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December 06, 2010

Cover Story

Youthful (R)evolution

by Lauri Dodd

Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.

The younger generation has already forced a path of change, ushering in a new era in direct selling.

Youthful Revolution

The world is changing—faster than ever before. But this time, change seems to be taking on a new attitude. It’s a little smarter… and a whole lot edgier than in decades past. It affects our personal lives, our business lives and everything in between. This revolution has helped to blur the lines between work and personal life, helping us to get more done, whenever and wherever we happen to be. Seen by some as a blessing and others a curse, this new way of life is where we are all headed. And embrace it we must if we want to succeed. At the forefront of this cultural transformation is a whole new generation demanding to be acknowledged (and appreciated) for their contribution.

Stepping Up

Take a long look. The poster children of a new generation are grown up and ready to make their mark on the world of business. And in truth, they have already taken the workplace by storm, rocking the boat of tradition with every possible turn.

The younger generation, roughly between the ages of 20 and 40, deemed by some to be Gen-Y and Gen-X, respectively, is fueled by energy drinks and Starbucks. They don’t have a need for watches, because their cell phones can do the job just fine. Their unofficial motto, “whatever,” seems to say they don’t care, but deep down they really do. They care a lot. In fact, they’re dead set on changing the world. And the rest of the folks are lining up to help them do it.

Most everyone can agree that to be viable and relevant in today’s quickly changing workplace requires several key elements—high on the list is most certainly the ability to attract, appeal to and retain members of the younger generation.

In an effort to gain their favor, defining the younger generation can be challenging, to be sure, because each individual is typically as unique as the next. But there are a few clues that reveal just what it is that makes them tick.

For them, technology is a way of life. They communicate in 140 characters or less. They keep in touch via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The stodgy business suit and tie have been replaced by a more relaxed, casual, come-as-you-are attire.

They want substance and transparency. They have come of age in an era of reality television, and they can spot a phony a mile away. Headstrong about the way things should be and passionate about making a difference, above all else, this group demands to be heard. These confident young individuals are paving the way to a bold new future. Ultimately, if you’re going to play the game—and let’s face it, everyone wants to play—you’d better be able to keep up.

Reaching Out

Youthful RevolutionWhile more and more companies are realizing the importance of reaching out to Gen-X and Gen-Y, some are more successful at it than others. The key is to play to their strengths, which many are finding makes the younger generation a perfect match for the direct selling industry.

“This industry is fertile ground for people who are disillusioned and looking for a better opportunity,” says Glenn Williams, President of Primerica. “A lot of people we’re seeing are in their mid 20s to early 30s. They’ve been in the workforce for a few years and realize there has to be an alternative to the traditional career path.”

Put simply, this age group is ripe for the picking. Dissatisfied with a corporate structure that demands loyalty of employees but doesn’t deliver the same in return, this age group grew up with parents who were laid off in droves, sometimes after decades of loyal service to a company, with nothing to show for it in the end. And this group of young, talented entrepreneurs doesn’t want any part of that.

In fact, Williams says that there are many synergies with the younger demographic and the direct selling model. Namely, time is on their side. While success stories come from all age groups, people between 20 and 35 years old are an especially good fit, because it typically takes time to build a thriving business, and this group has some years ahead of them in their careers.

“As a network marketing company, it’s important to attract people from across the spectrum to build your business,” says Greg Provenzano, President and Co-Founder, ACN. “The younger demographic represents the future of our company—the future leaders who will help drive ACN to that next level of success. In addition, younger generations have incredible purchasing power…. They are the ultimate consumers.”

While there are many positives about the younger generation, the group has also earned a few unsavory descriptors, such as narcissistic and lazy. However, those in the know say such labels are completely unfounded. “There is a myth floating out there that this group doesn’t have a good work ethic, but we haven’t found that to be true,” Williams says. “They have a great work ethic, in fact, when they are properly motivated.”

