Past performance is not an indication or guarantee of future performance.
It's such a beautifully simple disclaimer that I find it hard to believe a lawyer wrote it. In fact, it must have been written by a marketer -- probably a marketing researcher who once had the formidable task of trying to extrapolate long-term marketing technology trends from the behavior of teens.
I imagine that this marketer went about his task with incredible diligence. To really know teens and the impact they would have on society, he probably conducted countless surveys, observed their use of technology first-hand, and crunched data until the wee hours of the morning. At the end of this quest for truth, he also probably prepared an impressive tome filled with findings about the attitudes of teens from his era and how their free-wheeling use of technology would radically change the world as we know it.
And then, the teens got older. Some went to college while others entered the work force. Still others married and had kids. And all of them gained new responsibilities -- fiscal, social, and personal -- that dramatically altered the behaviors and attitudes they displayed mere years before when they were carefree teenagers. They still used technology, but now the social and entertainment aspects were shaped more by work and family and bills.
Rather than panic, the marketing researcher continued to observe until one day, he returned to his office and wrote that profound statement that inspired a million financial services disclaimers:
The past behavior and attitudes of teens are not indicators or guarantees of their future behavior as adults.
I share this story because in our modern marketing haste to crown "the next big thing," we run the risk of losing sight of the biggest influence on consumption -- life stage.
Pundits continue to make proclamations about the future of media based on the habits of teenagers, all the while forgetting this important fact: Teens are in the midst of a life stage distinct in its absence of adult responsibilities and abundance of energy devoted to friends and entertainment.
Move ahead just a few years to the twenty-somethings, and you find a vastly different landscape. There's less time for games, friends, and play. These pastimes are replaced with real world responsibilities such as work, family, and bills. And these responsibilities require different modes of communication. It's not generational, it's relational -- and marketers who fail to understand the difference run the risk of betting their portfolio on past performance rather than future realities.
Two weeks ago, just after Facebook's COO proclaimed that "email is probably going away" based on her observations of teens, I sat next to a young woman who had just graduated high school. In the midst of a two-hour conversation I learned that in an average month she sent and received over 20,000 text messages. When I asked if she ever used email, she informed me that she "was learning" -- while she never really needed it in the past, she knew that she would need to use it as she moved away from home and entered college.
Are there generational differences that impact marketing? Sure. Do teens require a different touch from marketers? Absolutely. Marketers need to be especially creative when talking to teens -- the audience has its priority on building personal relationships, not building up loyalty club points or looking for discounts.
However, just because teens communicate primarily through texting and social networking sites does not mean these embody the entire future of one-to-one marketing. At least no more so than the fact my generation talked incessantly on the phone meant the future was in telemarketing.
To be successful marketers we must not get so caught up with youth fad-finding and trend-spotting that we abandon the one thing that shapes generation after generation -- the responsibilities we gain from life stage to life stage.