Millennials – also known as today’s 18-34 year old demographic – are a moving target for brands, but a new report from Horizon Media and Fizziology aims to make a little more sense of them.

Some 73 million people in the U.S. are members of the Millennial generation, and they spend some $170 billion annually, according to comScore. Many Millennials are still living out the effects of the Great Recession of 2008-09 and seek lower prices and deals and use digital coupons when making purchases.

Still, Millennials are constantly connected to the world at large. With nearly three-quarters of Millennials owning smart phones, according to eMarketer, their heads are usually down while they’re up to their necks in digital media, whether that’s Tweeting, commenting on Facebook or posting selfies on Instagram or Snapchat.

Throughout 2012, Horizon’s WHY Group set out to better understand Millennials, their brand preferences and how best to reach them.

In general, brands’ best bet to reach Millennials of any stripe is to make sure they are being “transparent and respectful,” says Kirk Olson, director of TrendSights, The WHY Group, Horizon Media, Horizon’s trend-spotting practice. “It’s not a question of Millennials being ad-adverse or ad lovers. It’s a question of them having a really native understanding of how all of this works and the fact that they are being targeted as consumers. And if brands add a touch of quirk or humor to their campaigns, all the better. You just have to realize that you are in a conversation with them.”

“That’s the key point for the entire generation,” says Jen Handley, COO and co-creator of Fizziology, a research firm that turns social media into a giant focus group and then sifts through that data to deliver relevant information to clients. “You have to recognize that you are advertising to them. Don’t try to trick them.”

“It starts with understanding that in this always-on environment where Millennials are constantly updating their networks about what’s happening in their lives, they are also providing really valuable context that brands can use to understand them better,” says Olson.

“One of the biggest things that this information allows brands to do is find a tone of voice,” says Handley. “It helps them to deliver their campaigns across platforms and know how to talk to people.”

Through focus groups, analysis and a deep dive into social media, Horizon and Fizziology discovered that Millennials can be divided into four distinctly approachable segments.

The most desirable of these are the “Confident Connecteds” – career-minded Millennials who work hard, are motivated and social, and who talk actively and positively about brands over social media. Some 32% of Millennials fall into this category, according to the study, and brands that they tend to be attracted to include Nike, KFC, Starbucks, Amazon and Skype.

The other desirable group of Millennials are the “Indie Dreamers,” (who also could be referred to as “hipsters”). This group is all about being creative and autonomous. Accounting for some 25% of Millennials, Indie Dreamers tend to “share both positive and negative experiences with brands, and ridicule things that they think are out of style,” Horizon reports.

Brands that this group mentioned frequently in their social media conversations include Skype, Instagram, Words with Friends and Tumblr. They also enjoy seeing movies, going to concerts and checking out blogs, such as Vice.

Less motivated Millennials landed in the “Youthful Pursuits” and “Creatures of Comfort” groups. About 18% of Millennials fall into the Youthful Pursuits category, or people who are image- and thus brand-conscious, who are trend-seekers and –setters, and who continue to embrace their youth. When it comes to brands, they “consider them status symbols and mock those considered ‘cheap,’” according to the report.

Brands that appeal to this group include the newest and coolest, with brands tending to be aspirational for them. Brands mentioned in their social media conversations include Victoria’s Secret, Steve Madden, Netflix and Chipotle.

Finally, Creatures of Comfort, making up about 25% of Millennials, are generally unmotivated, easy-going, sedentary, and likely to still be living at home with their parents or crashing on a friend’s couch. While they tend to be very involved with screens and video, they tend to “complain about oversaturation of ads,” says Horizon. Frequently mentioned brands for this group include Diet Coke, Pandora, Doritos, Netflix and Tumblr.

Overall, Millennials are more interested in co-creating brands and products than just being entertained or informed by them. According to an Edelman Berland poll cited by eMarketer, 40% of Millennials surveyed said they would like to have some influence over brands and their products.

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