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Take Care When Targeting Teens Online

Do teens constitute an audience for marketers when they’re visiting social sites?

Oct 5, 2009

– Mark Dolliver, Adweek

NEW YORK Teenagers are a mystery to most adults. New technology and media are another mystery to many adults. Combine these mysteries and you have ample opportunity for adult misperception of how teenagers use and feel about new technology and media. Some recent research works to get beyond popular misconceptions and provide a look at how teens actually engage with these things, including the advertising they encounter along the way.
Based on quantitative and qualitative research conducted between January and April, a report released last month by GTR Consulting confirms the conventional wisdom that teens are deeply involved in social networking. But it raises serious doubts about how congenial a medium this has been for marketers trying to reach the teen audience. Asked to cite the online activities they indulge in during their free time, 66 percent of the teens said they “use social networks” — exceeding the number who said they “watch user-generated videos” (59 percent), “send or receive instant messages” (51 percent), “play online games” (50 percent), “watch TV/movie clips” (36 percent), “get news/current events” (34 percent) or “blog” (12 percent). The report emphasizes that social-networking sites “have become more important for communication and connection among teens than the telephone, e-mail or instant messaging.” (See also: “Probing the Minds of Teenage Consumers”)
But that doesn’t necessarily mean teens constitute an audience for marketers when they’re visiting social sites. “Notably, we found that teens use social networks to socialize, not to read ads, play games or participate in marketing efforts,” says the report. Indeed, GTR finds teens critical of online advertising more generally. “They know that advertising is the price to pay for getting online services for free,” says the report, “but after spending hours online each day, they have grown weary of the many variations of online marketing. . . . From banner ads, online billboards, pop-ups and advergames to fictitious brand profiles on their social networking pages, teens universally point to these marketing efforts as their least favorite aspect of the Web.”
A report released in the spring by youth-marketing agency Fuse (in tandem with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) found a similar aversion to advertising via social sites. One part of its polling, fielded in June, asked teens to say how they’d like brands in various categories to advertise to them. Ads on social-networking sites ranked poorly across a range of sectors. For instance, just 10 percent of respondents said they like apparel brands to reach them via social networking, vs. 71 percent saying they like those companies to use TV spots; 14 percent said they like consumer-electronics companies to advertise to them via social networking (vs. 69 percent saying the same about TV spots); 11 percent like getting food and snacks marketing messages via social networking (vs. 78 percent citing TV).
Since social networking is so important to teens, do brands risk an out-and-out backlash if they blunder intrusively onto that turf? Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting, suggests that they do. “If brands are clumsy and fail to understand how teens want to be approached in the social-networking environment, marketers are risking a potentially hostile reaction,” he tells AdweekMedia. As for online advertising more broadly, he adds that teens are “frustrated by ads that disrupt, distract and disturb their online experience.” Or, as GTR’s report puts it, “From what teens have told us, online advertising is interruptive, distracting and intrusive. In a nutshell, online advertising is not working for this generation.”
Bill Carter, a partner in Fuse, has also seen wariness of marketers’ ventures into social media when these are out of sync with the reasons teens go to these sites. “Teens are indifferent to advertisers on social networks who don’t participate in the actual purpose of the social network, which is to actively communicate with each other and have fun in their communities and organized groups,” says Carter. “Advertisers that treat social networks like billboards, TV, radio or other media in which they simply run advertising will be met with at best a neutral reaction from teens and can be met with real backlash.”

That’s not to say it’s impossible for marketers to create a rapport with teens via social media. “Advertisers that are proactive members and participate as any good ‘friend” does will be engaged by teens,” says Carter. Rudman notes that teens turn to social networks in part for “efficiency” in conducting their lives, and marketers that serve this end can use social media to their advantage. “One teen stated that social networks make their social life easier to handle,” he notes. “If a marketer can create and offer a branded app that can make their online experience more efficient, teens are more likely to appreciate the brand and may even forward the tool to their friends,” Rudman adds.

Rudman also stresses the effectiveness that can come from a marketing approach that lets teens feel they’ve “discovered” the brand or its message. “If teens feel like they’ve discovered something, they’re so apt to pass it on,” he says. “They feel so empowered when they feel they’ve discovered it on their own.”
Along with social sites, video games and online gaming sites have become important venues for teens to use their free time. And, of course, this has lured marketers who wish to reach teens on their home ground. But this entails its own challenges. In the case of online gaming sites, the broadening of the gaming audience beyond its youth-oriented roots can be a complicating factor. Rudman mentions that teens who go to such sites are frustrated by the proliferation of ads that have nothing to do with their own interests. “If you have a Depends ad there, it’s obviously not relevant to teens,” he remarks.

