Back To School, Back To Reality (Part II Of III)

With Labor Day in our rear-view mirror, the reality of the new school year has now fully settled upon teens from coast-to-coast -- a reality that is best with significant challenges. As discussed in Part I of this series, the first challenge is that schools are facing increasingly difficult economic choices which, in turn, creates opportunities for marketers to assist schools and students in ways that benefit everyone.

The second challenge that marketers are facing with back-to-school teens is a testament to how quickly technology is changing our culture:

Reality #2: Smartphones Are Game-Changing, Power-Shifting, Unknown Quantities

There has been more ink and pixels spilled this year dissecting the impact of smartphones than ever before -- and with good reason. Recent research from Edison Research, Pew, and my employer, ExactTarget, place the U.S. adult smartphone ownership rate anywhere from 35% to 41% and rising. As we dug into our own research underlying our "Mobile Dependence Day" report, however, we discovered something pretty striking. Nearly 50% of U.S. 15 to 19 year olds told us they were using a smartphone already -- a significantly higher number than their adult counterparts.



It stands to reason that teen smartphone adoption should outpace adult adoption. Many teens are trend-driven and what's more trendy than a smartphone (particularly an iPhone)? Moreover, competition with Android devices has driven the price of many to near zero for parents adding a new, teen user to their account. I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see teen smartphone penetration jump to 75% in 2012 thanks to these factors.

While such stats may excite marketers, they put the fear of God in administrators who must undoubtedly wonder how to manage a student body that has the intelligence of Wikipedia, the power of Google, and the connectedness of Facebook in their pockets. Some, as I detailed in "Smart Phones, Wise Teens?," have chosen to lump smartphones in with existing classroom cell phone bans. Others, however, are embracing smartphones -- and their wealth of educational apps -- as another teaching tool.

So what is the smartphone? Something to be feared or embraced by administrators? Is an opportunity or a slippery slope for marketers? The data suggest that with the teen audience, it may be all of the above. Consider the following from our underlying data:

  • In every age group -- teens included -- smartphones increase in usage of every communication channel -- more texting, more emailing, more Facebooking, etc.
  • Right around 50% of the smartphone enabled teens have "checked-in" using a location-based service like Foursquare.
  • 28% of smartphone-enabled teens have "liked" a company on their smartphone.
  • 20% of smartphone-enabled teens have read all or part of a book on their smartphone.
  • 11% of smartphone-enabled teens have scanned a QR code.

If you're responsible for the health, safety, and well-being of an entire student body, you can see the downside in these numbers. Smartphones can fracture young attention spans, make them targets in public places, and sneak social interactions into learning environments. On the other hand, that same device can refine their communication skills, expose them to new ways of learning, and connect them with peers like never before.

The net takeaway for marketers is that the smartphone rules for teens aren't written, and probably won't be until the teens and the adults in their lives have enough time to process when, where, and how these devices positively and negatively impact their lives. So what's a marketer to do?

1. Monitor stories on teen smartphone use and policies. This is likely to be a hot-button issue for some time, and a simple Google Alert may be the best way to learn from the mistakes (and successes) of others.

2. Err on the side of evenings and weekends. Be respectful of the school day when seeking social media engagement or purchase behavior from your teen audience.

3. Market and teach. Many of the smartphone features are new to teens -- in fact, one of the reasons QR code usage is so low in this group is unfamiliarity with how it works. Keep this in mind and teach your audience if needed to get them interacting with you in ways that benefit both parties.

4. Don't forget to involve parents! According to recent research from Deloitte, 64% of parents expected to use their smartphones during back-to-school shopping. Finding ways for teens to share what they want and need with parents may just be the next killer app.

Be sure to check back in next month when I'll wrap up my "Back to School" series with a look at one final challenge facing teen marketers -- rising above the din of things competing for teen attention.

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