Source: PWC; click to enlarge

A paradigm shift is underway in global mobility. Record numbers of positions will move overseas as the global economy integrates more tightly and emerging markets mature. As the number of international assignments grows, companies will look to their youngest employees to fill them.

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) report titled Talent Mobility 2020, the number of international assignments will increase 50% by 2020, to nearly 400 per large organization. The youngest professionals, the so-called “millennials,” will hold the bulk of these jobs. 80% of those PWC surveyed said they wanted to work abroad at some point, a trend that held across both developed and emerging economies.

By decade’s end the average expat is going to be younger than ever before. And while these expats will need all the same services as previous generations, they have so far proven resistant to traditional marketing strategies.

As such, we’ve spent the last two months researching this group. We’ve conducted interviews in industries from insurance to education, and have reached some important conclusions on young professionals and how to reach them.

How are young expats different?

In the course of our research and interviews, we identified a number of differences between expats aged 24-40 and their 40+ counterparts. Below we’ve boiled them down into 4 key points:

1) Young expats are all about technology. They grew up online. As a result, they are early adopters of new technology, and are turned off by companies that seem slow or outdated. The younger the expat, the stronger he exhibits this trait.

Consider the results of a 2010 Nielsen study of young professionals in Indonesia: 100% of those surveyed owned a mobile handset; a further 50% owned more than one.

Source: Pew internet research; click to enlarge

2) Young expats use media differently. They have different preferences when it comes to media (and thus marketing campaigns). The key to reaching young professionals is authenticity. Sanitized messaging and boilerplate PR-speak don’t impress this group. Companies have to think social.

As Nielsen concluded back in 2010:

Communicate your product or service message with realistic explanations. Do not over promise and under deliver.  Establish a professional customer service center that is tactful and focused on problem solving. Give consumers the freedom to decide and choose. Listen and understand them, but don’t teach them.

Further proof: a study by the Pew Research Group found 72% of adults aged 18-29 were “enthusiastic” users of social networking platforms, compared to only 40% of those aged 30+.

3) Young expats are harder to find. Older expats still gather in the usual places: traditional “expatriation” websites and forums. Young expats tend not to congregate in these places. Instead they are spread out across social networking sites, and special communities with international members, where they have a better chance of connecting with others like them.

Of course, young expats also rarely read newspapers. Remember that Nielsen study? It found a mere 19% of young professionals got their news from a traditional paper.

4) Young expats identify more with their peers than nationality. Because of the sharp divide in attitudes toward media and technology, young expats identify more strongly with people their own age than older people from the same country. Hence, appeals to their “national” or “cultural” identity are not as effective. Young professionals think of themselves as “world citizens,” not “expat Brits/Germans/Spaniards/etc.”

Targeting young expat professionals

In order to reach young professionals, marketeers first need to get on the cutting edge of technology. Print is dead and static web content will follow. Young expats want to be addressed directly and honestly. That’s the main reason they’re so fond of social media.

Marketeers also need to challenge young expats’ view of big companies as soulless profit machines. Humor is key. Make a young person laugh and you’ve gone a long way toward earning her trust (not to mention business).

Finally, companies shouldn’t limit themselves to “expat” communities to reach young professionals. It’s much more effective to think about communities of young people, then narrow focus from there. If we were looking to target young expats in Hong Kong, for example, we would start by looking at all young people in Hong Kong: What phones do they use? What do they use them for? What websites and social networks do they prefer? What kinds of bars, clubs and restaurants do they frequent?

Ultimately, you will always have more success appealing to a young expat’s generational identity than his identity as an “expatriate”. To him, expats in the traditional sense are old people. And trust us, that’s the last group he wants associated with.