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Selling Mortgages to Millennials

AUG 21, 2014 11:22am ET
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Last week, I shared some information about a group that I'm sure will be a very important target market for the mortgage industry in the near future. And I'm not just saying that because my daughter is a Millennial. This will be the generation that separates the best mortgage lenders from those that settle for a niche or leave the business altogether. Unless we figure out how to work with these young people, there will be very few lenders in the first category and quite a few in the latter.

In other words, I have a simple challenge for you: read this story within the next 24 hours and change your business or dump a bucket of ice water on your head. Up for the challenge? I call it the #FigureOutMillennialsOrFeelLikeIceColdWaterWasDumpedOnYourHead challenge. (I may need help from a Millennial on a better hashtag.)

Why is this going to be such a challenge for us? Because this may be the first group of homebuyer-aged Americans that don't buy into the American dream at least not the homeownership part of it. Of course, they do dream about unlimited data plans and faster internet connections, but that hardly drives homeownership.

To the kids born after 1980, homeownership is, as they put it, "meh." To get them to invest in a home, we're going to have to really sell them on the idea. And it's very hard to sell something to someone who does not believe you and who you are communicating with in a way that does not match their expectations.

To put it simply, they don't trust us. We shouldn't take it too personally; they approach the concept of trust in a different way than previous generations did. The first generation that was born connected, Millennials build trust by assembling small fragments of information from many sources, most of which are instantly available. They do this very quickly. In effect, you could say that they crowd-source their belief structures.

Contrast that with folks from our generation. When we need information, we tend to reach out to a single expert, preferably with plenty of gray hair and experience who can show us the ropes. Our approach is more hierarchical. Look for the people who have climbed that ladder already and approach them for assistance. This may spring from the fact that many of us were taught as children to "respect our elders." Millennials don't automatically do that. And when they do bestow a level of trust, they can take it away suddenly, which explains why celebrities fall into and out of favor with this audience so quickly.

In the Millennials' world, when one of their members encounters something confusing, like the mortgage process, they write a quick post about it and push it out to their social networks. Within seconds, other Millennials jump into the conversation, sharing whatever they have on their minds. In their world, information and power come from crowds and connections, not from any "expert."

So, you can see why heading down to the bank branch for assistance is so odd for this group. They don't expect to find anyone there they trust more than their networks. When they look for a loan, they expect to find all sorts of information about the loan company or the loan officer residing all over the web, especially in the feeds provided by members of their social networks. If they don't find you out there, you must not be important, i.e., the right choice for them.

So, I have heard from several Gen Xers that the Millennials will change, that the young folks just need to "grow up." Well, I am not so sure that it's "them" who are going to do the changing. A good case in point is burning its way through the Web right now. A few in our generation remember when Lou Gehrig spoke about his disease at Yankee Stadium, and others may have been inspired by Steve Gleason (the football player) who struggles with the disease. But ask a Millennial about it and they'll likely know a lot about it, thanks to the viral "Ice Bucket Challenge." The differences in the generation come into stark relief when you compare the way these videos have driven young people to learn about the disease and support the cause even as older viewers initially shake their heads and wonder why people wouldn't just cut the check.

Of course, it has now become such a social phenomena that all generations are participating, meaning that maybe we actually do understand how viral marketing can work. I have seen plenty of posts on Facebook with all generations dumping water on their heads (click here for mine). After all, a personal connection (in this case the ice bucket challenge) is making all generations take action for a good cause, and has exploded on the Internet through social media.

So, why does the Ice Bucket Challenge work, and what can that teach us about mortgage marketing?

Well, first off, it's personal from one person to another using social media for the connection. We all want to tell someone about our great mortgage products, but maybe it's better to post a congratulations to someone's Facebook after closing. Or find a real estate agent's post about an open house and help them publicize that with a personal note about the house. Or take a picture of a happy customer at closing (which means you have to show up at closing) and then post that and talk about how you feel doing your job. That is personal.

Secondly, it's clever. You don't have to be a medical expert in ALS to explain what the challenge is all about. You just have to be willing to dump water on your head. That is the type of activity that is made for selfie videos, and that fits perfectly into the social media viral storm. In fact, much of the success of this campaign may be the natural instinct of Facebook users to want to watch their friends dump ice cold water on their head. And do it through the technology that everyone already has. It's all mobile generated, and as you scroll through your Facebook newsfeed, these sorts of images jump off the page. They naturally make you want to engage in them.

Finally, it's simple do this (dump water on head) or do that (give to ALS). Two choices. Now, I don't think a challenge to "get a prequal or I will dump a bucket of ice water on my head" is going to be effective. But having images (pictures), and clever headlines, and the ability to tag other users is likely to be a key part of spreading a message to Millennials.

So, what's a mortgage lender to do about this seemingly insurmountable problem? I'm glad you asked. I'll be writing about that next week. I think it's pretty important that lenders take note of this generation or face a deep freeze of mortgage volume in the future.

Garth Graham is a partner with Stratmor Group, and has over 25 years of mortgage experience.

Comments (5)
Great Article. Thanks for your insight!
Posted by dEBI Z | Thursday, August 21 2014 at 6:23PM ET
I think that the mortgage process should be more technological driven, getting rid of the paper in the transaction and allow for mobile notarization. Virgina has this capability.
Posted by Hugh F | Friday, August 22 2014 at 7:17AM ET
Good read Garth!
Posted by Phil H | Friday, August 22 2014 at 11:24AM ET
Very well stated article! As a millennial homeowner and consultant to mortgage companies, this is the kind of information I think will be critical for the industry to embrace. I don't think the "American Dream" is necessarily gone when it comes to homeownership - I just think it looks different from what it used to be. Thanks for the article.
Posted by Kristin M | Tuesday, August 26 2014 at 4:54PM ET
The fundamental problem is that it was too easy for the Boomers. They had the benefit of an incredible 32 year period of declining interest rates. The American dream was buy a house, interest rates fall, people can afford higher monthly payments, housing prices go up, money is made. But (according to the MBA) interest rates are increasing. Everything else being equal this means higher/less affordable monthly payments and negatively impacted property prices, money lost. It's not the same dream. Millenials are probably going to wait until the need the stability of their own home e.g. have school aged children, before they begin purchasing homes in significant numbers. Millennials will figure out the end of the declining interest rate paradigm for themselves because they do their own research rather than listening to their elders.
Posted by Scott C | Thursday, September 18 2014 at 1:42PM ET
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