And what some may see as self-importance, others view as a more beneficial trait, one that necessitates some gentle guidance, perhaps. “It is a little bit of a challenge to appeal to the younger group, basically because they are unique—different from previous generations,” says Yvette Franco, VP of U.S. Marketing, Mary Kay. “They have such incredible confidence in themselves. It is a wonderful attribute that has us asking, ‘How do we harness that?’ ”

Shaping the Future

There is, of course, a constant tug and pull between tradition and innovation, although, in this case, innovation is decidedly winning out. “In this business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” says Blake Mallen, Chief Marketing Officer, ViSalus. “If you think about it, you’ve never seen the future of anything created by the older generation. Steve Jobs at Apple changed the music industry, Google has transformed the Internet, and these guys were all young. We want to tap into that same energy.”

RSSYouthful RevolutionTechnology is a fundamental aspect of everyday life for the younger generation—for communication, education, entertainment and, naturally, business. Gen-Y and, for the most part Gen-X, have grown up with computers. In fact, their innovative peers invented what we’ve come to know as social media and made it the integral part of society it is today. This is a group totally at ease with technology, and anyone who can’t keep up may have a hard time keeping their attention, much less their business.

“Technology allows you to be young always,” Franco says. “Digital communication keeps you current. For example, a flip chart has always been a part of our presentation, but the younger generation has no problem with a multimedia presentation, and the older generations are eager to get on board, too—so those older legacy tools are now becoming a thing of the past for us.”

For their part, Primerica has reached out to the younger generation with targeted websites and focus groups that aim to integrate leaders of all ages. “We want to make sure we’re not just a bunch of old folks sitting around trying to figure out how to attract more young people to this business,” Williams says. “We have a working groups program for leaders to give us their input on everything from products to our convention—in an effort to keep our finger on the pulse of what the field wants.”

While the move to integrate technology has been, no doubt, spurred on by the younger generation, it has also had some added benefits for companies as well. “Utilizing websites and social media to do business has definitely made us more appealing to the younger crowd,” Williams says. “But it has also helped us achieve more efficiency and streamline our operations.”

Like Primerica, Vemma’s strategy is to go straight to the source for information and feedback to stay current with trends. “If you walk into one of our meetings, you’re not going to see a lot of blue hair,” says BK Boreyko, Founder and CEO of Vemma. “The staff that I’ve surrounded myself with is young—between the ages of 28 and 35. We are working at creating a culture at our company that is energetic and fun for everyone to be a part of.”

For Boreyko, it’s important to be an early adopter, embracing technology and always on the move. “We open up the field of opportunity to the younger generation and we definitely have a product line and a message that resonates with them. We value their contribution and thrive off the young energy they bring to the table.”

The team at ViSalus finds themselves in a different situation altogether, because unlike most direct selling companies, the ViSalus co-founders are the younger generation. For them, attracting younger people to the field was not really a conscious effort—quite the contrary, actually. “At first we wanted to attract older members,” Mallen says. “We had no problem appealing to the 20-somethings who were around our own age, but we felt like we needed some of the credibility that presumably comes with experience and maturity.”

It’s an age-old struggle of wisdom and experience versus youthful energy and vitality. “We weren’t arrogant enough to think that we knew everything,” Mallen says. “So we created an alliance with an established, respected company to help lend us credibility.”

Interestingly, the myriad of changes have not brought a culture clash; instead, everyone young and old is welcoming the transformation. “Our older distributors love the social media aspect of this company as well. It keeps people engaged,” Mallen says.

“Through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blog sites, we are reaching out to ACN representatives better, faster and more regularly than ever before. The younger representatives certainly jumped on board with our social networking efforts immediately and with great enthusiasm. But over time, as word of these communication tools has spread, representatives of all ages are getting in on the action,” Provenzano says.

“You have to utilize social media to be relevant,” Boreyko says. “But really, when I hear people who don’t want to be a part of social media, it stuns me. The platform has worldwide reach—and it’s absolutely free. It doesn’t make sense not to be there.”

