking responsibility in a manor not previously seen in the Millennial lifetime.

From the Reagan era through the Financial Crisis, the silent message has been that corporations can do as they please, and expect to suffer a slap on the wrist at worst for infractions against society. Today, in the throws of the #MeToo movement, individuals are not only being called out, but called to account, with nearly 100 perpetrators now dethroned. Whereas no traders went to jail for fraud after the 2008 Financial Crisis, Elon Musk was immediately taken to task by the SEC for manipulating the stock market, losing his board position at Tesla for 3 years alongside a $20 million fine. This trend begs the question, are the masses successfully calling corporations and regulators to finally take responsibility for the excesses of the free market? And if so, what, in the last couple of years, has suddenly given corporations and the government the moral backbone it has seemingly lacked for decades? Perhaps the very generation that is said to avoid responsibility is demanding responsibility from the entities that govern it.

Have millennials brought about a new era of capitalism and government oversight? Certainly there is evidence on the corporate front. Where politicians have shied away from hot button issues, corporations have increasingly taken a stand for what they believe will benefit society. For example, following yet another school shooting, Delta’s CEO publicly stated “Our values are not for sale”, cutting ties with the NRA. There were political consequences: the Georgia legislature promptly punished the company by repealing a $40 million tax break. Yet Delta’s public perception improved. The brand was enhanced globally for its stance, and its stock price was left unaffected.

 Google Finance
Google Finance

Is Millennial purchasing power to thank for this growing trend? More and more, Millennials express their views by voting with their wallets. Responsive corporations are largely seeing a net to fully positive financial bump from taking social action. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, supporting the ostracized football star in his protest against police violence, resulted in a 31% jump in online sales, a much stronger performance than typical Labor Day sales. While the government does not seem interested in better regulating itself on this issue, perhaps it will better regulate equally unjust corporate behaviors.

Is government primed to take the same social cues as corporations are, and increase restrictions of antisocial corporate behaviors? As with corporate acts of social responsibility, customers have shown their support of impactful government regulation with their wallets. Google’s share of the European ad market jumped on May 25th, thanks to their swift and clear compliance with GDPR data protection policy vis-a-vis their competitors. In the case of Elon Musk and the SEC noted above, perhaps the SEC is seeing the social proof that if corporations can win public support by taking responsibility, perhaps they can to.

Are corporations finally starting to play a longer-term game than this quarter’s profits, thanks to consumer pressure? Industries such as entertrainment are rapidly asserting newfound standards even in the face of guaranteed financial loss, for fear of the impact to public opinion, now heavily steared by Millennial social media presence. Roseanne Barr’s racist tweek led to the immediate cancelling of her TV series relaunch. Several theater companies canceled the plays of Israel Horovitz following a multitude of sexual misconduct allegations. While such allegations against Horovitz had been raised decades before, only now are theater companies dealing with the issue in ernest.

Is it a coincidence that the voice of corporate social responsibility is being heard and acted upon so visibly today, across industries and sectors? Has something changed that makes the voice of the public more consequential than in earlier years? Perhaps a hot job market combined with a multitude of brand choices are forcing corporations to compete like never before for market share, mind-share, and talent. Perhaps the sense of heightened political vulnerability with the dramatic switch from Obama to Trump, undergirded by continued social dissatisfaction, has motivated government to keep powerful companies somewhat more accountable, at least for the most visible issues. Whatever the cause, the dramatic nature of this tonal shift stands in stark contrast to the status quo even a few years ago.

In the lifetime of Millennials, corporations have been deemed to have personhood, with rights to free speech, including political spending. At an individual level, such rights come with responsibilities. Corporate responsibility, in the last few decades, has largely been limited to shareholder obligations. At the corporate level, it is only in the last few years that individuals are being held accountable by leadership. Millennials, have instilled a new brand of social responsibility, that includes what companies owe to the public. Without it, companies put their clients and talent pool at risk. Even with the alarming amount of economic dislocation, many have found hope for capitalism, as corporations are starting to take responsibility rather than avoid it.

