Thrillist isn't the only media company using its data to create more effective millennial advertising. Most digital media players from BuzzFeed to Vox use their internal data to create effective, custom-branded content.
Image-based social network Imgur takes the approach that in order to stand out with millennials, you have to blend in. It's also selling the fact that its readers are self-proclaimed "geeks" — a niche community that has become the majority of millennials. According to an Imgur and Ypulse survey of more than 2,000 nationally representative millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers, only 12 percent of millennials don't consider themselves a "geek."
At the same time, the survey found that 76 percent of "geeks" were likely to have used an ad blocker, and more likely to say that they've never seen an ad they liked. One-third of "geeks" said that brands don't relate to them.
"I don't know if there are any generations that love advertising," said Steve Patrizi, vice president of marketing and revenue at Imgur. "But, this generation understands how to use technology in a way that allows them to avoid it. They also have more choices than previous generations had. They could not get cable and still have access to a lot of content. They are more likely to go in incognito mode because they know a lot of companies are trying to track their movement."
Imgur's advertising arm helps brand create content in the tone of what users on Imgur would have written themselves. The company has worked with brands like Old Spice, eBay and MTV.
Imgur recently posted a story on behalf of financial services company SoFi on how to ask for a raise. Although the comments do acknowledge that readers understand its branded content, it also shows them saying that they used the tips.
"We built an [ad] team of Imgur users who also understand marketers," Patrizi said. "We'll do a lot of the creation, we'll work on the visuals and the copy, but [the brands] have a lot of say of what does and doesn't work for their brand."
However, going viral isn't always as easy as it seems.
"When you're trying to create something that will go viral, it's a lot more difficult than creating something that will hit a niche group," Firstborn's Eng said. "If you're trying to target a thing that is going to spread across the internet like wildfire, it's always going to be a game of chance."
DISCLOSURE: Hulu is owned by a joint-venture between Comcast's NBC Universal, 21st Century Fox's Fox Broadcasting and Walt Disney's ABC. NBC Universal, which is the parent company of CNBC, is also an investor in BuzzFeed and Vox.