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

“Pay attention!”

I must have driven at least a dozen educators to yell that command at me during my teens. It wasn’t for lack of interest in the given subjects. It was just that there were so many other interesting things (girls) going on in my general vicinity (girls) that it was difficult to dedicate my attention to just one (girls). Back then, marketers probably had little empathy for teachers, because getting the attention of teens was easy. You just tapped the mass media that catered to teens and rode the trend-conscious, MTV generation all the way to the bank.

Today, however, both teachers and marketers face a host of challenges in reaching and connecting with teens. There are the budgetary challenges (Part I of this series), and the challenges posed by all-too-smart smartphones (Part II of this series). There is one reality, however, that poses a challenge bigger than both of those combined -- and it has marketers joining the “Pay attention!” chorus.



Reality #3: Teen Attention Is Fragmented Like Never Before

Just a generation ago, teens could be found huddled around three primary types of media—television, radio, and print. Two of these—radio and print—could travel with you, and only one (print) stood a real chance of going everywhere. The phone (land line—and cordless if you were lucky) was something reserved for late-night conversations with friends.

For this generation of teens, television, radio, and print still exist in their lives, but they have fragmented nearly beyond recognition. Television is a jumbled mess of broadcast channels, cable channels, satellite providers, Internet distributors, and user-generated content. Radio is a battlefield of terrestrial, satellite, and Internet broadcasters fighting for ear-time from teens who can just as easily listen to MP3s on personal iPods, smartphones, and streaming services. As for print, some magazine titles still command loyal readership, but most teen readers have moved online, where content is interactive, unlimited, and free.

Beyond mass media, one-to-one channels are also fragmented like never before. Conversations once saved by prior generations of teens for late-night phone calls now lie strewn across text, instant, email, and Facebook messages. Add in the fact that those same conversations may also be spread across devices—smartphone to iPad to computer—and you can see why teens may have just a bit of trouble staying focused.

The good news for both teachers and marketers is that all of these options aren’t causing teens to tune out; rather, it’s spreading their attention more broadly than previous generations. An Edison Research Study last year found that teen Internet use tripled (to nearly three hours per day) from 2000 to 2010 while time with television remained steady (also, nearly three hours per day) and radio listening declined (down nearly 50% to 84 minutes per day). According to eMarketer, over 80% of teens are also now active social network users while over half now use smartphones.

In the face of all these entertainment, communication, and device options, there can be no single answer on how to command teen attention. However, here are some ideas that can help both educators and marketers cut through the clutter.

    • Be Unique. In the face of so much competition for teen attention, brands cannot afford to be one of the pack. Whether you separate yourself by price (Old Navy), creative (Old Spice) or product innovation (Apple), you must find a way to differentiate yourself.  
        • Be Consistent. For teens to respond to your brand, they must know who you are across all possible points of media interaction. Is your website in sync with your advertising? Your Facebook page? Your email or other communications? If not, you may be not only losing attention but also confusing your teen consumers.
            • Embrace Cross-channel Communications. There’s a saying that to learn something, you have to hear it several times. The question is whether the teens you’re trying to reach are listening through your chosen channel. With so many channels out there to communicate (fragmented mass media and fragmented one-to-one), the messages that still will likely be those that span a number of different channels in order to increase the chance they will be heard, remembered, and acted upon.
                • Embrace Cross-platform Communications. The time to mobilize your teen messaging, content, and campaigns is now. If they don’t travel well from laptop to tablet to smartphone, you’re likely missing out on large segments of the teen audience who spontaneously consume and share content without concern for device compatibility or location.
                    • Embrace Your Teen Brand Fans. If you’re a brand that can and does command loyalty, social media should be viewed and leveraged as the godsend it is. Build and engage your teen fans on Facebook and think creatively about how you can leverage them online and offline to share your story and amplify your reach with their peers. Hint: It’s about them, not you. Find ways to celebrate your fans, and they will likely return the favor.

                      Whether due to hormones or technology, capturing teens’ attention has always been an uphill battle. I suspect that 10 years from now, that will still be the case—and that the marketers who will succeed then, as today, will be those who are willing to go “Back to School” every single Fall to understand the unique world of the teenager.


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