Mind the Gap When Talking About Teens

Looking in the mirror this morning, I was forced to face reality: I'm getting old. Thus, when it comes to teen culture, I am an outsider looking in. And knowing that my personal experiences are different from theirs, I can't afford to fall into the trap of applying anything from my experience to that of teens. Not only are their habits different from my own today, but they are different than what I did when I was a teen. The tools available to them and the social mores around those tools are simply different.

Our ongoing research, in collaboration with the Center for Media Design, compares how consumers communicate interpersonally versus how they want marketers to communicate with them. When it comes to teens, there is a marked difference in how they communicate on a personal level when compared to other demographic segments. For example:

  • Teens are much less likely to pick up the phone and call friends. When I was a teen, the stereotypical teenage girl was constantly talking on the phone with friends. Not so today. Only 16% of females 15-17 say they are most likely to call when they want to communicate with friends. 49% are most likely to write messages. The remaining 35% call and write messages equally. Compare that to 35-44 year old females (approximate age range of moms of teens) and we see 34% are most likely to call and only 19% are most likely to write messages.
  • Teens rely heavily on text messaging. When asked what type of written communication teens are most likely to use for communicating with friends, 57% said they use text. Another 10% use social networks most often. Surprisingly, for teens, 18% still say they use email and 12% use IM. This lies in stark contrast with their parents (again 35-44 year olds), where 64% are most likely to send email while only 16% are most likely to send text messages.

As marketers, we know this stuff. But this is also where we often make a typically "old" mistake by misattributing the significance of these trends as they apply to marketing.

As we look at the communication habits of "old" people (i.e., anyone over 35), it makes sense that since they (um, we) use email for interpersonal communication that we also tend to prefer email when receiving permission-based marketing communications.

However, despite the fact the majority of teens communicate with each other via text, only a small minority (10%) want to receive text messages from companies. They are much more likely to prefer companies use email (64%) or direct mail (19%) to communicate with them.

"But teens don't use email and they don't read direct mail," right? Not true. They simply don't interact with these channels as often as us "old" folks, but they do transact as a result of these channels. When asked, "Have you ever made a purchase as a result of a marketing message you received through each of the following channels?" they answered:

  • 62% as result of a TV Commercial
  • 55% as a result of Direct Mail
  • 36% as a result of Email
  • 24% as a result of an Infomercial on TV
  • 16% as a result of text messaging
  • 15% as a result of something they saw on a social media site
  • 13% as a result of a Telemarketing call
  • 10% as a result of an Instant Message

As we look at the teen market, it's important to keep in mind the difference between "relative" and "absolute" preferences. Across the board, teens have much more favorable impressions of marketing through emerging channels such as SMS and social networks than non-teens -- but these are relative views.

When targeting this market, it is crucial to have a strong presence in emerging channels, but don't get caught in the relativity trap. In terms of absolute preferences, they are similar to other consumers in that they still prefer traditional channels for marketing communications and they are still converting through them. Note: if you are interested in reading more of these research findings, they can be found in our 2009 Channel Preference Study.

3 comments about "Mind the Gap When Talking About Teens".
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  1. Judy Franks from The Marketing Democracy, February 11, 2010 at 2:29 p.m.

    You raise a very important distinction between media consumption/media behavior and marketing relevance. Too often, marketers chase media consumption. This is the result of an impressions-driven marketing model that simply doesn't work. Rather, marketers need to determine whether their presence in the medium is contextually relevant and in character with the brand promise. Thank you for sharing such important research.

  2. Byron Wolt from Speak to Students, February 11, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

    Thanks for your excellent insights! I too am no longer a teenager, but I spend most of my working days speaking to high school students in their classrooms. One point I would like to add to your comments is that to connect directly with teens, offering them something relevant to their life in connection with your "sales pitch" can make a positive impact and have long term benefits for your company.

    I provide students with interesting and relevant content and when I do make a pitch for my sponsors, I tell them EXACTLY what I am doing and why I am doing it. Then when and if they are interested in the product or service I am pitching and they do give me their personal contact information, they will not be surprised or annoyed when they are contacted; and, if I do my job right, they are actually looking forward to being contacted and may not even wait, but initiate contact themselves!

  3. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, February 11, 2010 at 3:57 p.m.

    @judy, I couldn't agree more. Early on the motivation for this research was over-reliance on PEW Internet research by marketers. Personaly, I love PEW's research! BUT they are looking at media consumption and its' impact on society, their research is not about marketing.

    @Byron, I think your last point about teens initiating contact is why mobile and social presence are so critical. As marketers, we need to be ready for them to come to us--and mobile and social offer unique opportunities for them to engage.

    Thanks for both your insights!

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