Secrets to advertising to an anti-advertising generation

SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

GE making a hot sauce from the hottest peppers on record may seem out of the company's wheelhouse. But according to Thrillist Media Group, if you look at what millennials like to read about online, hot sauce makes the perfect marketing vehicle.

"A lot of publishers think that content begins and ends on the screen, but to us it goes past that," said Jody Rones, Thrillist senior vice president for advertising sales and solutions. "It's the next step in the branded content space. We deliver great content that people will enjoy consuming, therefore it will allow the advertiser's message to go through."

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The 24/7 nature of digital media provides endless advertising opportunities — and chances for ad overload. Millennials in particular seem to have become wary of constant bombardment from brands.

According to a 2014 survey from anti-ad blocking analytics and services firm PageFair and Adobe, a little over a quarter of Americans had installed ad-blocking software. But, when it came to millennials, 41 percent used the services.

Another survey found much higher rates. A July 2015 survey of 748 millennials by online marketing company Moz and content-marketing agency Fractl showed 63 percent of them used ad blockers.

Yet Nielsen data showed millennials have the highest trust in online and mobile ads. If companies can send their messages in a natural way without seeming like an ad, it can be very effective.

"I don't think millennials mind if there's a brand attached if they see value attached, and [the brand] is speaking to them consistently on a platform that they use," said Leif Eng, strategist for digital agency Firstborn. "As long as you're rooted in what the platform is intended to do, and in things that people who use the platform are expecting to see, it could be the right way to go."

A beaker filled with GE’s 10^32 hot sauce
Javier David | CNBC

Thrillist Media Group mines data from its sites to figure out what things millennials are most likely to read.

When GE came to Thrillist — specifically its in-house agency The CoLab — wanting to promote its jet engine materials, the media company looked for topics that would appeal to its readers and reflect the product. It found that its stories on hot sauce had high levels of engagement and were more likely to be shared. GE made the packaging for the hot sauce, while Thrillist manufactured it, wrote about it and sold it on its website.

"Creating a hot sauce is not to make GE cool, it's to reveal what's already cool in a consumer-friendly way, and partnering with Thrillist was the right way for GE to tell an authentic science story through the lens of food," said a spokesperson on behalf of GE.

Thrillist didn't state specific stats on how many times the hot sauce was shared online, but said it had "significant buzz" from outlets including Mashable, Bloomberg, Fortune and other publications.

This isn't the first time Thrillist has used its internal info to come up with a "viral" product. It helped execute GE's 2015 South-by-Southwest BBQ laboratory, where you could custom-make a sauce among other food treats. It helped GE come up with the idea to create moon boots in commemoration of the Apollo 11 mission. It worked with Hulu to fill a "party bus" of social media influencers and take them speed dating in Los Angeles bars for the series "Casual."

There are also plans to roll out a "Grillist" vertical with Miller Lite in honor of summer grilling, with ideas for backyard-themed local events in the works.

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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.