Marketing to Today’s Teens: The Same but Different

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Accounting for 25% of the population in the United States, Generation Y—aka the Millennials–not only provides a huge current market, but it also provides the possibility of gaining lifelong brand loyalty. Within that subset, Gen-Y teenagers have become a highly sought-after target market.

A highly sought-after, elusive target market, I should add. With a unique combination of greater knowledge as well as greater optimism, these teens exhibit completely different buying behaviors than most of us have seen before. Only 10 years ago teenagers still relied mainly on the telephone for conversation, and television was their primary form of entertainment. Today’s teenagers not only use multiple technology channels for communication but are major content creators as well. So not only do we need to reach this group effectively, but we must also provide them with exciting and interactive content.

This is a generation that has grown up quickly. They have more information at their fingertips than any other generation had at that age. They’re under extreme pressures, from getting into the “right” college to carrying the “right” phone. They live in a real-time world, where having a thought leads to an instant message (IM) sent from anywhere a fraction of a second later.

But for every cultural and technological phenomenon that makes them different, teenagers are, of course, still teenagers. Just like the teenage generation before them, and the teenage generation before that, today’s teens abhor advice from adults. Traditional marketing messages? Forget about it. The last group of people who can influence them are adults, let alone adult marketers. In terms of influence, teenagers in this group listen to their peers, not their parents.

So given the psychographics of this group, what works? With so many messaging channels to choose from, one would think it would be easy to reach this crowd. Hammer a zillion messages across a zillion pathways and a few are bound to get through, aren’t they? Or create a cool video with tons of product placement and send it off into the viral nanosphere for millions of kids to watch. Better yet, post it on YouTube, and it will be sure to take off. Maybe you can use integrated marketing concepts to create a messaging synergy. That’s bound to work, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, as many marketers have found out, reaching this group of teenagers has proven to be one of the hardest tasks we’ve faced yet. Apple has done a great job. But ask them to identify the X factor that led to the success of the iPod over all the other MP3 players on the market and even Apple can’t give you a definitive answer. Movie studio executives have rushed to take the credit for “The Blair Witch Project,” arguably the first real viral success story. But the producers of that movie admit it just might have been a fluke.

According to several Pew/Internet studies, the number of teenagers online has grown 24% during the past four years. Eighty-seven percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 are online. But while it’s tempting to use e-mail to reach this group–it’s cheap, you can blast to millions at a time, and you can change up your message on a constant basis–several surveys, not to mention my own empirical experience, show that today’s teens consider e-mail as a way of communicating with adults and with authority figures. E-mail might work to sell Viagra. It’s not going to work with this demographic.

The delivery mechanism and the messenger
So what does work? I’ve found that there are two components to a successful marketing campaign for teenagers: the delivery mechanism and the messenger.

Kids use IM to communicate with each other. For Gen Y teens, IM has for the most part replaced the telephone. And so reaching this group is best done by mobile messaging. A June 2006 survey by software provider Mobilitec uncovered some surprising information. Teens want to be marketed to on their mobile units. In fact, they were frustrated if games from some of their favorite brands weren’t available via mobile phone or PDA.

Other studies have shown the same things. In a recent study in England, more than 60% of mobile phone or PDA users found receiving messages via Short Message Service (SMS) to be “highly acceptable.” Astonishingly enough, that same study showed that more than 80% of messages in the study were read, and 30% of the respondents had a significant increase in their “intention to buy” as a result of a message.

These are incredible response numbers. So why isn’t everyone rushing to this medium? Perhaps because it’s a new one for us marketers. Almost like going back to a dumb terminal from a graphical interface, we have got to figure how to deliver compelling content that can be downloaded fast. And teens want interaction. Although they’re more than willing, even eager to participate in games presented by brand names, the same Mobilitec study showed that games slow to download or with poor graphics resulted in frustration—and even a small amount of frustration results in a quickly slammed door.

Mobile messaging isn’t the only mechanism for delivering the message, of course. Some marketers are having great luck creating highly interactive gaming sites, mainly for younger teens and tweens. Brands such as Cheetos and Lucky Charms have developed multimillion-dollar Websites complete with sophisticated games and cleverly inserted brand promotions. To the ire of many parents’ organizations, it’s not clear where the entertainment stops and the advertising begins.

But unfortunately, most marketers are still trying to use adult persuasion to reach this group. How many marketers have tried ghosting chat rooms, and failed miserably? I have to tell you, no matter how much Cheyenne Kimball we blast on the iPod while we write, we’re never going to sound like an authentic teen in a chat room.

Which leads me to the second component of a smart teen marketing campaign: the messenger. Smart companies are hiring “spokesteens,” teenagers who act as online spokespeople. In 1999, Levi’s, facing a declining market share in one of its most important demographics, sponsored a concert tour, developed a cause marketing campaign against guns and violence, and hired spokesteens to help deliver the messages at 23 concerts across the U.S. After the tour, a study by Sponsorship Research International (SRi) showed two startling results. First, concertgoers said they were twice as likely to buy Levi’s after attending the event. And 57% of the attendees now branded Levi’s as “hip” and “sexy.” Much of the success of this tour was attributed to the peer influence factor, the power of these spokesteens.

Some spokesteens spend time in popular chat rooms and initiate conversations about the company products and services. They are not celebrities; they’re regular teenagers. And even if other teens know the spokesteens are paid reps of the company, they usually don’t care, because they’re being sold to by a peer rather than by an adult.

Just as teens will always be teens, marketing to these guys is about the same things we’ve always understood. Get the right messenger, use an effective delivery channel, and make the content compelling. What has changed are the definitions of “right,” “effective,” and “compelling.” Marketing to today’s teens requires the same old principles, but a whole new bag of tricks.

Christa Heibel is CEO of CH Consulting (, a sales and marketing consulting business based in International Falls, MN.


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