MTV conducted an "ethnographic study" of its teenage audience in the late 1990s. The process consisted of spending some time with MTV fans and learning about their personal needs and concerns, with the goal of revitalizing the channel's slide in viewer rates.
Todd Cunningham, senior vice-president of strategy and planning for MTV, explained the project: "We go through their music collections. We go to nightclubs with them. We shut the door in their bedrooms and talk to them about issues that they feel are really important to them."
Nearly two decades after MTV's bold experiment, the combined annual income of US teens exceeds $90 billion, and the total annual teen market spending is $258.7 billion. Fully 95% of the more than 26 million US teens are online, and three in four access the Internet on mobile phones, tablets, and other mobile devices, which both facilitate connection to their own teen culture and are difficult to penetrate by the outside world.
Marketing to teens can therefore be tough. A product might be the handiest tool or the most practical service... yet, if teens cannot make it a symbol of their values, it won't appeal to them.
If a marketing effort at teens is to succeed, it must tap into three valuable areas of teen culture.
Teens value peer connectedness. According to a 2015 report from Pew Research Center, 71% of teens age 13-17 use Facebook, 52% use Instagram, and 41% use Snapchat. Some 81% of teen girls consider their friends and peers a source for their buying decision-making.
Teens place a great deal of trust in their friends, and if you want to be a brand choice for them, you need to become a part of their peer-preference system. But you could be easily ostracized if you do not meet their expectations. For example, according to a report from Mintel, 10-15-year-olds are worried that they could be shunned by their peers if they are not active enough across the most popular social media networks.
So you'll need to keep pace with teen trends and incorporate them in your marketing activities. You can even hire a teen theorist, according to Julia Benben, marketing director at Freetoes, a toeless-sock company founded by a teen.
Teens also have a lot invested in their self-image. Negative comments truly bother them; but, if you give them positive feedback regarding their self-image, they will adopt you as a friend.
Ranah Edelin, CEO of We Heart It, an image-based social network, states that 80% of the network's users say they've been bullied by derisive comments at some point on Facebook. We Heart It users cannot comment on posts, and those teens are actually happy with that feature, according to Edelin.
When I see a fit body online, the idea gets into my head to hit the gym. Though no longer a teen, I'm still aware of my self-image. Teens, however, are hyper-aware—and hyper-sensitive.
A 2014 survey by the Today Show and AOL.com found that 80% of teen girls compare themselves with images of celebrities; of that group, nearly half say those images make them feel dissatisfied with how they look.
As a brand, help teens to become aware of their own merit and also help them counter prevalent critical perspectives toward them. A picture of a typical teen with a calm smile on your product might well outperform an image from an expensive photoshoot of a celebrity jerk.
Avoid foisting unrealistic and critical images onto teens; be caring toward them. Teens truly value and need empathy.
3. Social Image
"Teens are young adults, so treat them as such. Don't try too hard to be cool," says Greg Rudolph, head of Board Blazers. He's right. We see ourselves in others-as-mirror, and that is more evident in teens. They can easily feel patronized and offended if you don't reflect respect toward them and don't treat them as intelligent consumers.
Don't be so naive as to think that you can manipulate teens by merely having celebrities hold your products in ads, or by featuring a popular song in your commercials.
True, teens feel that brands need to be part of their culture, but your product needs to be a natural fit in that culture. You can't force it or fake it.
Teens are an independent consumer segment with pride in their values, which you'll need to identify—and respect in your marketing.