Are You Communicating with Teens?

They're numerous, cool and impressionable. They already spend millions. In a decade or so, they’ll be your primary market. Are you talking teens' language?

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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"There is no such thing as hitting teens [as a broad demographic]," says Malcolm Bird, senior vice president of AOL Kids and Teens, an Adweek panelist on targeting teens in an online and mobile world. "You've got to decide what sort of teens and what demo you want to hit within the media."

Brand names are less of a hallmark of quality and more a means for teens to define themselves. "Advertising to teens cynical about marketing demands that they believe they are discovering brands on their own," says Taylor, who divides teens into five groups: A-listers (popular kids in a crowd), American Dreams (regular hard-working teens), Individual Thinkers (opinionated leaders), Outsiders (estranged and suffering from low-self esteem) and Jack Blacks (or JBs, party kids).

Online buzz is king. " ‘Did it break [as in break out]? Do my friends think it's cool?' Those things hold the most sway," Taylor says. "It's an opinion process that goes on through IMs [instant messaging] and text-messaging, and it applies to everything from movies to cargo pants."

Teens constitute a very unique segment – fickle, competitive, ever-changing and constantly on the move, according to panelists at last year's Wharton Marketing Conference. Companies that want to capture teen consumers must be able to speak their language, identify their latest trends and find the optimal ways to target them through everything from music downloads to instant messaging ads.

"Teens are an enormously important segment because they are disproportionately powerful in terms of being trend setters and early adopters," says Keith Niedermeier, Wharton visiting professor of marketing. "Additionally they are an attractive market because of the lifetime value they offer. Capturing teens and establishing brand loyalty can launch decades of positive yields in the future. It's an incredibly lucrative market, but definitely not for the faint of heart." And he adds, "Nowhere does market research have a shorter shelf-life than when talking about the teen segment."

Cool whatever tends to have a short shelf life for teens – if you are reading about it in mainstream publications, it's too late. Unlike other demographic groups, products need to be brought to market lickety-split. That's why cool hunters, who specialize in youth culture, enjoy great success.

Cool hunters Sharon Lee and Dee Dee Gordon, of Hollywood, Calif.-based Look-Look, a teen market research company, use Youth Information Specialists (or former teen innovators) to stay ahead of the trends. "Trends spread in a triangle," says Lee. "At the top there's the innovator (two or three percent of the population), underneath are trend-setters (17 percent), who pick up on the innovator's ideas and claim them as their own. Under that, are early adopters (varies), who take what the trendsetter is doing and make it palatable for mass consumption to the mainstream (80 percent). The mass consumer picks up on it, runs with it and actually kills it."

Connected in their own language

A telephone survey conducted last fall by Princeton Survey Research Associates, found: 84 percent of teens own a desktop computer, a notebook computer, a cell phone or a personal digital assistant, 44 percent have two or more of those items, 12 percent have three and 2 percent have all four, reports the St. Petersburg Times. And the key age for the transition to technology appears to be about seventh grade, when there's a surge in socializing.

A recent NPD Group study found wireless phones are becoming an important "coming of age" marker. Twelve percent of kids ages 8-12 have a wireless phone, but that jumps to 49 percent for ages 13-15, according to a Harris Interactive youth survey last year. Girls 15 to 17 seem to be the technology leaders: 97 percent have used instant messaging, compared with 87 percent of boys in that age group, and 57 percent of girls 15 to 17 have sent text messages, compared with 40 percent of boys.


Who's connecting with wireless?
Users by age Total users in millions % of age group with cellphones
13-15 6.2 49%
16-17 5.8 68%
18-21 13.5 81%

Source: Harris Interactive July 2005-January 2006, Census Bureau (number of users based on Census 2005 population projection and Harris.


For American teens, e-mail is just so yesterday. They prefer instant messaging (exchanging instant messages on-line) often engaged in multiple conversations. They also love their cell phones. In fact, some 45 percent have a cell phone, according to TRU, and 37 percent also use text messaging (see "TEXT MESSAGING," below), with numbers rising every year.

Texting is an abbreviated form of writing that's barely understandable by older people who are more comfortable sending and receiving traditional e-mail, reports USA Today. Short Message Service (SMS) messages are generally limited to 80 characters, so texting users condense their messages to fit more thoughts into a single message. TransL8it! (www.transI8it.com) allows you to enter a message – either in plain English or in SMS-speak. Hit the submit button, and a translation appears. Like many web-based SMS systems, TransL8it! counts characters as you type so messages fit within the 80-character SMS limit. Soon users will be able to send SMS messages to friends directly from the site.

How they define health

Teens' views on health are somewhat different than adults, according to a June 2005 survey of teens conducted by Buzzback Market Research (www.buzzback.com), New York. They believe diet can have a direct impact on their health, well-being, energy levels, performance and appearance and seek foods that deliver those attributes.

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