Google’s revenue model does not support free ideas

A few months ago I decided to pop the hood on the massive machine that is Google AdWords, to explore what success it could bring to someone who is not trying to sell something. And what have I learned $250 and several support team calls later? A few things.

My last post revealed what Google provides its customers that it does not provide it’s product users. This second post walks through why Google’s whole infrastructure does not promote free engagement. Rather, in its decade-plus of internet dominance, Google has constructed an elaborate network of tools that first and foremost serve to extract money from users.  

Below is a summary of my experience, and what you might expect if you’re a customer outside of the e-commerce category.

Advisors think commerce, not engagement

“No, I have no commercial goals. My goal is to maximize engagement and views,” I shared in my AdWords on-boarding. I could almost hear my rep’s brain reporting “does not compute”. The momentum of our discussion lost steam as she realized that indicators prominently featured in Google Analytics like lifetime value, acquisition, and e-commerce performance were not relevant for me. As the length of the tutorial session increased, the relevance of advice seemed to decrease. I chalked the untargeted advice up to a roulette serving me up a time-crunched newbie. In that respect, the inconsistency of advice across advisors was not surprising. The second rep I spoke with advised me to cut many of the peripheral terms I’d added in the co-build with the first advisor. “Maybe people searching for avocado toast aren’t just on-target millennials – they may really want a recipe,” he reasoned with me, and I was swayed. He spent time leafing through my blog to understand my unique goals, gaining street cred points as he went. Yet in recommending that I re-organize my blog to look more like a media company to improve click through rates, he still anchored back to the commerce world. 

I got the impression that each Support Team rep had there one or two tricks that they focused on for non-commerce people, e.g. adding a “+” in front of keywords to broaden the applicable search pool. While it is nice to be able check your key words and tagline concepts with someone better versed in the ins-and-outs of online marketing, none seemed to have the mental flexibility to conceive of how best to promote a non-commerce site.

The AI isn’t optimizing for engagement either

After the little lesson in avoiding mutually disappointing clicks, this became the lens through which I evaluated the AI suggestions for keyword additions – which all were equally missing the mark. It wanted me to add keywords like “best reads of 2017” when my book reviews are selective deep dives. Based on the advice of AdWords human employees, I dismissed most suggestions as “cheap clicks” that did not consider quality. I also kept getting promo pop-ups for new functionality that had no clear value added – which gave me the feeling of *shrug*.

It’s not all on Google

Advisor #2 did give the savvy advice that the most important thing to watch is behavior. How long do users stay? Which pages do they visit? How quickly do they leave? Looking more carefully at behavior has shown that practical posts – like the WageWorks maximizing post and the Deep Work summary – have drawn the most attention. Insightful as this nugget was, it’s the same lesson that has led me to pull the plug on the campaign. All for the simple reason that Google didn’t seem to be driving people to me in a sticky way. Of course it’s my job to make the content worthwhile. And it is also Google’s job to find those needles in the haystack that want my content. At least that’s what they claim to be selling through “targeted” advertising.

While I have enjoyed a nice spike in RSS subscribers since last winter, the lull preceding this occurred during my posting hiatus and picked up before my AdWords experiment.

Yes, I did get a few more clicks than without advertising.

When I cut my ad campaign spend by two-thirds in March, the number of users fell by only about half, and my loyalty rate actually increased.

As visits from AdWords clicks remained under a minute on average, I saw some growth in the number of repeat visitors (the light grey segment). This suggests that my most engaged visitors are finding their way back organically.

So I’m going to revert to the old fashioned way of advertising – word of mouth. 

Learning that I can’t benefit from AdWords unless I’m trying to sell something taught me a larger lesson:  the magnitude of influence that Google has had on creating the system of commerce that defines the internet. Rather unlike the original utopian vision of the internet serving to democratize knowledge, the structure of today’s internet clearly favors certain business models over others; the internet supports the lucrative websites, not the thoughtful ones.