Do Teens Dream Of Electric Sheep?

While enjoying a bit of sound, summer slumber the other night, I had an extraordinarily lucid dream that ended abruptly when my dream-self fell into a river. My heart was sent racing -- not due to a fear of drowning, but rather a fear that my iPhone had been in my pocket when I went under. Awakened by this terrifying prospect, I scrambled in the darkness to verify that it had all just been a dream. Sure enough, there was my trusty iPhone on the nightstand. I promptly tweeted about the episode and went back to sleep.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in the dream sciences to recognize that I harbor a bit of iPhone separation anxiety (and, most likely, Twitter addiction). I suspect, however, that I'm not alone in my fear. In fact, having just co-authored "Mobile Dependence Day," the latest in the SUBSCRIBERS, FANS & FOLLOWERS research series, I can state with utmost certainty that smartphone separation anxiety is on the rise as we depend on this single device to manage so much of our personal, business, and social lives.

As teens come of age in this growing era of mobile dependence, it's interesting to note where their mobile priorities lie. Consider how 15-17 year olds' top five smartphone uses differ from those of our entire survey group:

TeensAll Respondents
1. Texting (SMS) Phone
2. Phone Texting (SMS)
3. Facebook Email
4. Listening to music 
Browsing the Internet
5. Email Facebook

These are not, however, the only functions teens are using. Just over half of teen smartphone users shared that they had checked in via a location-based service like Foursquare or Facebook Places. Right around 30% have used their smartphone to share an article via email and a similar number have "liked" a company on Facebook. Most telling, around 20% have used their smartphone to shop for a competitive price while in a retail store.

Just as their adult counterparts, smartphone-powered teens are evolving before our very eyes into savvy shoppers, location-aware consumers, and mobile addicts. Perhaps nowhere is that addiction more visible than when you ask teens what they'd give up in order to keep their smartphones:

  • 72% would give up their Xbox, PlayStation or Wii
  • 70% of teens would give up their microwave
  • 46% would give up their refrigerator
  • 16% would give up their car

Taken together, our findings suggest that teens will to continue to expand both the breadth and depth of their smartphone usage. The impact for marketers will be significant in at least five key ways:

1. Competition. In a mobile world, your message must compete not only against your direct competitors for attention, but also the myriad of text messages, phone calls, emails, push notifications, and apps that fill teens' smartphone screens. Strong brands help cut through the clutter, but ultimately, your messaging must be timely and relevant to stand the best chance of being seen and acted upon.

2. Presentation. Smartphones shrink your available space to convey your message. Make sure your team is designing with the mobile teen audience in mind. Failure to do so could leave you as the brand the smartphone forgot.

3. Location. Allowing people to check in on Foursquare, Gowalla or Facebook Places is not a location-based marketing strategy. Keep an eye out for how these and other services (Google Maps, Groupon, Living Social, etc.) evolve to let you draw smartphone-enabled teens from out of the cold and to your product or service.

If you have a physical presence, make sure you provide calls-to-engage with you via digital channels (email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). While the sale is your ultimate goal, an opt-in that allows you to communicate directly and cost-effectively with your teen audience will help you generate future sales.

4. Function. Mobile isn't just a marketing channel, it's a customer service opportunity. Does your mobile website help teens find what they're looking for? Would they be better served with an app that pushes notifications to them? These are just some of the questions you should be asking to take full advantage of the functionality smartphones put in the palm of your teen consumers' hands.

5. Exclamation. Whether by "like," "share," "forward," or "tweet," the smartphone enables teens to share their excitement about your brand, product or service as they experience it. Help them shout about your greatness with QR codes, LBS check-in/out incentives, social media calls-to-action while they're in the moment. That's where the mobile magic lies.

If current trends hold, teen smartphone adoption and use will continue to grow exponentially over the next few years. Whether those teens will soon be dreaming of their smartphones falling into rivers remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Marketers who don't prepare for a mobile teen majority will face some sleepless nights of their own making.

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