Teens also bring a judgmental eye to in-game advertising. Says Carter: “Teens apply much the same authenticity test to in-game advertising as they do to other media. Is the advertising authentic? Is it credible? Does it belong in the game? Is it a distraction? Does it bring something positive to the game experience? If an advertiser can pass this test, it will be met with either a neutral to slightly positive response from teens. If the advertising fails this test, the best the advertiser can hope for is a neutral response, and the more likely response is disdain.”
In their eagerness (or, at times, over-eagerness) to connect with teens via newer media, marketers may be underestimating the efficacy of an older medium: television. For one thing, despite their immersion in new media, teens still spend plenty of time watching TV — 2.1 hours a day, according to the GTR report, a shade more than the 2 hours per day they spend online “for fun.” (They spend another 1.4 hours a day online “for school work,” or so they say.) And, what’s at least as important, TV is a medium where teens aren’t congenitally averse to encountering advertising. “When it comes to options for advertising, traditional TV advertising resonates best for teens,” says the GTR report.

“Marketers that fail to emphasize television in their marketing efforts risk missing the boat with teens,” says Rudman. “Teens are visually literate, and a good television ad will engage them. They remember funny, interesting, engaging, unique ads. In fact, if they like them enough, they will look for them online, such as on YouTube, so they can forward them on to their friends.”

GTR’s findings are consistent with those of Fuse Marketing’s survey. Seventy-five percent of the teens polled by Fuse agreed that TV is the “best way” for advertisers to reach them. The teens also ranked TV as their favorite platform for messages from all the advertiser categories about which they were asked, ranging from health and beauty to quick-serve restaurants.

Carter says that noticing which media teens consume is “the easy part” for marketers. “The difficult part is deciphering in which media teens are inclined to listen to a brand’s message versus those media they consider more sacred and want free from advertising.” Nobody ever accused TV of being sacred, and Carter identifies it as a medium “in which teens are open to an advertiser’s message.” Perhaps surprisingly, TV’s utility for reaching teens extends to products that have come along in what some people imagine to be the post-TV age. Thus, when the GTR polling asked teens to say where they “typically learn about electronics and technology,” 56 percent included TV among their sources, putting it slightly ahead of “online” (56 percent) and outpointed only by word of mouth (77 percent).

Those numbers are particularly telling when one considers the importance of technology in the lives of today’s teens, for better or worse. The GTR survey found 21 percent of its teens agreeing at least somewhat that “I have experienced peer pressure to have and use the latest technology.” But that phenomenon does not translate into any general aversion to new technology. One reason for this: 76 percent of the teens polled by GTR agreed (including 42 percent agreeing strongly) that “Technology helps me socialize/communicate with friends.” In other words, it is integrated into daily life for teens in a way that is generally not the case for their elders, even if the latter make ample use of new technologies.

“When it comes to technology, it’s almost universal that teens are not ambivalent about adopting it,” says Rudman. “In fact, technology adoption is part of the teen DNA. They have grown up in a world where technology drives communication and social interaction. They must jump on board so they don’t fall out of the loop. They really do not know any other approach. But although they are pushed on board, they quickly wrest control of new technology and make it their own.”

The numbers in GTR’s report certainly make it clear that engagement with multiple technologies is more the rule than the exception for teens. Given a list of electronic products and asked to say which ones they have, majorities pointed to the cell phone (85 percent), video-game console (79 percent), TV (79 percent), desktop computer (76 percent), digital camera (69 percent), portable gaming device (56 percent) and MP3 player with video (51 percent).

Or, teens may decide that a particular technology simply isn’t for them. This is what has happened with Twitter, suggests Rudman. “Teens as a whole have rejected Twitter as a tool for adults,” he says. “Twitter seems to be an announcement to the world, while things like Facebook and texting are a way of announcing to the people they care about.”

One wild card in how teens will interact with the world around them is the recession. As is the case with respect to consumers in general, marketers are wondering whether the severe downturn will have a lasting effect on teens, persisting even after the economy has recovered. Carter suspects that it will. “Teens are observing an economy with real consequences,” he says. “Maybe one or more of their parents have been laid off, maybe they hear the conversations about not being able to pay a mortgage on time, maybe they won’t go away to summer camp or on a family vacation this year. In any case, their lives have been affected, and they are not going to soon forget the significance of what they are feeling.”

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October 7, 2009 at 1:28 pm Leave a comment


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