Not only are social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube good ways to expand a business, but they are also relationship builders for existing teams. “This business is all about relationships, and I can instantly stay in touch with the field and let them know what we’re up to at any given moment. It makes us all more real and keeps us connected. If people feel disconnected, they’ll leave,” Boreyko says.

“The only way to stay front and center in the minds of the younger generation is to stay fresh and innovative as a company,” Provenzano says. “This group often has big ideas and big dreams, so that enthusiasm certainly spreads throughout our organization and encourages us to stay on the forefront of everything we do.”

Youthful Revolution

Unleashing Their Potential

Finding the secret to what motivates and inspires the younger generation may lie at the very core of what makes direct selling so appealing to people of all ages. As it turns out, we’re not so different after all.

“Imagine the impact when a 20-something ACN leader has freedom of time and money,” Provenzano says. “Success at a young age is inspiring and there are few other industries that position young people in a place to make a substantial income.”

Primerica has seen the results of their efforts, with 61 percent of their recruits currently under age 35—a trend that has been stable for more than five years. “The constant influx of younger people helps to keep the company young, which is important to us on several levels,” says Mark Supic, Executive Vice President, Corporate Relations, Primerica. “We compete in the life insurance space, where the average age of agents is 58 years old. The fact that we have a younger base is important to our longevity as a company.”

The face of Mary Kay is evolving as well. In 2009, Mary Kay had a 13 percent increase in new independent salesforce members, and they are seeing a shift toward a younger demographic. Of that 13 percent increase, the average age is 36 years old. And the largest number of new independent salesforce members in the United States is between 25 and 34 years old.

“The younger generation is forcing all brands to work harder to prove ourselves to them,” Franco says. “They challenge all of us to be relevant to them. There is so much competition out there, and the younger generation is forcing us to earn their trust and their attention.”

The cosmetics giant recently partnered with Seventeen magazine to visit three college campuses—Florida State University, Arizona State University and Michigan State University—and it was a phenomenal success. “The tour was a brand-building effort, not one for recruiting, and it was exciting to see the positive reception we got at each campus,” Franco says. “It was validation that the younger generation is finding value with Mary Kay: income opportunity, flexibility to live their life, and something to belong to that matters and helps them make a difference in the world.”

One major attraction to direct selling is that the new generation is more self-reliant; to them, being in control of their own destiny is supremely important. “When it comes right down to it, every generation is attracted to direct selling for the same reasons,” Williams says. “Increased flexibility and unlimited earning potential appeal to everyone—no matter what their age. Those things are inherently important to us all.”

Young leaders crave the freedom to experiment. Overall, they’re resilient and ready to tackle the tough challenges. “This is a group that is used to beta tests,” Williams says. “If they experiment with something and it fails, they are OK with that. They are open to regrouping and trying something else. It’s a very positive characteristic of the younger age group.”

Another alignment with direct selling is the trend toward cause marketing. “The younger generation is very cause oriented,” Williams says. “And there are more causes to get excited about. There has been a definite trend toward integrating causes into our business, and this has helped to draw in the younger generation as well. When we can help them to make a difference in an area that touches them, it enables them to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Companies old and new are doing a stellar job of giving the younger generation what they want. “We’ve been around a long time, and yet the younger generation is finding something they are interested in,” Franco says. “Women make a career here because they fall in love. By attracting the younger generation it forces us to stay young as a company. We work to ensure we have a relevant product line that is presented in a way that is relevant to women of all ages.”

Maybe rather than age, it’s energy that’s truly important. “We have a culture of youthful energy that is fun, cool and hip,” Mallen says. “Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?”

The best part is that no one is excluded from the party. “This isn’t something that will alienate older people,” Boreyko says. “Boomers don’t want to get old, so they are jumping on anything that helps them maintain a youthful attitude and outlook on the business. And the company has become the rallying point.”