Sell Experiences, Not Products
By Ashley McGee
The baby boomer generation is no longer the largest segment of the U.S. population, and if you don’t already have a strategy in place for marketing to millennials and Generation Z, then you’re doing the long-term future of your business a disservice.
(Here we’re using the Pew Research definitions of these demographics with the term “millennials” — referring to those born between 1981 and 1996 [ages 23–38] and “Generation Z,” or Gen Z, those born from 1997 to 2012 [ages 7–22].)
For many business owners who are members of the preceding generations, these groups can be difficult to understand, relate to and connect with — all of which can make it challenging to appeal to them as consumers.
Through a combination of research, planning and trial and error, some dealers have managed to break through these barriers. Here is some of their insight into what has (and hasn’t) worked in their markets.
Know The Competition
Perhaps you have a handle on the known entities of competition, but think carefully about any you may have overlooked.
Consider: Your biggest competition when it comes to marketing to millennials may not even be in the firearms industry.
There are more than a dozen gun ranges in the greater St. Louis area — in addition to other big-box or online retailers. But Paul Bastean, managing director of Ultimate Defense Firing Range and Training Center said his biggest competitors in capturing the attention of 20- and 30-somethings are actually Top Golf and ax throwing venues.
While this may surprise you, it shouldn’t. A recent study found 72% of millennials prefer to spend their money on experiences rather than material things, and experiences are exactly what these companies are creating and selling.
“The retail segment of our business is actually our least valuable behind training and range usage,” Bastean shared. So when it comes to attracting the next generation of shooters, Ultimate Defense’s strategy focuses largely on creating experiences rather than pushing products.
“We realized a significant portion of millennials’ only experience with firearms was through playing video games or watching them in movies,” he continued. “So, we created events to help simulate these scenes within the safety of our range.”
In March, Ultimate Defense hosted Cowboy Gunfighter Night. The event included holsters, ammunition and the opportunity to shoot cowboy guns like those featured in popular Western movies for one single price. The range was transformed to include four themed stages, complete with sets and props like a poker game gone bad requiring the use of single-actions; a shooting gallery with lever-action rifles; a saloon scenario using simunition guns and a timed quick-draw bracket tournament.
Past event themes have included zombie apocalypse and “John Wick” nights. For the latter participants watched scenes from the movie on a large screen, then took to the range where the scenes were recreated.
With a limited number of spots available, the events capitalize on a common trend among millennials called “FOMO” — which stands for “fear of missing out.” The all-inclusive price appeals to those who are budget conscious and may have limited disposable income, as they know there won’t be any additional costs or hidden fees once they arrive.
Appeal To Non-Shooters, Too
“In our experience, millennials are definitely buying fewer firearms than the previous generations,” said Robin Salvo, director of operations at Black Wing Shooting Center in Delaware, Ohio. “However, after the age of 25, firearms purchases tend to increase.”
The reason, she believes, is multifaceted: including limited disposable income, lack of willingness to commit and decreased interest in collecting firearms compared to previous generations.
Gun ownership and collecting firearms is something a grandparent or maybe parent did, but in many cases, the tradition of hunting or shooting sports was never passed down. And for those who have never held a gun in their hands, much less fired one, the thought of going to a gun store or range for the first time can seem overwhelming.
This is partly the reason why Black Wing Shooting Center hosts a Summer Blast event each July. While there are manufacturer representatives on site, special offers and opportunities to shoot, the store goes to great lengths to offer family-friendly activities both shooters and non-shooters alike will enjoy.
Summer Blast kicks off on a Friday night with a live band and beer sales benefitting a local charity. The event continues Saturday with a car show and proceeds to benefit a second local charity. Each day, the event draws an estimated 400 people.
Both dealerships rely heavily on digital and social media to promote not only their events but also new products, sales, special promotions and training classes.
For Black Wing Shooting Center, Google Ads have been the most successful tactic because they appear when users are already searching for related information and seem more organic above or alongside search results.
“While the industry seems to be leaning toward digital display ads in an attempt to market to this demographic, we believe this type of advertising, unlike Google ads, can be counterproductive for this age group,” said Kayla Lemaster, Black Wing marketing and events coordinator. “They’re exposed to a massive amount of digital display, which can be intrusive.”
Of the other tactics used at Black Wing, targeted emails work well, and radio advertisements are not as successful with younger millennials or Generation Z.
Ultimate Defense Firing Range and Training Center focuses a large part of their efforts on social media. Although they have grown an audience of more than 18,000 on its Facebook page, the platform’s demographic has increased in age — causing them to shift more attention to the younger-facing Instagram.
“I always offer to take pictures for people at our events or those who just come in to shoot because I know they’ll post it,” Bastean lends. “Their friends see it, and it’s like virtual word of mouth.”
Bastean said they’ve had some success with pay-per-click advertising but social media advertising, such as boosting Facebook posts, hasn’t worked as well. (This is likely due to the algorithm Facebook uses to show users content as well as advertising policies, which prohibit ads promoting the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives.)
The most important thing each of these dealers recommends is to pay close attention to current trends and remain flexible. Both are key to navigating an ever-changing digital landscape, and will become increasingly important as the next generation grows older.
Who’s Next? Generation Z
This year millennials are on track to be surpassed by Generation Z for the first time with nearly one-third of the world’s 7.7 billion total population born since 2001. Also occurring this year, those born in 2001 turn 18 — meaning many of them will start college, be eligible to vote and legally able to purchase a firearm.
What does this mean for the shooting industry? Dealers who don’t currently have a dedicated strategy for marketing to millennials are already behind the curve. As you continue to serve millennials, consciously lay the groundwork for Gen Z.
There’s still a lot to be learned about the consumer behaviors of Gen Z, but their economic impact simply cannot be ignored.
Compared to millennials, Gen Zers are digital natives — largely unable to remember a world without the internet. They’re more diverse, progressive, civically engaged and individualistic having grown accustomed to everything being personalized for them. All of these factors, as well as current events, affect their purchasing decisions.
Those in Gen Z are drawn to socially responsible businesses; promoting safety, education and training opportunities will grow increasingly important. Additionally, they’re even less brand loyal than millennials so be prepared retention will continue to be a challenge. To keep them coming back, experiment with ways to create meaningful interactions and understand how they use different social media platforms for various activities such as Twitter for news or Instagram stories to share real-life moments.
As with the previous generations, millennials and Generation Z are shaped by those who came before them and the world around them — driven to be better, not make the same mistakes and blaze their own trails. Whether you choose to host more events, invest in digital advertising or focus on growing your social media presence, the most important thing to remember is the impetus is on you as a dealer to adapt to the needs and behavior of millennials and Gen Z. If successful, this will lead to a strong core of multi-generational customers.